Author Archives: skud

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

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?


Who is harmed by a “real names” policy?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about pseudonymity and about online services that disallow it, instead requiring so-called “real names”. For example, previously on Geek Feminism:

Some time ago, I helped draft a list of groups of people who would be harmed by a policy banning pseudonymity and requiring “real names”. Unfortunately that document’s not available anywhere publicly online, so I thought it might be good to recreate it on the Geek Feminism wiki, and offer it as a general resource.

Here it is: Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy?

Please help us fill in any categories of people you can think of who benefit from pseudonymity online, or who may experience real harm from a policy that bans it. You can edit the wiki directly if you like, or just drop a comment here on this post and we’ll try and include them.

And, of course, please bookmark the link and use it whenever anyone claims that only trolls or people with “something to hide” want to use pseudonyms online.


Music geekery

Didn’t we link to this geek hierarchy? I just searched the GF blog and can’t find it. Anyway, SURPRISE! All forms of geek on the hierarchy are male! At least til you get to the very bottom of the list and the fanfic writer has a bag over zir head. There’s a whole nother article to be written about the presumed and actual gender of fanfic writers, but I wanted to talk about the top of the geek hierarchy: the music geek.

Undisputed King of the Geek World, the Music Geek is without a doubt the most socially acceptable. For some reason you can be totally obsessed with going to music store after music store looking for that rare Australian-only single release by your third favorite indie band, and nobody’s going to think you’re weird or “eccentric” for doing so. This geekdom is the “coolest” because it does not repel women, and many of these geeks actually go out in public regularly to see bands perform, so they tend not to be socially awkward hermits.

*pounds head gently on desk*

As some of you may know, I’m quitting my job in the tech industry and going into music. It’s given me some pause for thought wrt my geek identity, let me tell you. But fuck it, I can be a music geek, and a geek in music, and/or a geek who combines tech and music. Whatever.

Anyway, on that note, I just wanted to post a quick link to an article on one of my favourite music-geek blogs, Pam’s Newsprint Fray:

Earlier this week, Pitchfork published a list of their 60 favorite music books. It is pretty wide-ranging and there are many good books on the list. (And some I really hated.) But only one was written by a woman, and two had lady coauthors. Come the fuck on.

Pam then offers us:

that happen to have been written by ladies

or at least co-written in a few cases

I’m definitely adding a few of these to my to-read list. Meanwhile, talk to me about music geekery, being a female music geek and/or geek in music, etc?

Fighting sexism with humor?

Valerie Aurora just tweeted:

30 minutes till I run #foocamp session “Defeating Sexism through Humor.” Suggestions?

I suggested a few things to her including:

Got any others? Or any experiences with using humor for feminist ends?

The t-shirt challenge

Yesterday on Twitter, I announced an offer:

For any tech conference I attend which provides t-shirts in my size, I will donate $100 to the event or to a related non-profit or charity.

The small print:

  • The t-shirts must be provided as standard and available to all attendees, not custom-made just for me.
  • My t-shirt size is 24″ measured from armpit to armpit, unstretched, in a women’s “fitted” cut. This is roughly the same diameter as a men’s XL.
  • If the event is a volunteer-run/non-profit/donation-accepting event I will donate the $100 to the event itself. Otherwise, I will donate to a closely-related non-profit or charity such as an open source software foundation, the EFF, or similar.
  • I will do this for the first 5 events that meet my criteria, or 2 years, whichever comes first.

A word on sizing. Women’s/fitted tshirts provided at events or for sale online usually max out somewhere around 40″ bust measurement, plus or minus a few inches. For instance, Thinkgeek’s largest women’s size, XXL, is 36″ in circumference, equivalent to a men’s S. American Apparel’s women’s 2XL tshirt supposedly fits around a 44″-46″ bust though AA run small. The actual size of their largest women’s tshirt, measured with a tape measure, is 42″, and falls between a men’s M and L.

Here’s a picture of an AA women’s 2XL laid out over a men’s L. As you can see, the largest women’s size is smaller than a men’s L:

American Apparel women's 2XL tshirt laid over a men's L.  The women's tshirt is slightly smaller in diameter than the men's.

