Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate
By Zoë Quinn
PublicAffairs, 242 pages, $35
Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change
By Ellen Pao
Spiegel & Grau, 288 pages, $37
On Aug. 15, 2014, Zoë Quinn watched her life and career blow up over the course of a single evening. The indie video-game designer was in a San Francisco bar celebrating her 27th birthday when her phone started to buzz with notifications. First came a warning from a friend about a long, crude, vengeful post on a message board written by Quinn's former boyfriend, in which he accused her of infidelity and sleeping with a journalist to get a positive review of her new game Depression Quest. That was soon followed by torrent of slurs and threats. Strangers on Twitter called Quinn a cheater and a slut. Anonymous and pseudonymous users on 4chan and Reddit debated the most humiliating ways to punish her. Her Wikipedia page was edited to have her date of death coincide with her next public appearance.
"I tried to focus on the conversation at the table, but the agitated rattling of my phone was the only thing I could hear," Quinn writes of that night in her engaging and powerful memoir, Crash Override. "It was like counting the seconds between thunderclaps to see how far away the storm is and knowing it's getting closer."
That storm was just the beginning. As Quinn recounts in devastating detail, over the next two years, she was subjected to a sustained and highly orchestrated campaign of harassment that came to be known as GamerGate. She was hacked and her personal information was made public. Thousands of rape and murder threats were posted to her social-media accounts. Quinn's family, her friends, her new boyfriend and anyone who defended her were set upon as well. She and her boyfriend were stalked, and a nude photo of Quinn from her previous job as a model was defaced and mailed to her father.
The accusations by the man Quinn refers to as the Ex (his name is Google-able, but why give him the attention?) were false. But the truth wasn't the point. Quinn – who calls herself the Patient Zero of GamerGate – was a stand-in target in an escalating online culture war over free speech, over conservative versus liberal politics, over issues of gender and racial equality. At the time, Quinn was a relatively obscure, artsy game designer who dumped a lousy boyfriend. To the mob the Ex rallied against her, however, she represented every PC feminist killjoy and "social-justice warrior" who threatened the sovereignty of the gamer man-cave.
Quinn wasn't the first person to come under this kind of attack. There have been many, many others, including Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic, who was assailed by trolls in 2012 when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a project examining sexist tropes in video games. But what set Quinn's experience apart was how perfectly it presaged the rise of the far right and its influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"GamerGate wasn't really about video games at all so much as it was a flash point for radicalized online hatred," Quinn writes. "The movement helped solidify the growing connections between online white-supremacist movements, misogynist nerds, conspiracy theorists and dispassionate hoaxers who derive a sense of power from disseminating disinformation. [And it] became a real force behind giving Donald Trump the keys to the White House."
If this connection between GamerGate and Making America Great Again sounds like a stretch, then consider an anecdote from Joshua Green's recent book, Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. Back in the early 2000s, before he was a Trump adviser and strategist, Steve Bannon was an executive at a gold-farming company that employed hundreds of Chinese gamers to win in-game items in World of Warcraft and then sell them for actual cash. This cheating infuriated leagues of other gamers, who filled message boards with racist invective. Bannon's company eventually went bust, but Bannon was impressed by the "monster power" of these resentment-fuelled white, male gamers. And when he went on to helm the far-right website Breitbart News, he deliberately sought to conscript this audience of disaffected young men, and he hired a then-unknown conservative blogger and agitator named Milo Yiannopoulos to help marshal them. As a GamerGate ringleader, Yiannopoulos built his reputation by attempting to annihilate Quinn's.
In Crash Override, Quinn proves to be a thoughtful, accessible guide through this social, cultural, technological and political morass. She exposes the insecurity of online data and the perils of SWAT-ing (making a prank distress call to 911 that sends armed police to an unsuspecting person's home). She demonstrates how readily false news and hateful material can be spread via the content-neutral algorithms used by Facebook and YouTube, which reward clicks above all else. She outlines the legal barriers to being protected from harassment: among them, a largely tech-illiterate justice system that doesn't understand online life – one magistrate advised her to "go offline" as a way to deal with her harassers, even though the Internet is "her home," as she puts it, and is essential to her livelihood.
