There’s this thing that happens on the Internet. A woman will say or write something–about anything really, but especially anything about gender, tech, or video games – and immediately face abuse. Everyone who shares things publicly risks this, but there is a very special kind of vitriol reserved for women who dare talk about their experiences with traditionally male-dominated spaces/interests. The shockingly frequent result is a righteous, rage-fuelled pile-on.
I’m not talking about just the crowdsourcing of rage – we’re all susceptible to that at one point or another. I’m not talking about insults, name-calling or critiques. I’m talking about the frighteningly common nature of rape and death threats. I’m talking about people tracking down addresses, telephone numbers and other private information because they don’t like what their target did.
More worryingly, what follows is a story that suggests it is still easier in our culture to focus on perceived transgressions of a woman who raises her voice than it is to challenge groups that dominate the Internet. Do something they decide they don’t like and they will literally try to find out where you live.
The most recent perceived “enemy of tech” is Adria Richards. Ms. Richards, a developer evangelist for SendGrid, attended PyCon, an annual conference for the Python community. She overheard two men behind her making jokes she considered inappropriate. Not wanting to disrupt the main stage, she took a picture of them and tweeted: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles.” She then asked that someone speak to them about the behaviour she felt was violating PyCon’s code of conduct.
On Monday, Ms. Richards published a blog post explaining why she was offended and shared what happened. The jokes were made while PyCon conference chair Jesse Noller was thanking the sponsors, which included Playhaven and SendGrid. “The guys behind me (one off to the right) said, ‘You can thank me, you can thank me,’ ” Ms. Richards wrote. “They started talking about ‘big’ dongles. I could feel my face getting flustered. Was this really happening? How many times do I have to deal with this? Can they not hear what Jesse is saying?”
Generally, jokes about “big dongles” are innocuous and talking while a presenter is thanking your company for its support is simply rude. But context is important. Ms. Richards is a professional woman of colour working in a field that is overwhelmingly populated by white men. PyCon was being celebrated for its commitment to inclusion and finally reaching 20 per cent female attendance. According to her post, those jokes were not the first things that had annoyed her that day.
Earlier, she’d tried explaining to a man why it was inappropriate for him to refer to the space under a display table skirt as “bare, just the way he liked it” at a tech conference–where women have historically felt unwelcome – but he disagreed. She recommended that he speak to a man who understood the issue, and whom he might listen to.
So when Mr. Noller presented a photo of a girl who had taken a workshop for young coders, Ms. Richards decided to act. “I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so,” she wrote.
The next day, a user claiming to be the man who made the “forking” and “dongle” jokes, posted his side of the story. He apologized, clarified that the forking joke was not sexual, and revealed that he’d been fired from Playhaven. “As a result of the picture she [Ms. Richards] took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”
Playhaven CEO Andy Yang confirmed the firing was a result of an investigation of comments made at PyCon, but did not identify the man.
To be clear: Ms. Richards didn’t call for anyone’s firing. Yet a group of hackers – along with various Twitter shamers and angry developers – decided she should be punished for her actions, and for PlayHaven’s.
An anonymous statement threatening “an explosion of lulz and collateral damage over anyone and anything that had the misfortune of being in contact with this individual [Ms. Richards]” began circulating. Ms. Richards received support for speaking out, but also a number of epically vile comments, many of which were misogynist and racist. Others suggested she kill herself. Incensed developers said they would stop using SendGrid unless Ms. Richards was fired. SendGrid’s service was disrupted by a massive DDOS attack, as was Ms. Richards’ website. The express purpose of the attack was to essentially ruin her life – all in the name of “justice” and “restoring balance.”
On March 21, SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin confirmed that Ms. Richards had been let go. “In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite,” he wrote. “In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger.”
So Playhaven, the company that did the firing, emerged relatively unscathed while Ms. Richards watched her company be attacked, lost her job, and continues to be threatened.
Similarly vicious attacks were made on Anita Sarkeesian for wanting to critique video games, Jennifer Helper for having opinions about video games, and countless other women who write things. (In fact, every time I write something I prepare myself for at least one threat.) In a world where women are more likely to be stalked, harassed and abused offline as well as online, this is a tough pattern to ignore.
Yet most discussions are centering on how terrible Ms. Richards and her tactics were, and how she’s ruining the tech community. An anonymous statement claims that Ms. Richards is making it less female-friendly because “now men will be looking over their shoulder every time a woman is present in the workplace or a conference because hey, she might do what Adria did.” Because to many, the issue is really how men might react to what women think, or what might happen to them, rather than the creation of truly comfortable spaces.
One woman in tech and established non-fan of Ms. Richards, Amanda Blum, accuses her of making all women look bad. “Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with – as bitches,” she writes. While I can understand why it hurts to be associated with such a toxic stereotype, it’s equally problematic to be dismissive of her concerns. (Which Blum is throughout her entire I-don’t-like-Richards post.)
Both arguments rely on women being “reasonable” or silent, regardless of what boys club chatting is going on (publicly, might I add) around them. While the way Richards reported her discomfort on Twitter, with an image – was controversial, the real issue is the nature of the community. Some women don’t feel comfortable directly expressing their concerns and/or are just plain too annoyed to express them “properly.”
And while there are legitimate conversations to be had about the ethics of taking pictures without permission, and the power that comes with having large social media audiences, they’ve been lost in the largely sexist and racist mob-style vengeance that Ms. Richards did not deserve.
There were opportunities lost for better outcomes even as events were unfolding and the outrage was gaining steam. Executives at both companies could have had productive conversations with their employees about differing perspectives, proper conduct, and fostering positive environments – but they were compromised by the misdirected rage of Anonymous and the public.
The hackers who went after Richards and SendGrid claimed their actions were in the name of “justice” and “restoring balance,” but it was really an exercise in control. As Russell Brandom wrote in The Verge: “…in a world where thousands of anonymous men can instantly gather to deliver swift retribution against any perceived threat, it’s easy to understand why more women don’t speak out.”
When such extreme measures are taken by cyber mobs, any possibility of productive conversation is disrupted and overshadowed. The only lesson learned from this: Don’t mess with this powerful community, especially on the Internet, or people whose identities you’ll probably never know will punish you in a highly organized way.
It’s no wonder SendGrid foreshadowed Ms. Richards’ firing with a tweet: “We hear you, internet.” The goal wasn’t to restore balance – it was to silence.