Friday, March 22, 2013

Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

A lot of people in the tech community have been abuzz about the recent story of Adria Richards, and I'd like to comment on it as a woman in technology, and as an observer of some pretty scary, sickening behavior.

Adria is a developer evangelist and a woman of color who attended PyCon, a large conference for Pyton developers. Up until today, she was employed by a company called SendGrid.

Here is a timeline of what has transpired as I understand it:

1. Last Sunday, Adria was at a keynote talk at PyCon. Two men behind her who work at PlayHaven, Alex Reid and "Mr. Hank", made inappropriate jokes about forking and dongles. It is worth noting that both Alex and Hank were clearly wearing company T-Shirts, and were attending this event as Gold Level company sponsor representatives.

2. Adria tweeted about how their joke was unprofessional and posted their photograph. She blogged about the incident, and how it was not inline with PyCon's rule of proper conduct for the conference. She also contacted the PyCon organizers. [1]

3. The chair of PyCon, Jesse Noller, addressed the parties privately, and amicably resolved the issue in order to continue a peaceful conference. [2]

4. Hank is fired from PlayHaven. He posted an oddly worded apology in Hacker News, mentioning they didn't mean anything at all sexual about their jokes, how it was just her interpretation, and, by the way, getting fired "sucks" because he is a father of three. [3]

5. Adria posts a kind note to Hank on the thread, apologizing for him losing his job, and encouraging his company to reconsider their actions. [4]. Several people attack her for this apology, actually, though Hank comments that he thought the gesture was kind. [5].

6. A petition is started online to save Hank's job, entitled, "Give the mistreated employee their job back". [6]. I've grouped the comments into common sexist tropes to help make it easier to skim.
Supporting the family man: "Dude, the guy has three kids and really enjoyed his job and is getting fired over the sensitive feelings of an already biased towards men female? Right on guys."

Bashing the feminists: "So it has come to a point where feminists have to make every joke between some friends a personal attack. This woman wasn't even involved in their conversation. She didn't even understand their jokes and yet the guys have to suffer for it? It's not fair."

Lighten up it's just a joke: "You should fire every developer who has ever made a harmless joke about about "forking", "fscking", or "Big O". Because god forbid people have fun while they work."

"If they were honestly fired for making a dongle joke to themselves and some over reacting bitch felt the need to get so pissed off I don't think I want to live on this planet anymore." 
Godwin's Law (Comparisons to Nazism): "Shameful. Just shameful. I, and others in the very liberally-oriented music industry have done this same thing at conferences, meetings and corporate get-togethers for the last 35 years now. There is no harm associated with this kind or type of behaviour, other than offending the occasional feminist shill... When did we become Nazi Germany and begin to turn in our fellow citizens for crimes of "humour" or "sexism?" Give the damn guy his job back, willya - and stop being so politically correct..."

"People like Adria Richards are little more than fascists"

"Please don't support her oppression and viciousness." 
One woman is all women: "This is absolutely disgusting! Adria Richard's actions have made it difficult for women to be properly accepted in the tech industry!"
I'm going to pause here, because I think if we review the facts thus far we can agree that perhaps this situation could have gone differently. As many people in these comment threads have stated, would it not have been better for Adria to have simply addressed the commenters directly, rather than calling them out publicly on Twitter? Perhaps. But at this point the cat is out of the bag, and I think here we can see in (5) that Adria expressed sincerely that she wishes Hank had not been fired.

7. Sometime around Wednesday, Jesse Noller starts receiving threatening phone calls, which scare him and his wife. [7]. Apparently the harassers do not like the fact that he helped pioneer (and enforce) a Code of Conduct for PyCon, in order to make it more welcoming place to women and other groups underrepresented in computing. [8].

8. Adria receives death threats, rape threats, racial slurs, sexist slurs, and calls that she kill herself.  Here are several:
"Cunt of the Year" goes to early entry @adriarichards. [t1]

"I'm pretty sure that Adria Richards has set women in technology back 50 years. What a bitch." [t2]

"Did that desperate attention whore and "diversity hire" Adria Richards get the wrong guy fired?"[t3]
"@adriarichards Shut the fuck up stupid bitch and go to the kitchen" [t4] 
"@adriarichards you need to kill youself tranny what you did was wrong"[t5]

"@adriarichards you are a stupid uneducated filthy nigger who deserves to die" [t6]

"@adriarichards You are a pure cunt for what you did. I hope you get Cancer and die a slow and painful death. I will celebrate your death" [t7]

9. On Wednesday, Adria receives a photo of a, "beheaded woman, bound and stripped, with the caption 'when Im done.' Next to it was [her] home address and phone number."[9].

10. Several petitions demanding Adria be fired are posted, on and elsewhere. [10].

11. On Thursday, someone (Anonymous(?)) posts on pastebin that while they think these petitions are great, they doubt SendGrid will pay attention to them. So, instead, the threaten SendGrid: [11]
...You[r] 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...Anonymous has analyzed your business model, and based on your clientele and competitors, you are very vulnerable. They are very focused on this.

Your financial backers have also been targeted for the same harassment. Normally, when a venture capitalist puts money into your organization, a bond is forged through your idea or product gaining the confidence of your financial backer for future returns. This is a strong bond that is not easily broken through petty harassment. However, if any of your backers have something embarrassing or illegal to hide (sexual misconduct, tax fraud, etc), Anonymous WILL find it (they are good at doing this) and make it public.

Real life harassment is an escalation that comes into play based on how long this situation is allowed to play out. It is not affected by the effectiveness of the previous forms of harassment. Even if your customers and financial backers are dropping like flies (or the opposite, entirely unaffected), this will still happen if Anonymous still maintains an interest in this situation. Doxing is a term used to define the discovery and dissemination of all personal information, including but not limited to home address, phone numbers, credit card numbers, your medical records, what brand of toothpaste you buy, etc. If some of the more talented members of Anonymous take an interest into this, every employee of Sendgrid becomes a target, starting at the top. For your reference, this is already happening to Ms. Richards as per standard protocol.

...You do have a choice to make at this point: Do nothing, or Publicly announce that Ms. Richards will be fired. The opportunity to stop this growing mob in its tracks before it tries to tear Sendgrid apart is as simple as publicly announcing Ms. Richards' firing. Now, you also have the opportunity to be sneaky about it and just publicly announcing the firing but not actually do it. But if Anonymous ever finds out, they will bring the full fury on you and your company. To put it in perspective, not even secure government websites are safe. If you believe you can tough it out, by all means, do nothing.
12. Later on Thursday, SendGrid is victim to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack. [12]. Adria's personal site was also attacked (though hers is protected by CloudFire). Kris Holt has a good break down of how these attacks were organized on 4chan. [13].

13. SendGrid announces on Twitter and Facebook that they have fired Adria Richards. Immediately their posts get a lot of "likes", and very vile comments against Adria are posted. [14].

And here we are.

Three things greatly trouble me about all of this:

1) Rape Culture. Death threats. Racial and Sexist name calling. None of this is ok, ever. I don't need to explain this further, do I?

2) 4chan-ers/Anon/whomever managed to easily cyberbully SendGrid into firing Adria. If I was a CEO of a small startup company with 130,000 customers and received a threat like that, I might acquiesce too. It's a credible threat. (Though, I probably would have first contacted the FBI before acting.).

3) Although he's not getting as much press, I'm also troubled by the fact that Jesse Noller is getting threats. Based on some comments I've read of his on github, it seems like his heart is in the right place with both the original Code of Conduct and its revisions.

In any case, there are a lot of factors at play in this story, and this is a complex situation, but I think it all warrants a larger discussion. I welcome your comments.