Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Doing Something - The Twitter Option

I've found that the moment you realize that you "just have to do something" that rational thought seems to take a back seat equally as fast. When you see someone in the path of a car, you don't think "can I get to them in time?" That would be a rational thought. And it would involve doing a risk assessment, taking time, and possibly even finding yourself unable to act because of the delay.

No, we cast caution to the wind and we do something.

A few weeks ago a woman at a convention found herself in the exact same position. She had to Do Something and she had to Do It Now. And what she did had the kind of ripple effect of consequence that a fair comparison would be that of a nuclear bomb going off. First one atom splits, then those fragments strike two more, and then four, and then eight until you've burned off all of your fissible material and leveled a city.

In fact I've taken to calling what happened the "Nuclear Option" for that very reason.

I'm also reminded how some time ago a similar teapot tempest got blowing because a reviewer did not like the way an author's husband acted. The resulting changes of ratings lead to a firestorm of epic proportions on Amazon, some damaged reputations, but thankfully no one got fired.

This more recent event was not so kind to the actors within it.

For those who haven't heard the story of Adria Richards, let me summarize very very briefly:

Richards was a programmers evangilist, a networker for coders, and thus was at the annual PyCon convention, a gathering of programmers who use the Python language. Now programing by nature is a male dominated field still, and PyCon was a good display of this gender bias with 80% of the attendees being men. As such they have gone to great lengths to make women feel welcome, posting a zero tolerance policy for harassement.

At one of the larger sessions, Richards found herself seated near some men who were making what she felt to be inappropriate jokes. The specifics of the jokes themselves are fairly immaterial at this point. She felt harassed by the humor and its tone and she had to do something.

But it was not just her honor at stake. On the screen at the front of the room was a presentation about camps for programming and in the slide show a picture of a bright eyed girl excited to have written a program that did something she was very proud of. It was for that girl that Richards had to act, had to Do Something. It was for all those little girls who needed to be welcomed into the programming community. As sure as she should rush out to save the girl from a speeding car, she had to act for that girl here.

So she tweeted:

Not cool. Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and "big" dongles. Right behind me #pycon

Then she went on to tweet a request for someone to save her, where she was seated, and made sure that she sent a tweet to the PyCon organizers.

She Did Something.

I've read a lot of commentary over the last few weeks that says we're not allowed to talk about how she reacted. The implication is that if we say "should she have acted differently?" we're effectively victim shaming, the same as asking a rape victim if they were dressed too procatively, or if they had had too much to drink. I say that they are not even close and that such analogies do little but shut down reasonable discussion about what happened. They're efforts to control the conversation by shaming those you disagree with into saying nothing at all.

If you feel what she did was appropriate, more power to you. I, however, strongly disagree.

Should she have confronted the men directly herself? I don't know. My gut would be yes, but I am not a woman of color in a sea of white men. But there were other avenues to contact the convention organizers without going to Twitter. Email, Text, or a phone call all would Done Something. They would have brought authorities to talk to the men who were making the harassing jokes that made her feel uncomfortable.

And they would not have screamed it to 14,000 people.

I understand the need to Do Something. It's a shame that this particular choice brought such devestation, destruction far and beyond anything reasonable.

It's even harder to talk about because the Internet went so totally bat-crap-crazy that if you appear to criticize Richards at all, you're deemed as being in support of the hell she went through following this. One of the men she reported to the Internet for the jokes was fired, and as a result trolls and bullies turned out to beat on Richards and her employeer until she too was fired. And it didn't stop there. She was threatened, her personal information posted online, and all manner of horrible was visited upon her.

Let me be clear: Not Cool.

No matter what you think of how she acted, the response has been just as bad. So let's set this straight. While I disagree with what she did, and how she did it, I do not, under any circumstances, condone the manner in which she has been treated since.

Here's the thing, though, when you feel a need to Do Something, rational thought disappears. And to be honest as well, sometimes you need to go all the way to the nuclear option of a public shaming. But where were all the points in between? Was there any consideration of them in the formulation of a "Plan"? Again, email, phone call, text, and DM on twitter were all options she had available to her to deal with this and Do Something.

I support that she Did Something. It's hard to stand up for yourself when you feel singled out and picked on. I don't know in the same way she does, but I've had a small taste of it myself growing up. So, yes, it's good to Do Something.

But I disagree that a public shaming on the Internet was a good Something to Do. It's too easy to be wrong with who you target (perhaps someone not in the conversation had ended up in the picture), and it's too easy to turn into a Internet Fire-storm as people rally to take sides so they too can Do Something.

Yet... it happens... again and again...

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