Consultant Adria Richards was at PyCon this year, a convention for Python programming language enthusiasts, when she heard some male attendees behind her talking about “dongles” and “forking”, some rather indelicate puns that made Adria uncomfortable. Instead of turning around and complaining to the men, or going to convention organizers, she decided to tweet the whole thing. She sent a picture of the two guys and called their actions “uncool”. Richards has about 9000 Twitter followers and the story spread like wildfire, prompting PyCon to issue an official apology to her. One of the men in the picture was recognized by his employer and terminated, but then Richards’ employer decided that her online antics made the company look bad and likewise terminated her.
Some outlets have claimed that this is the outcome of online shaming, an unfortunately widespread tactic in the online world where someone tries to harm others, either professionally or personally, by online comments and actions. We’ve seen this in the atheist world with attacks against people like Justin Vacula and others, where people are unable to deal with the content of someone else’s speech and therefore tries to hurt them in the real world.
This story isn’t really about the danger of shaming though, it’s about the danger of not being aware that your actions may have unintended consequences. It doesn’t have to be online, you can say something off the cuff in a restaurant and if the wrong people hear it, it could cost you your job. Now I’m not siding with the guys she tweeted about and I’m not siding with her, I’m saying that no matter what you intend to happen, that’s not necessarily what will happen and no matter one’s intentions, that’s how things go. Whether or not Richards’ actions warranted her termination is really up to the reader to decide, but no matter what your opinion, it doesn’t change the outcome.
There’s a problem online though where people take disagreement too far. It’s one thing to point out a racist or a sexist online, it’s certainly another to publish their personal information and contact their schools or employers to complain about their online behavior. This isn’t online activism, it’s online revenge against people you’ve never even seen or met, who have never personally wronged you in any way. While I’ll agree that people have every right to be offended by sexist comments or racist comments, your own personal offense does not give you license to spur an attack on an individual by faceless Internet hordes.
Now personally, do I think Richards was wrong? Absolutely. She was eavesdropping on a conversation that didn’t concern her in a busy convention hall. She then took it upon herself to broadcast a private conversation to a worldwide audience and that broadcast cost one of the men his job. She was absolutely, completely and totally in the wrong, just as I feel virtually all online shaming of this sort are. It’s one thing to complain about behavior or use it as an example in a post, it’s another to actively attempt to harm others. That she also lost her job is not fair compensation to the man she harmed, I hope she at least learned her lesson in this whole mess.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people online with a feminist agenda who are defending what Richards did because she’s a woman and she has a right to get revenge against men. I wish I could say this isn’t the case because such a position is absurd, but there you go. Like it or not, your discomfort does not give you license to harm others, social justice doesn’t give you the right to ruin other people’s lives because you’re pushing an agenda. If we take anything from the case of Adria Richards, it’s that sometimes, sticking your nose into other people’s business where it clearly doesn’t belong can come back to bite you in the ass.
Maybe more of these people deserve to get bit.