‘Donglegate’ Makes Me Want To Destroy the Internet

As a matter of principle, I tend to think the Internet is a Good Thing. It puts unimaginable amounts of information at the fingertips of people the world over and provides us with a multitude of ways (e.g., personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter) that we can use to communicate and share our lives with each other. It can give a voice to the voiceless, such as dissidents living in oppressive regimes, and can be used to hold the powerful accountable. And on a more personal level, the Internet has given me a great deal of personal and professional development and satisfaction over the years, and even more importantly, makes it possible for me to provide for my family.

But there are times when I want to burn the whole thing to the ground and throw the ashes onto a trash heap — and last week was one of those times.

On March 17, a technology consultant named Adria Richards was attending PyCon, a conference for developers who work with the Python programming language. During one of the conference sessions, she overheard two male attendees behind her make some crude sexual jokes in reference to the terms “dongle” and “forking” (both of which are actual tech terms). Fed up with what she perceived to be sexist overtones — and as she explained on her blog, frustrated with the sexist climate that pervades the tech community — she turned around, took a photo of the attendees, tweeted it, and called them out to the PyCon organizers. The organizers talked to Richards and the attendees, apologies were made, and that was that.

Unfortunately, things quickly got a whole a lot more complicated, and a whole lot nastier.

Richards’ initially received a lot of support… and a lot of criticism, both on Twitter and in her blog’s comments. Some of the criticism was respectful, though still quite direct and pointed. But a lot of the criticism took a far more vicious form in the shape of various slurs and epithets, as well as threats of rape and violence. (In one particularly disturbing instance, a photo of a beheaded woman was tweeted to Richards with the caption “when Im done.”)

On March 21, PlayHaven — the employer of the two men Richards had photographed — announced that they had fired one of the developers after conducting “a thorough investigation”. Soon after, someone claiming to be the fired developer posted his side of the story and apologized to Richards while also claiming that Richards had misunderstood some of their comments (i.e., “no sexual jokes were made about forking”) and that “She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”

SendGrid — an e-mail delivery company that employed Richards — then came under attack. First, by members of the hacker collective Anonymous who shut down the company’s servers with a DDoS attack, and second, in the form of clients leaving the company in protest of Richards’ actions. In response, SendGrid announced that they had fired Richards, and further clarified that while they supported her right to report inappropriate behavior, they did not support the her method of doing so, and that her actions compromised her ability to be their “developer evangelist.”

Since then, Richards has essentially been in hiding, and virtually non-existent online (which shouldn’t be too surprising, given the amount of vitriol directed at her). What’s more, countless blogs and pundits have weighed in on the situation, both for and against Richards’ actions — and with many sitting somewhere in-between. I’ll refrain from adding any additional analysis: You can find plenty of that by googling “Adria Richards” or “Donglegate.” Instead, I’d like to offer something of a lament — a lament for the Internet, if you will.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Richards’ claims and actions — or those of any of the parties involved, for that matter — the amount of sheer negativity, hatred, and vitriol that this has generated in comments sections and Twitter timelines should be awfully depressing. What could’ve been a golden opportunity to address legitimately important issues — i.e., the sexism that often occurs within the technology and developer communities, and the best ways to respond to it — has been lost, forever, because too many people can’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that you can disagree with someone, even strongly, and still treat them with even a modicum of respect. It ought to be really quite clear and simple:

  • You do not need to resort to threats of violence, sexual or otherwise, to make your point.
  • You do not need to tell them to go kill themselves to make your point.
  • You do not need to send them disgusting and horrifying pictures to make your point.
  • You do not need to call them every name in the book to make your point.

But all too easily, significant portions of the Internet show that time and again, they have forgotten — or seem perfectly willing to forget — these most simple rules of adult human interaction. VentureBeat‘s John Koetsier, who has been in contact with both Richards and the fired developer since the initial incident, put it well when he wrote:

A developer has lost his job for no really good reason (as Richards has also said). The Internet exploded, with a significant chunk of it spewing hate and vitriol, including rape and death threats. A developer evangelist has lost her job too, for no really good reason. And women and men in technology have even more baggage and mistrust to process.

All because a developer and a developer evangelist made a couple of mistakes.

Where’s the forgiveness? Where’s the acceptance? Where’s the ability to not fly off the handle and go apeshit at zero to sixty when we see something we don’t like or we have a problem? Why do we feel we can call people whores, or idiots, or scumbags, or worse, just because there’s a computer and some wires between us and them?

Do we now live in a culture where there are no second chances, where there’s no ability to call a Mulligan, get a do-over, or just have a bad day?

Who can live that like? Who’s the perfect one among us who doesn’t screw up?

Koetsier asks “Who can live that like? Who’s the perfect one among us who doesn’t screw up?” The simple answer is that nobody can. And sadly, many seem incapable or unwilling to remember that these days. And it just leaves me feeling sad and empty. As I’ve written before:

I affirm the Bible’s teachings regarding the effects of sin and humanity’s fallenness, so brutality, hatred, selfishness, and incivility running amok isn’t terribly surprising. Still, I’m often defeated, shell-shocked, and teary-eyed. “Does it really have to be so bad?” I wonder.

