Re-post: On being harassed: a little GF history and some current events

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from last year. This post originally appeared on October 13, 2011.

Trigger warning for discussion of and graphic examples of threatening online harassment.

The other day Mary posted Online harassment as a daily hazard, linking to s.e. smith’s On blogging, threats, and silence. I thought I might take the opportunity to talk about my experiences since starting the Geek Feminism blog in 2009, if only as another example to add to the long list we already have.

In early 2009 I wrote a series of blog posts on my personal blog, celebrating the achievements of Dreamwidth and the Organization for Transformative Works’ Archive Of Our Own (AO3), two open source projects that launched into beta around that time, and that had large, majority-female developer communities. Someone at O’Reilly saw them, and in May ’09 I got an email from the organisers of the O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) asking if I’d like to give a keynote presentation about the subject.

At first I declined, asking whether, instead, they could find me a regular slot in the schedule. I wanted to talk about the projects and about what we could learn from them with regard to building inclusive, supportive developer communities, but I was uncomfortable with the degree of exposure I was likely to get by doing so in one of the morning keynote slots.

(I remember talking to my boss about it at work the next day, telling him I was flattered but didn’t much relish the negative attention it would get me. He was surprised, and didn’t get it. Later, he would admit that he’d read the ensuing comment threads around the web and was stunned not only by the content of them, but that such responses were expected.)

Anyway, at the end of May I went off to WisCon and talked to a bunch of supportive, inspiring feminists, and when I came back I agreed to give the OSCON keynote. I spent the next two months trying to figure out how to talk about the experiences of women in open source while keeping the message positive — something O’Reilly’s conference organisers had specifically requested.

Here’s the talk I gave. Don’t read the comments. Well, not unless you really need to raise your blood pressure. There were another 250 comments on the O’Reilly Radar post about my talk, and yet more on other tech blogs that linked to it. When I got back to work the week after OSCON, my boss had read them all and said, “Wow, I had no idea.”

What you’ll see there, if you brave the comment threads, are lots of attempts at derailing and 101 style conversations. For the most part, I deleted the particularly vile stuff, but you can bet there was some. After dealing with those comment threads, and those on subsequent related blog posts, I decided to create the GF blog. I wanted a group blog where, when I was exhausted by it all, I could get help from my co-bloggers.

Over the following six months, as my OSCON talk was linked all over the place, and as GF took off, I started to get more nasty email. In September of that year, GF became the target of a guy who goes by the name of MikeeUSA, who had previously targetted the Debian Women and LinuxChix communities. He started commenting here on GF, and sending email to GF bloggers, commenters, and people who linked to GF from their own blogs.

The women of the “geek feminism” movement will be just as effective at excising men from the movement as Nina was at systematically destroying Hans Reiser’s life untill he saw no reason, nothing left in his life, that could hold him back from striking back.

(Nina Reiser was murdered by her husband in 2006; see yatima’s post in memory of her.)

We deleted his comments here, of course. At first we did so quietly, not wanting to “feed the troll” But I was dubious of that traditional wisdom, and worried about other people getting messages from him and perhaps being less able to deal with it. I decided to write publicly about MikeeUSA so that everyone would know what was happening. In October ’09 I posted PSA: MikeeUSA’s hate speech and harassment.

As I was drafting that post — literally, I had the WordPress UI open in another tab — I got an email from a young woman in the open source community saying, “I just got a comment on my blog from this death-to-women’s-rights guy, and I’m not sure what to do about it.” I forwarded her a copy of my draft post, which included the following tips (summarised, but I do suggest you read the full post):

  • Moderate comments on your blog. Your blog is your space, and like your own living room or workplace, you have the right and the responsibility to make it a safe environment for those who gather there.
  • Save copies of all correspondence. Keep a copy of any blog comments, emails, or other correspondence you get from [anyone] who threatens or harasses you. Even if it starts out mild, it never hurts to have a paper trail.
  • Report threats to law enforcement. Threats of violence are illegal, and should be reported to law enforcement. Your first step is to contact your local police, wherever you are. You can call 911 (or local equivalent), or visit your local police station in person.

I would probably write that final point differently these days. Less prescriptively, for starters. Law enforcement is seldom willing or able to do anything about online harassment, and the process of dealing with them can, in itself, be pretty traumatic. That said, if you’re willing and able to do so, it might help, if only by contributing to aggregate data.