Now, I recognise I’m a large woman. But I’m not that large. Without breasts, I would be a stocky little guy with a bit of a paunch, and take a size L tshirt. With breasts — and again, they’re large but they’re not that large — I’m off the scale.

Don’t tell me I can wear a straight-cut/unisex/men’s tshirt. I don’t want to. Yes, some women prefer straight-cut shirts or find that they fit well. I am not one of them. And my size/shape/t-shirt preference is not a rare one.

When I wear a straight-cut shirt, it pulls across my chest and hips, sags around my waist, bunches under my armpits, creeps up to choke me, and the sleeves hang down to my elbows. I feel awkward and uncomfortable and I spend a good part of your conference thinking about how I look and feel, rather than about the subject at hand. I really hope that’s not what you want me to remember about your event.

Which conference cares more about its attendees?  Webstock t-shirt fits well, JavaOne t-shirt is baggy and unattractive.
Photo credit: Kathy Sierra, under CC-BY-NC-SA, from her Creating Passionate Users blog.

So here’s what I want event organisers to do. Find a vendor that provides women’s/fitted t-shirts in sizes that go up to 24″ measured armpit to armpit. Yes, there are a number of them out there — but American Apparel is not one of them. Have those t-shirts at your conference for any attendees who want them. And I will donate $100 to your event or to a closely-related charity or non-profit.

Who else is with me? (Or, since cash donations aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, feel free to propose other incentives in comments.)

Shuttleworth apologises for last year’s comments at LinuxCon

Remember how last September in a keynote speech at LinuxCon, Mark Shuttleworth (Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator For Life of the Ubuntu Linux project) made a series of comments including one about how “us guys” in the Linux community have trouble “explaining to girls what we actually do”? At the time, I posted an open letter to Mark, saying,

I’d like to invite you to think about the message you’re sending to women in the Linux community, and, if you didn’t mean to convey the message that we’re technical illiterates and hard to educate, consider apologising publicly.

There’s a followup post with more information, and in November last year Shuttleworth responded in comment on another post on the subject. However, he did not apologise at that time.

So, I’m glad to be able to report that the other day, in the comment thread on a post about “tribalism” on his own blog, he offered an apology after prompting by Máirín Duffy and Carla Schroder:

I apologize unreservedly to all offended by my poor choice of language on that or other occasions.

Better late than never! I know that several Ubuntu women I’ve spoken to are pleased and relieved that Shuttleworth finally apologised, even if it’s not a textbook apology. So, thank you, Mark. I hope you’ll continue listening to the women in your community, and think about the effects of your words in future.

Quick hit: xkcd “Phobia” passes Bechdel Test

Today’s xkcd comic strip, Phobia, passes the Bechdel Test.

  1. Contains two women
  2. Having a conversation
  3. About something other than a man

Last time this happened, as far as I can tell, was over 400 comics ago, where the two women in question ended up being rescued from the RIAA and MPAA enforcers by Richard Stallman. Or has there been one more recently?

One thing I like about “Phobia” is that the two characters just happen to be women. They’re not there to tell us a very special message about women or to be part of someone’s romantic fantasy. They just… are. People. With fears and motivations and ideas and dreams.

So, thanks, Randall! More like this please!

Hacker News and pseudonymity

Mark Suster has a post about improving civility on YCombinator’s Hacker News:

I’ve seen vitriolic responses on HN on several occasion. I mostly get hammered on HN if I write about a controversial topic like criticizing Apple (in fact, what prompted me to write this post today was that I was asked on Twitter to write a post about Facebook. I have been avoiding it because I wasn’t up for the inevitable public pummeling this week). […]

In fact, I was reluctant to write this post because I know it’s likely to lead to the inevitable bashing on HackerNews, which unfortunately also spills over into hate emails that some people from HN send me personally (no prizes for guessing my email address).

His suggested fixes include:

1. Make all users post under real names that you verify — This in and of itself would help temper comments. It’s totally acceptable to me for people to harshly criticize my points-of-view. No problem. But calling me a f***ing a**hole or some of the other epithets used goes too far. If people used real names and if these were crawlable and searchable in Google the transparency alone would help regulate people. Not everybody but many. HackerNews doesn’t need to be JuicyCampus.

