Sunday, March 24, 2013

Crossing The Line: A Premature post-mortem of the Adria Richards/PyCon controversy

There has been a lot of talk on the Internet about the recent PyCon/Adria Richards controversy. Given that, putting my own opinions out there may be redundant; however I'd like to pen them down anyway. Feel free to ignore me and look at the much better researched posts on this topic that can be easily found on the Internet.

The short, objective version of the story:
  • Two guys at PyCon 2013 allegedly are joking about "dongles" and "forking" (both of these are technical terms, but one can make some inappropriate jokes with them) 
  • Adria Richards, posts this tweet, as well as this blog post
  • Internet explodes
  • PlayHaven, the employer of the two guys fires one of them
  • This gets posted on Hacker News
  • Internet Explodes more
  • Due to DDoS attacks and some more of Adria's tweets (presumably), SendGrid fires Adria
  • Internet bubbles down, starts to post mortem this (not yet dead) issue. Yes, I'm prematurely post morteming it as well :)

Alright, so what do I think? In my opinion, this is a series of mistakes on all sides, which led to each other. None of the parties involved really deserved what they got (not saying that they're free of blame, just that the punishment was slightly harsh compared with the offence)

The guys
Firstly, I do think that nobody should be stopped from having a private conversation based on its contents (unless there are legal issues regarding NDAs/etc, of course). Regardless of the setting. If the setting permits folks to have private conversations, then there shouldn't be any restriction on them.

However, this only applies if your conversation isn't being broadcast to others. If you want to have a private conversation that may be offensive to others, please keep your voices low and try to ensure that others don't have to hear it.

Verdict: These guys had a really small part in all this, so there's not much to say here. They crossed a line -- not too far, but they got a hefty punishment for it.

Adria Richards
Rather interesting mix here. Firstly, one can argue that she was partially justifiable in her actions, however destructive they may have been (Yes, it was PlayHaven who fired the guy, but some of Adria's actions are quite destructive in their own right). If we look at her as a woman who has to deal with such things on a day to day basis (or, more accurately, someone who cares about women who have to deal with this daily), then lashing out at one point is justifiable. If a woman is subjected to an environment where some of her colleagues' behavior makes her feel uncomfortable, at one point she will lash out. And while the man she lashes out on will seem to get the short end of the stick, she will still be justifiable.

However, this isn't exactly the case here. Adria's not that woman, which ought to become clear as this post progresses. I'll first focus on the incident itself.

Here's what she should have done. She should have turned around and told them to pipe down. If she was too scared to do that, she could have just quietly complained to PyCon (which she did...sort of). Or she could have tweeted without the picture. But, she didn't. She took a picture, of which there really was no need. Did the picture help make her point in the tweet? No. The only thing the pic provided was a loss of anonymity for those guys. Arguably, that was part of her intent; why else would she post the pic? She knew that she had media power.

While one is bound to get a lot of dirt on someone while digging into their past, in this case, one can see that she has done similar things in the past. She takes a small incident and blows it up out of proportion. In the case of the WCSF shirt, I'd argue that there wasn't an incident at all -- the way she says it, it seems like she will complain whenever she sees a woman character portrayed as an idiot, even if the intentions were obviously not to call women idiots. One needs to have comics with idiots in them as well. Half of them will be women. So?

This behavior, coupled with tweets like this one, paint a rather nasty picture. I understand that, as a male, I'll never be able to fully understand her point of view. So, I'm refraining from saying anything about this, though you're free to make your own conclusions :)

Before reading this, note that I know nothing of what goes on behind PlayHaven's walls, and they may have really been justifiable in firing that employee. He may have been a bad employee overall, and this was just the tipping point. Keeping that in mind, here's what I think, assuming that there wasn't any more to this than what is known to the public.

The tweet gave PlayHaven a bad name (the devs were wearing PlayHaven T-shirts) initially, since right after the tweet Adria had a lot of supporters. However, this was a very temporary thing, and most would have forgotten in a month. And it wasn't really the dev's fault, since a lot of the blame lay with Adria for making it public. However, PlayHaven was getting a fair amount of flak from the Internet and "somebody was to blame". This attitude -- "somebody must be to blame" -- is prevalent in today's corporate culture, and is what escalated this event from a minor incident to a full blown controversy.

Verdict: PlayHaven should have waited a bit and saw how things panned out. Putting on the "somebody must be to blame" hat myself (yay), if somebody is to blame for the level this controversy escalated to, it is PlayHaven.

Adria didn't really leave these guys a choice here. She more or less had to be fired. She didn't deserve to be fired, but she had to be. Why? Because the controversy wasn't completely her fault either. Nobody would have seen PlayHaven's actions coming. If PlayHaven hadn't fired the employees, then it would just have been a matter of a slightly controversial public shaming, which could have been dealt with by simply putting her on a more passive role for the time being.

However, PlayHaven had crossed that line, and now SendGrid is helpless. They still could, of course, deny all responsibility for this controversy and reprimand Adria. However, Adria posted this tweet (and was also called out for hypocrisy regarding this one), which put the company in a position where they had to fire her. She could have stayed rather careful after receiving lots of flak from the Internet, and realized that actions have consequences. Though she had caused a lot of damage to them, SendGrid may not have fired her then. The moment she tweeted "SendGrid supports me", she forced their hand into firing her.

Verdict: Had their hand forced into all their actions, and probably got the worst deal out of the parties involved. The only thing they did wrong, in my opinion, is that they hadn't made it clear (the last time she caused a controversy) to Adria that her evangelism shouldn't be done on company time and wasn't backed by them. Or maybe they had warned her, and she didn't choose to listen.

The Internet
Major culprit here. Quick word to folks on the Internet: Abusive comments hurled at Adria didn't help your cause -- they only made the situation worse. This part is strikingly similar to the Anita Sarkeesian issue a few months back. I fail to see how so many people think that disagreement with those who expose sexism/harassment in tech/games can be expressed by sexually harassing those people.

Then again, there have been lots of insightful blog posts on the Internet, by women and men alike, showing all sides of this controversy.

Verdict: Go home, Internet, you're drunk.

In conclusion, everybody lost here, including folks who weren't involved at all. This incident gives a bad name to active feminists, and makes life harder for men in tech as well (a lot of folks are going to be scared of women at conferences now). The takeaway from this controversy is the following:

  • Keep private conversations private, and try to avoid inappropriate jokes in such settings. 
  • With great power comes great responsibility. Be mindful of what you put out there; it might spiral out of control.
  • Don't keep thinking in the "somebody must be to blame" mindset.
  • If something you've done is biting you in the tail, then be very careful about your subsequent actions, lest you be swallowed by it.
That's all for now :)