Despite the torment she endured, Quinn presents herself as neither a cowed victim nor an anti-tech alarmist. Instead, the self-described nerd and weirdo turns out to be a natural organizer and activist. The book shares its name with a crisis helpline and support group Quinn launched to assist other victims of online abuse, and later chapters are devoted to her suggestions, both technical and philosophical, for creating a more compassionate and liberating online culture. "Everything I have," she writes, "everything good in my life, I owe to the Internet's ability to empower people like me, people who wouldn't have a voice without it."
As inspiring as Quinn's vision may be, real, structural change remains elusive. Inequality is built into the infrastructure of the Internet. And it requires much more than advocacy on the user side to fix it. The crusade against online radicalization and hate must begin in Silicon Valley, with the very tech companies that control the Internet (Google, Twitter, Facebook and Amazon, among the biggies) and the investors who profit from them. Judging from the world described in Ellen Pao's new memoir, Reset, that's going to be an uphill battle.
Pao was a junior venture-capital partner at the formidable Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In 2015, she sued her bosses for gender discrimination, alleging that they didn't promote her because she was a woman and then penalized her for complaining. (She was fired in 2012, five months after she filed her lawsuit.) She opted for a jury trial, turning down a reported seven-figure settlement, and went after the company for $16-million (U.S.) in lost wages and tens of millions more in damages. She lost, but decided to seek another sort of justice by going public with her story.
Reset covers her seven years at Kleiner Perkins; her attempts to navigate the overwhelmingly entitled white-male culture in tech (she and the other Asians in the industry are limited in advancement by what's known as "the bamboo ceiling," Pao writes); her messy, ill-advised affair with a married colleague; the trial; and her brief gig as the interim chief executive officer at Reddit.
Where Quinn is a rebel whose love of the Internet came about through the anarchic worlds of gaming and online chat rooms, Pao is a self-described rule follower. She was taught to code as a child by her mother, a computer scientist, and then went on to earn three Ivy League degrees: in engineering, business and law.
Yet even with these credentials, Pao writes that from the very beginning, she found "Silicon Valley's venture-capital community impenetrable and discriminatory." Women and people of colour "are either silenced or we are seen as buzzkills." Still, Pao was reluctant to speak out. She put up with the leers of her colleagues, with being belittled in front of clients, with having male partners receive credit for her ideas. (She was notably ignored in 2007 when she suggested that Kleiner Perkins become an early investor in a little startup called Twitter.)
After watching Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's now famous 2010 TED Talk about "leaning in," Pao muscled her way into a group of male power-brokers at the front of a private jet. She wound up stuck next to a drunk CEO who raved about his favourite porn star. "At the time," Pao writes, "I tried not to think much about those incidents, hoping that just working hard and keeping my head down would help me push past and ignore them."
In telling her story, Pao struggles, as Quinn also does in her book, to connect the biographical details of her childhood with the larger points she wants to make about current-day discrimination. But her barbed and bracingly funny behind-the-scenes look at the tech industry confirms every stereotype about the toxic, entitled sexism of Silicon Valley, where the "ideal tech founders," as Pao's former boss once put it, are "white, male nerds who've dropped out of Harvard and Stanford – and they absolutely have no social life."
This culture, Pao writes, "is designed to keep out people who aren't white men." Is it any wonder then, that women, people of colour and LGBTQ people have found such little sympathy from tech companies when they're harassed and abused online? Or that this elite, closed society continues to replicate itself with each new startup, and concentrate its vast fortunes and immense power only among its own?
Pao's transformation into an activist for equality followed her marriage (her second – her first marriage is dispatched quickly in the book) to Alphonse (Buddy) Fletcher Jr., a black hedge-fund manager, and the birth of their two children. Pao became increasingly disillusioned with her firm, more conscious of racism and, ultimately, more comfortable taking a stand. Following her trial, during her stint at Reddit, she banned revenge porn – making her a hero in certain quarters, as well as the recipient of rape and death threats. Like Quinn, she created a purpose out of her persecution, and has helped launch an organization called Project Include, to push for diversity in tech.
After all this build-up, though, she concludes the book modestly, with personal, and rather mundane, advice for "hitting reset," such as "find your team" and "pick your battles." That sounds fine, and sure, "reset" is a call back to the book's title. But given everything Pao's covered in the preceding pages, what's needed isn't a reset, but a revolution.
Rachel Giese is the editor-at-large at Chatelaine. Her first book, Boys: What It Means to Become a Man in the 21st Century, will be published in 2018.