There are times when I have hope that the tremendous promise of the Internet can be a powerful tool to bring people together, that the tremendous potential for knowledge and communication that it represents can do something to bridge the often massive gaps between our lives and cultures. This is not one of those times. Indeed, last week has thoroughly disabused me of such notions. Venturing through comment threads and blog entries and reading the often juvenile and vitriolic back-and-forth reveal such notions to be childish and naïve.

I know that I should end this piece with something uplifting or poignant, something about how we should strive to “be the change that you wish to see in the world,” online or otherwise. But right now, I can’t. Right now, all I can say is “Maranatha” — even, and especially, to the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet.

Image via Chuckumentary via photopin cc.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Greg Wright

    Nice, Mr. Morehead. I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.shinybadge.com/ Robert

    If you _really_ affirm the bible’s teachings, you would take seriously the commandment against bearing false witness. In fact, this is punishable by death, as it should be.

    “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

    The trouble is, any point person identifying herself as “Ms.” Adria Richards makes needs to be examined in the context of the false report she made:

    http://i.imgur.com/a1wO3Bj.png

    In the photo she tweeted, she accused at least three people of an offense. By her admission, it was only one person.

    Regardless of the merit of her claim, she violated one of the fundamental commandments. You should be joining me in prayer for her divine judgement and punishment. Unless she makes reparations, and apologizes to those she falsely accuses, and they accept the apology, she will suffer an eternity in Hell.

  • http://www.shinybadge.com/ Robert

    If you _really_ affirm the bible’s teachings, you would take seriously the commandment against bearing false witness. In fact, this is punishable by death, as it should be.

    “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

    The trouble is, any point the person known as “Ms.” Adria Richards makes needs to be examined in the context of the false report she made:

    http://i.imgur.com/a1wO3Bj.png

    In the photo she tweeted, she accused at least three people of an offense. By her admission, it was only one person.

    Regardless of the merit of her claim, she violated one of the fundamental commandments. You should be joining me in prayer for her divine judgement and punishment. Unless she makes reparations, and apologizes to those she falsely accuses, and they accept the apology, she will suffer an eternity in Hell.

  • http://moviegoings.com Jared

    Well, I for one am pretty darned appreciative of Robert for really underlining the whole “I want to destroy the Internet” sentiment with his own special blend of crazy, judgmental, vindictive, and wild-eyed knee-jerking well outside the bounds of reason and taste.

    Thanks, man!

  • Joshua

    Good article Mr. Morehead. I don’t think I’ve read many “laments” on the internet; it’s very appropriate for the times we’re in, cultivating the multi-horned beast that is the internet.

    I’ll also refrain from commenting about Adria’s actions. Meanwhile, it’s absolutely sickening how detestable people have become. It makes me want to “out” everyone who made such vile and disgusting threats to her by publicizing their names, pictures, and facebook accounts. It should be obvious to anyone that despite all the “inherent goodness” that we claim to possess, human beings can become horribly regressive, especially when they’re given anonymity on the internet. It’s why I’ve never wholly endorsed the notion of internet hackers, even if their attacks hurt organizations that have exploited people. It’s too much power without any accountability.

    I recently read about how a NY firefighter and cop were recently “outed” for their racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive twitter rants. Both lost their jobs, and one was immortalized in the local paper humiliated and bawling his eyes out.

    While it’s easy to cheer such exposés, I’m reminded of how easy some of my anonymous rants would haunt me if they were made public. The saddest part is that it’s usually the instance of being exposed, as opposed to our own so-called sense of morality, that may ultimately humble us.

    (Then again, it would be even sadder and ironic if this page’s comments section turned into a war based on a certain glaring example of a comment who apparently missed the entire point of the article.)

  • kevin

    ” You should be joining me in prayer for her divine judgement and punishment. Unless she makes reparations, and apologizes to those she falsely accuses, and they accept the apology, she will suffer an eternity in Hell.”
    Robert, glad to hear that those damn liars won’t be getting into heaven just because Christ’s atoning blood washed their scarlet sins away. We just can’t have Jesus overlooking these kinds of things. I mean if He died for EVERYONE then ANYONE could get into heaven by His grace alone!
    Someone has got to hold these liars accountable…..u go buddy.

  • Squishy Wormy

    I think the threats and such that she has received were indeed ridiculous. I do however feel that she deserved to be fired for her actions, publicly shaming the two men for the actions she disagrees with is way worse than a sexist joke – which in fact their joke wasn’t sexist.

    If the mentioning of a penis or an innuendo about a penis is sexist, then fuck this world.

  • http://fascinatingtales.wordpress.com Adam

    Adria Richards ran out into traffic to defend her right-of-way, and got hit by a truck.
    http://fascinatingtales.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/adria-richards-dongles-and-burqas/

  • http://natalt.org Jim Osborne

    There is a good piece here about it.

    http://www.natalt.org/2013/03/25/donglegate-how-society-has-grown-tired-of-political-correctness/

    The reaction was perhaps overblown, not so much because of the specific events, but as a lashback against Political Correctness and over-sensitivity.

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