Better still add photos the was Disqus and Quora do. It humanizes everybody and drives more civil conversation. As Paul said in his blog posting, “don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person.†Photos drives this closer to reality.

No. No no and again no.

Strong moderation is possible without compromising anonymity or pseudonymity. And Suster’s suggestion of requiring real/verified names can actually worsen the situation for some people. Suster quotes Paul Graham, saying, “Don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person,” but that sounds like the voice of someone who’s never received abuse or harassment in person. People aren’t ashamed or afraid to make abusive comments under their own names, and the necessity of using real/verified names will only exclude those who don’t want abusive comments to follow them back to their own email inboxes (as Suster himself experienced) or worse, their homes or workplaces.

Suster and Graham may not have noticed (they’re not the target audiences, after all), but women online are regularly admonished to use pseudonyms to protect themselves. Many websites with a culture of pseudonymity — LiveJournal and derivative sites are an example — have a very high proportion of female members, perhaps in part because of the sense of privacy and security that pseudonymity brings. A site which requires real/verified names is automatically flagging itself as a potentially/probably unsafe space for women, or for anyone else at risk of harassment, violence, job discrimination, and the like.

People sometimes speak as if pseudonymity is the same as anonymity, or suggest that pseudonymity is nothing more than a way to avoid accountability for one’s words. It’s not. Persistent pseudonyms (those used over many years and perhaps across multiple sites) can accrue social capital and respect just as “real” names can, and be subject to the same social pressures towards civil behaviour if the community has a strong culture of respect. Without a culture of respect, real names won’t help. With it, real names won’t matter.

There’s more about pseudonymity on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

How John Scalzi invented fanfic

So the other day John Scalzi posted on his blog that he is writing a “reboot” of H. Beam Piper’s science fiction novel “Little Fuzzy”. He says:

Why did you do this?

Because as far as I know it’s never been done before. Science fiction TV and movie series are rebooted all the time — see Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek for recent examples of this — but I can’t think of a significant, original universe in science fiction literature in which this has been done, at least, not by someone who is not the original author. So I thought, hey, this seems like it could be a fun thing to do. So I did it.

If your eyes aren’t rolling enough already (because, hello, fan fiction?), melannen pointed out to me that Ardath Mayhar, a female author, had even written a professionally published retelling of the Little Fuzzy story (a fact that’s mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Little Fuzzy, so it’s hardly obscure.)

Is it time for another round of How To Suppress Women’s Writing?

  • She didn’t write it.

(But if it’s clear she did the deed. . .)

  • She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.)
  • She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!)
  • She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever. . .â€)
  • She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!)
  • She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own “masculine side.â€)
  • She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help….)
  • She wrote it BUT. . .

When women do it, it’s just fan fiction. When men do it, it’s a reboot. Right.

ETA: I’ve been pointed at a subsequent post in which Scalzi admits he’s writing fanfic.

For those who are new here, I’d like to point out that we have a comment policy which asks you to “Be at least one of: feminist, friendly, amusing, or perspicacious. Two is even better.” Comments along the lines of “She wrote it, BUT…” (it wasn’t commercially published, it wasn’t called a reboot because we hadn’t invented that word yet, she didn’t have permission from TPTB…) will be bitbucketed.

Quick Hit: Too Many Dicks

Anita Sarkeesian over at Feminist Frequency just posted a vid critiquing the gender imbalance in video games, to the Flight of the Conchords song “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor”. It’s inspired by sloanesomething’s Star Trek vid along similar lines.

Anita writes:

Not only are these games dominated by male characters but even the few women characters who get staring roles are replicating the overly patriarchal, violent, macho behaviour all wrapped up in a hyper sexualized body. I specifically used clips from two games that help to counter this male dominance: Portal a game of strategy and Mirror’s Edge which stars a woman of color in a dystopian future.

Not surprisingly the vast majority of game producers, designers and writers are men. To put it simply, there are too many dicks on the dance floor!

Too many misters, not enough sisters! If you enjoy the vid, drop seedling a comment on her blog.