[SIGCIS-Members] So, about these "unicorns"...

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Wed Apr 8 08:43:35 PDT 2015

Interesting. I’d vaguely wondered if there was some kind of path from fantasy unicorns to the tech industry via something like The Last Unicorn/Dragonriders of Perm/My Little Pony (um, I know those are all rather different things, but call them the corners of a broad pop culture space in which impressionable young people have intimate emotional relationships with mythical animals). But a connection along the lines of SF/fantasy fandom -> polyamory -> libertarians -> Silicon Valley talk seems perfectly plausible. 


I wonder if there’s something a little sly about its sudden appearance in business talk. However, it seems from the definition Laine cited that in that poly community the term is chosen precisely to make the point that unicorns will never be discovered however many women are pursued by the hopeful couple. Whereas venture capitalists are inspired by the high profile success of unicorn companies, in much the same way that a handful of NBA stars lure so many to attempt athletic careers.




From: Laine Nooney [mailto:laine.nooney at gmail.com] 
Sent: Wednesday, April 08, 2015 9:39 AM
To: thaigh at computer.org Haigh
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] So, about these "unicorns"...


Unicorn is slang in the poly community--I don't know for how long, but it is a generally understood term. I'd disagree with Christina that it's a "sexual" term (I'd argue that its relational), or that its related to just women (but there is a fair stereotype around that). Here's some fun literature: http://polyliving.net/2013/10/unicorn-unicorn-hunting-unicorn-triad/


>From there it may very likely be filtering into a more general pop culture usage (unicorns certainly have their devotees among internet culture--there was a whole Obama Riding a Unicorn Meme a few years back)



Laine Nooney

www.lainenooney.com <http://www.lainenooney.com/> 


ISTC <http://socialcomputing.uci.edu/>  @  <http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/mcc/> MCC @ NYU <http://www.nyu.edu> 

Postdoctoral Associate


On Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 12:23 AM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:



To raise a question that may or may not turn out to have an explanation within our domain of expertise, I’ve been struck recently by frequent references to “unicorns” in the business press. This crystalized over breakfast last week when I noticed an article “Stockholm: The Unicorn Factory” in my usually reserved Financial Times. 


Apparently the consensus definition of a “unicorn” in this context is a newish company worth more than $1 billion. Stockholm has more per capita than anywhere but Silicon Valley. A total output of five sounds more like an atelier than a factory, and unicorns probably come from unicorn farms rather than assembly lines, but that’s not really the point.


The point is: unicorns are not just vanishingly rare. They’re mythical. Until recently, if someone told me I was pursuing a unicorn I’d have assumed they meant I was wasting my time. So where does the metaphor come from? Something that’s very rare but very valuable might be worth pursuing. Something that is flat-out imaginary seems a bad goal for investment dollars or public policy. 


Is this something to do with the popularity of fantasy literature in the tech field? Did it start as some kind of joke and get out of hand? A quick Google search suggests that it was popularized with http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/02/welcome-to-the-unicorn-club/, which offers no particular justification for the term beyond “to us, it means something extremely rare, and magical.”





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