/// ‘Sexism’ Public-Shaming Via Twitter Leads To Two People Getting Fired (Including The Shamer)
Over the weekend, a female “developer evangelist,” Adria Richards, overheard two male developers making what she thought were sexist jokes during a tech conference. Uncomfortable with confronting them in person, she instead tweeted a photo of the two to shame them publicly, writing that “jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and big ‘dongles’” are “not cool.” One of the dongle-joking dudes was wearing a visible nametag in the photo. Richards’s tweet was immediately spotted by an organizer for the tech conference who pulled the two men aside to confront them about the comments. According to a post on the conference’s website, the men agreed the comments were in poor taste and apologized.
That could have been the end of the story but instead, like a sexist snowball rolling down a hyper-sensitive mountain, the situation has escalated considerably. Richards wrote a blog post about the encounter, in which it’s not entirely clear that the comments were sexist (in my reading). Meanwhile, one of the male developers revealed that he had been let go from his job as a result of the public shaming, and said while he had been making a joke about the male anatomy by referring to “big dongles” (a piece of tech hardware), “forking” is a term he and his colleague used to denote “the highest form of flattery.”
Arguments about the incident moved to blogs, the message forum Hacker News, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as the social media pages of the male developers’ employer, a gaming company called PlayHaven, and Richards’s employer, an email delivery company called SendGrid. Many people were incensed that Richards would shame the men via social media rather than talking to them in person, and labeled her as oversensitive in reacting to their comments.
Others saw the incident as another example of the hostile environment for women in technology. After news that the PlayHaven employee had lost his job over the “dongle and forking” jokes, social media users lashed out at Richards, harassing her and sending her threats. On Wednesday evening, they also went after her employer, subjecting the SendGrid site and servers to a distributed denial of service attack. The DDoS attack had the company up through the night trying to restore service for its customers. On Thursday morning, it announced it was resolving the issue in another way: it posted to Twitter, Facebook and the company blog that it was terminating Adria Richards.
Over a thousand people had “liked” the firing within hours. Others were aghast that the company would “cave” to pressure from anonymous attackers. Meanwhile, PlayHaven’s CEO also published a post confirming that it had terminated an employee because of the comments made at the conference, but that it wasn’t the employee, Alex Reid, whose name tag was visible in the photo Richards took.
“PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation,” wrote PlayHaven CEO Andy Yang. “The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go.”
One tweet. Thousands of comments. Four days later, two people have been fired. Welcome to the digital age.
Some people have objected to Richards “eavesdropping” and publicizing a “private” conversation. I can’t say it’s hugely surprising that a private conversation between the two conference attendees could go public. They were at a tech conference after all. Every attendee there likely had Twitter/Instagram/Facebook-itchy fingers. But it’s amazing how quickly this spiraled into a public relations mess for the three people involved and their respective employers.
While Richards was right to call out fellow conference attendees for making sexual jokes that made her uncomfortable, it would have been better to do so in person — at the very least by shooting them a snide look! — with the possibility of clearing up confusion around terminology. Alternately, she could have snapped their photo and sent it to the conference organizers. But we as a society have become very quick instead to call out wrong-doing publicly, through social media, rather than in person, because it’s easier to point the finger digitally than having to deal with the discomfort and awkwardness involved in doing it to people’s faces.
The other benefit of doing this in a public forum is holding all of those involved accountable. In this case, that back-fired for Richards. Her company apparently came to the conclusion that it had to openly punish her in order to satisfy customers and thwart further attacks on its system. SendGrid has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Nate Hermes, a spokesperson for SendGrid, confirms “that the earlier Tweet, Facebook post and blog post by SendGrid were made by the company and not by any external party / hack.” Meanwhile SendGrid’s CEO has added a statement about the situation to the company’s blog.
“SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior, whenever and wherever it occurs,” writes CEO Jim Franklin. “What we do not support was how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation.”
From the outside, it still seems absurd that two people have been fired over this. This public relations nightmare is far from over.
Forbes – Kashmir Hill, Staff