Of tweets, sexism, vigilantes and dongles

The tweet that launched a thousand posts.

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.

6 comments to Of tweets, sexism, vigilantes and dongles

  • Roger Lancefield

    Good summary of the fiasco. For better or worse, sexualised language, double entendre and puns on slang and expletives infuse the technology world in general and digital culture in particular. It's unbalanced to formally take to task two young men making puerile comments when Pycon itself has among its sponsors GitHub, who promote their "Fork me on GitHub" ribbons (https://github.com/blog/273-github-ribbons).

    If Adria's defenders are right and sexualised, coarse and potentially discriminatory language is "never appropriate for professional conferences" then a non-trivial number of individuals, collaborators and companies are going to need to perform a root and branch audit of their projects, products, and promotional language.

    Anyway, I'm off to probe some ports and perform other penetration tests to see if I can root a big rack. When I've done that I'll slam in a couple of hard drives and check that my dongle is clear of BackOrifice. Then bring out the GIMP to sort out those GitHub ribbons before fscking off early for the weekend. Toodle pip!

  • I read your post as i'm writing up a mini-lecture on this for several of the classes I'm teaching this term. It's great how life keeps handing me relevant stories for class ;-) (MIS *AND* CIS :-D) I've been busy with the start of our Spring term and hadn't heard this news until I saw a @LiberationTech mention of the SendGrid announcement. After following all the links and searching for more news, I came to the conclusion that the origins of World War I might be easier to explain to someone. Everyone, including the US, did stupid things that either lead up to or exacerbated World War I. Sure, Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke, but had there not been a climate of…let's call it tension, to keep it simple, Europe would not have burst into flames, as it were. Adria, like Gavrilo Princip, did the wrong thing in posting the tweet in the first place – let's call it character assassination, because it wasn't an honorable conflict. Had she not done that, the rest wouldn't have happened, at least this month. Alex would still have his job, Adria would still have her job, and SendGrid's customers would not have been inconvenienced. That doesn't ignore that if she hadn't done what she did, undoubtedly someone, somewhere would have done something that exposed the unsavory aspect of the Internet that you have described well in your post. Europe was spoiling for a fight in 1914; the Internet is spoiling for a fight now. It doesn't matter who sets the spark. If we want to avoid the spectacle of name calling and network attacks we need to figure out how to address the tension.

    Maybe more people need to absorb the wisdom in your blog posts more ;-)

    I noted this on Twitter, but I'll restate it here, as well: I don't think what the fellows said was sexist, and I'm obviously female. Although I'm a professor now, I've worked around IT since 1991, mostly as a programmer/developer, and, in my experience, I think the hostility to women, either overtly or through the geek culture (the informality and free spirit of which I fully embrace and was drawn to, actually), is overstated. There's a difference between a sexual innuendo or reference and a sexist comment. The former comes from the 15-year-old that still (I hope) lurks inside most of us, and while you have to know your audience (although I think people are far too eager to scream "inappropriate!" at the slightest whiff of sex, no matter how it's packaged), eavesdroppers aren't your audience; the latter isn't appropriate in any public circumstance, virtual or live. I see both men and women making sexist comments in public and I don't think that's cool. If the fellows in question had said "girls are only good for forking with my dongle" then *that* would be a sexist statement, but that's not what they said. I fail to see how a wink wink nudge reference to a dongle is even promoting a hostile environment. After reading Amanda Blum's excellent analysis (https://amandablumwords.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/3/) of the situation I understand that Adria has a pattern of choosing to be easily offended and, worse, handling her offendedness in counterproductive ways. Adria needs to take personal responsibility for her actions, the primary wrong one in this instance being the shaming tweet she posted, violating privacy and good manners. It sounds like SendGrid, by firing her, has helped her down the path of reflection (we can only hope). She should also consider not trying to take offense at everything; the world is a more pleasant place when you assume innocence on the part of others.

    I'm somewhat concerned that men in IT who haven't had the pleasure of working with women in IT will look at Adria as a typical example of how women behave – she's perpetuating a stereotype far more destructive than any dongle or fork joke might be to young women programmers. My female friends in IT want to hear dongle and fork jokes – in fact, we might have a few of our own ;-) And, if a guy crosses the line and heads down the sexist road, we explain that to his face (e.g. "dude, that was so not cool – Ctrl Z!"), because the high road of courtesy is never inappropriate.

    • Hi!

      I have been thinking about this as well. It seems to me that the joke was not sexist per se, but Adria thought that it was, and sometimes that is enough to call it sexist. At the most, it seems like she may have overreacted and that at least one of the comments was a legitimate tech comment, forking is a well-known term in open source software. Reading some more I have found a couple of other examples where Adria may have overreacted, which seems consistent with what happened here.

      This does not condone in any way the very real sexist abuse that she has received since.

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