XX in Tech

Why Can’t the Tech Community Talk About Adria Richards Like Grownups?

Do better, Hacker News.
Ms. Richards (Photo: twitter)

Ms. Richards (Photo: twitter)

It all started at a conference devoted to Python. Developer evangelist Adria Richards heard a couple of guys behind her making sexual cracks about big dongles and “forking repos,” and, in a moment of frustration, called them out on Twitter, posting their picture and CCing the conference organizers.

One of the guys was shortly thereafter fired. Today, after an Internet uproar that spilled over into a DDOS attack on her employer SendGrid, Ms. Richards has also been firedpublicly.

And so begins accountability in the age of the creepshot, where you can be called out in public by thousands for something snarked to the dude next to you–and where the person who did the calling out gets called a jerk too.

Almost everyone who stuck their hands into the muck came out looking dirty. Ms. Richards looks like an overreacting vigilante; the dude who lost his job looks immature; both employers look chickenshit and Orwellian. (They also might want to start prepping now for the wrongful termination lawsuits.)

PyCon, meanwhile, has updated its Code of Conduct with clear procedures for contacting staff in the event of inappropriate behavior. The new police notes: “Public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community. PyCon does not condone nor participate in such actions out of respect.”

Updated (3/22/13): Since Betabeat first saw the new code of conduct, PyCon deleted the language about public shaming. It now says, “PyCon staff requests that they be your first resort so that they may enforce the Code of Conduct and take quick action toward a resolution.” However, the code still tells attendees, “please do not disclose public information about the incident until the staff have had sufficient time in which to address the situation.”

Meanwhile, developer Amanda Blum has posted an account of her own dealings with Ms. Richards and her tendency to take disputes public rather than seek resolution. Ms. Blum acknowledges sexism within the tech industry, but argues that Ms. Richards strategy of dealing with conflict is counter-productive: “when Adria is offended, she doesn’t work within the community to resolve the problem, and how ultimately,it actually harms female developers because it forms the perception that we are to be feared, we are humorless, that we are hard to work with.”

Ms. Blum concludes that everybody lost here. It’s hard to argue with that.

The swagsters at TechCrunch even thought this called for a Gandhi quote: “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”

But of course, the tech community has no code of conduct when it comes to disagreeing with someone–especially a woman–in a measured, rational manner. Hence the hordes of Internet monsters who’ve weighed in. Think the flap over Violet Blue’s cancelled BSides sex talk, or the shouting match that ensued when someone tried to bring up race, except worse.

Let’s be clear: The movement against sexual comments and content at tech conference isn’t necessarily about the comments themselves. It’s about an atmosphere that’s often unfriendly at best and hostile at worst, which people like Ms. Richards are attempting to correct, one incident at a time if necessary. And if you want to understand why she felt the need for public shaming, just look at the Internet backlash.

There’s this Hacker News comment thread, which starts with a “philosophical Marxist” calling Ms. Richards’ allegations of sexism a “false positive.” Soon after, the mens’ rights trolls started spewing nonsense like, “I’d like her to justify:- in what way her accusation is not the moral equivalent of a false rape claim.” Then there were comments like this:

This woman is bad news, and she’s making all women look bad. Option 1 – Hire a guy Option 2 – Hire a woman, and out of nowhere she’ll cause me trouble with some random harassment charge.

You know how it is with women and all those random harassment charges.

Sure, the usual suspects from the deep Internet emerged from their bolt holes to vomit filth all over this. The Daily Dot, which has reported extensively on the response to Ms. Richards, says someone emailed Ms. Richards a picture of a woman bound and beheaded, with the comment “when Im done.” Meanwhile, 4Chan’s /b/ board, in all its foul glory, mobilized to get her fired.

But it’s probably too much to expect trolls to be anything more than trolls. We do expect more from Hacker News, though, against all odds. The site is directly tied to one of the most powerful forces in Silicon Valley. And yet:

Yeah, Ms. Richards overreacted initially, and in the process, some poor guy lost his job. (And even in the booming tech economy, that’s terrifying.) But the controversy just proves her larger point, and it goes to show why so many women within the tech community are on hair-trigger alert.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com