In any case, once we had the MikeeUSA thing out in the open, it changed the whole tone of things. The PSA got passed around various women-in-tech communities, and the GF wiki and blog became the top Google hits for his name. Soon, I started seeing him show up in people’s comments and get responses like, “Woohoo, I must have made it to the big time now Mikee’s come to visit!” Rather than each individual woman feeling singled out and alone, privately deleting blog comments or email messages, we started to work on it together. We encouraged people to send copies of their emails to a central repository, and forwarded them all to the feds (who, of course, did nothing with them — *sigh*). Eventually, the whole thing came to a head with Eric S. Raymond supporting MikeeUSA and his “right” to have his hate speech hosted on, and, after a weekend’s hacking, this lulzy, pony-filled denouement.

What you don’t see from the blog posts are the effect this had on people’s mental and physical health. I can’t speak for the other women targetted by Mikee, but I know that it affected my ability to concentrate, sleep, work, and socialise. Apologies for the TMI, but my gastro-intestinal system is also fairly sensitive to stress, so I was physically ill as well. I took several days of sick leave and went to the beach for an extended weekend, completely offline, to try and regain some equilibrium.

So far so bad, but I was at least managing to muddle through my day to day work as a technical community manager at a dotcom startup. That is, until I got a second particularly nasty stalker. This one, a Wikipedia troll, had found his way to my employer’s online database and tried to fill it with rubbish. As part of my job, I’d removed it and blocked his account, then mentioned on our public mailing list that I’d done so. The troll was annoyed, and presumably Googled my name, whereupon he found my OSCON talk.

The first I knew about this was when I got an email from a well known technologist asking whether I had any idea why a post on his blog, linking to my OSCON talk, had suddenly attracted a dozen commenters all posting abuse directed at me. I checked it out, and found comments on my professionalism, appearance, fuckability, and so forth. “Fat dyke slut” was pretty typical of the sort of language used, along with criticisms of my work and calls for me to be fired from my job. The IPs matched the guy I’d blocked at work.

The comments also linked to other blogs where similar abuse had been posted. I followed the links and found that it was spread all around the web, and all of it was on third-party sites where I had no control over the comment moderation. I had to contact each of these websites individually and ask them to remove the comments. Luckily most of them did so.

Because this was work-related, I also had to tell my boss. I was, after all, being harassed in relation to something I had done in the course of my professional duties, and my company had a responsibility to prevent that. I also informed the rest of my team, as they were likely to catch some of the side-splatter. Have you ever had to show your male colleagues a webpage that calls you a fat dyke slut? I don’t recommend it. However, my boss — the same one who’d been surprised by the comments straight after the OSCON talk — was extremely supportive, and the company did everything it should have. I spoke to lawyers and we determined a plan of action if the abuse continued. Fortunately, it didn’t. However, the negative side-effects of my “hobby” — feminist blogging — had now followed me to the office, and I could no longer keep the two separate. My chances of being able to relax and do my work without worrying about that stuff had gone out the window.

Not long after, another harasser was causing trouble for the Dreamwidth developer community (which, as I mentioned above, is predominantly female). Among other creepy behaviour, he phoned various people’s workplaces and accused them of distributing child pornography. I had to go to our office manager and tell him that if anyone called claiming to be a minister of religion and accusing me of that sort of thing, to ignore it. Awkward.

That was about nine months after my OSCON talk, and I’d had three separate cases where abuse related to it had negatively affected my professional life. Other women have talked about cutting back on their blogging out of concern for their personal safety, or to protect their children, but I wonder how many other female bloggers have had work-related problems like I did, and cut back on their blogging to avoid having abuse and harassment leak over into their professional lives?

The most recent outcome of this whole process occurred in March of this year. The startup I was working for in 2009 had been acquired by Google, and I’d submitted a talk to Google I/O (their big annual conference) to showcase our APIs. A couple of months before the event, I attended a kick-off meeting in Mountain View, where I sat in a lecture-theatre style room along with all the other presenters.

The senior exec in charge of the whole thing came to give us a pep talk. He told us how big and important the conference was, and what an honour it was to be speaking there. He told us that it was a great opportunity, because we would be speaking not only to a huge crowd in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, but our talks would also be filmed and put on Youtube, where they could potentially get hundreds of thousands of views (and, presumably, a commensurate number of comments).

