There is a saying in Spanish that I’ve always liked: “pueblo chico, infierno grande” (small town, big hell). The Internet is vast, but social media has brought us together in ways that constantly remind me of this phrase. Short social connection pathways lead to clusters of communities where a tiny scandal can become global news overnight. This is what happened when developer Adria Richards overheard what she considered a sexist joke at a Python developer conference last Sunday. She turned around and took a picture of the perpetrators, posting a tweet denouncing the joke and asking the conference organisers to take action. One of the men pictured got fired, which incensed a non-negligible number of people. Across forums and discussion boards action was taken to get Adria Richards fired, an effort that was eventually successful (good accounts of the incident here and here).
What was the joke? Richards says in her own blog that she overheard comments about “forking a repo” and “big dongles”, and that she decided to make a stand in the name of future women in technology, so that they would not have to endure such sexist environments. Then she took the picture and posted it onTwitter, where it was available to her 10,000 followers. As a result, the employers of Alex Reid, one of the men involved, fired him. He communicated the news at the news aggregator site Hacker News, where he wrote:
“Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. However, there is another side to this story. While I did make a big dongle joke about a fictional piece hardware that identified as male, no sexual jokes were made about forking. My friends and I had decided forking someone’s repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said “I would fork that guys repo” The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us.
My second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.”
Hacker News, 4chan, Reddit and other forums exploded. The geeks were out to get blood, and all across the Web they began a campaign to get Richards fired from her job as developer evangelist at a small startup called SendGrid. First it all began with a signature collection asking for Richards to get fired, then they moved to pile abuse on several forums, and eventually to send direct messages to the employer. The pressure turned up a notch when a denial of service attack was directed against her employer’s website. At some point the name Anonymous was mentioned in a pastebin addressed to SendGrid, which sounded rather threatening:
“You client list has also been obtained by Anonymous. They have already begun harassing your customers. These include obnoxious phone calls, emails, denial of service attacks, online vandalism and defamation, and even real-life harassment (we’ll get to this later). From a purely logical standpoint, your customers should realize and understand that this is not Sendgrid’s fault and continue doing business with you. However, in real life, the human condition remains dominant, with all the pesky emotions and instincts which defy logic at times. Some of your customers may just cut all business ties because they don’t have the time or desire to deal with this nonsense. Anonymous has analyzed your business model, and based on your clientele and competitors, you are very vulnerable. They are very focused on this.”
It is not surprising therefore that with all the pressure SendGrid simply decided to fire Richards, either to placate the virtual mob or because she had shown bad judgement in her own actions, or both.
All of this over a misjudged tweet and a sexist joke.
I am seriously conflicted about the case, it seems like everyone involved has shown lack of judgement at one stage or the other. It is true that there is rampant sexism in the tech industry, and that a clear effort has to be made to stamp it out. However, it seems to me that posting a picture of two people who were making childish off-colour jokes is an extreme measure, although Richards did the right thing bringing the incident to the attention of the event’s organisers. It seems to me like she overreacted by making very public something that might have just stopped with some words.
What worries me is that even if one considers that Richards’ tweet was wrong, the response from geek forums has been an even more horrendous overreaction. I might understand, but not share, the response of signing petitions to get her fired. But to threaten her employers and their customers for the action of one employee is vigilante justice and guilt by association of the worst kind. It does not help their case that many of the attacks against Richards became displays of the worst possible type of misogyny, clearly making the point that Richards was trying to make. Furthermore, denial of service attacks against SendGrid could never be justified.
This sort of mob rule worries me to no extent, there has always been a culture of unaccountability ingrained in online communities, where people feel that they can spout whatever they feel like with impunity. These self-styled online vigilantes can do a lot of damage to individual lives, so who watches the watchmen? The threat of the dox and the DDoS are powerful coercion tools, but with great power comes great responsibility. This case did not merit the use of such weapons.
Finally, it is shameful that the level of sexism in the tech sector has reached this ridiculous point. I have never attended a conference that feels the need to have a code of conduct. I may be naive and unfamiliar with how things are done in the US, but I feel that this absence is a desirable state of affairs.
I truly hope that the time will come when we’ll be able to laugh at this incident. Maybe the time has arrived, you can now buy a t-shirt that says “Fork my dongle”, and the proceeds will go to Girls Who Code.
What can I say, dongle is indeed a funny word.