I had a panic attack. My ears were ringing, my heart was beating fast, and I was shaking. I couldn’t hear what was being said from the front of the lecture theatre, and I just wanted to escape. I managed to get up and leave the room, and once I had found myself a safe corner outside, I got online and talked it through with a friend, then contacted a colleague and asked them to speak at Google I/O in my place.

I presume that most of the people in that room, including the exec who was speaking from the podium, had never had the experience of 6-12 months of very personal abuse after giving a conference talk. If they had, they might realise that the opportunity to have a video of oneself on Youtube, with hundreds of thousands of views and unmoderated comments, is not something everyone would want. (See also: Mary’s excellent series on conference recordings and harassment, accounts of people’s experiences, thoughts on ethics and policy.)

By the time this happened, I’d already decided — like many women before me — to drop out of the tech industry, so it was no big deal for me to turn down a high profile speaking opportunity. In fact, I hadn’t spoken at any major conferences in a year or so, preferring small events and unconferences where I could focus on teaching people about our technology, rather than on any potential harassment.

I’m fairly conflicted about my choice to quit the tech industry. I don’t want to be part of some statistic about retention rates, but on the other hand, I need to do something that feels rewarding and fun, and the work I was doing — which involved lots of speaking at conferences — wasn’t giving me that any more.

I didn’t quit because I couldn’t handle the technology, or because I had a baby, but because I had become fundamentally disenchanted with a “community” (please imagine me doing sarcastic air quotes) that supports the kind of abuse I’ve experienced and treats most human-related problems — from harassment to accessibility to the infinite variety of names people use (ahem ahem Google Plus) — as “too hard”.

That said, I’m still a techie at heart, and I plan to keep working with and on technology in whatever career I have ahead of me. I’m particularly interested in using open tech to preserve and promote independent music, so you’ll continue to see me around in many of my usual tech haunts.

Which brings me to a couple of weeks ago, when I got an email that read:

Hey slut, take your left wing socialist idealogy and go fuck off from ubuntu.

It came from someone calling himself “Markus G”, with email address grandrhino at hotmail, and IP address — a static IP address with the ISP TPG, and a traceroute indicating that he’s probably in Brisbane, Australia.

Luckily, I know I’m not alone. I contacted the GF bloggers through one of our backchannels and asked if anyone else had heard of this guy. Turns out Mary had heard that “Markus” had previously sent similar filth to another woman in the Australian Linux community (she alluded to this in comments on her previous post). In that case, it was related to the Mark Pesce keynote at LCA 2010 and the subsequent discussion on the Linux Australia mailing list.

So, here’s our situation. We have a man (presumably; at any rate he appears to want to be identified as such) in the Australian Linux community, who targets women by sending them private abusive emails from a throwaway address and with a name that can’t readily be connected to any publicly known member of the community. His ISP won’t hand out information about him without a court order, his abuse doesn’t present the kind of imminent threat to physical safety that might interest law enforcement, and despite Linux Australia’s diversity statement and’s anti-harassment policies, it’s not clear that there’s any practical thing that either of those groups can do about him.

I have a talk about a tech/music/community project I founded scheduled at in January. If I attend — and I’ll freely admit that I’ve been reconsidering it — I’m going to be attending with this on my mind. That is, of course, what “Markus G” wants: for me, and the other women he’s targetted (and I don’t doubt there are more than just the two I know about) to attend LCA in a state of fear and discomfort, knowing that there are people there who hate us and want us to fuck off out of “their” community. And this is one of the better conferences, with an anti-harassment policy and at least one known case where they’ve enforced it.

What are we going to do about it?

2 thoughts on “Re-post: On being harassed: a little GF history and some current events

  1. Marlaina

    I am so sorry this is happening. This happens to my friends in their feminist music or art blogs even, it is so ubiquitous I always think back to Germain Greer’s quote ‘All men hate some women some of the time and some men hate all women all of the time’ but of course it isn’t that simple or effective to generalise (but in the moment, you really feel it). I am so sorry. Go to the conference. Please.

  2. Emily Gonyer

    It amazes me how many men still ‘don’t get’ how common the harassment of women is, especially online. Please keep blogging, and speaking at conferences. There is safety in numbers, and the more women that are willing to get up and speak the better off we will be.

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