Being a good member of the web community
Life is filled with terrible atrocities. Some we can do something about, some we cannot. Some have already happened and all we can do is help ourselves and others pick up the remaining shards of life and see what can be built with them. Hopefully, making a stronger foundation that existed previously.
Currently, the topic I can’t get out of my brain is the state of the tech industry. The web community. I’m sure what I’m going to cover happens in a lot of other industries, but this is where I most feel at home. This is my community, my family, and I was raised that you protect your family with gangster-like loyalty and do everything in your power to ensure their safety. You protect them from bad people, and help them get out of bad situations.
This is going to be filled with vaguely detailed, but true events. If you look up most of the phrases, I’m sure you’ll find the individual blog posts by the people involved, news articles, court records and people who will give you the full stories. I am currently going through a divorce with a Bad Person™, so I’m not interested in going full-on journalist with this. I encourage someone who does that for a living to take on the task though. To be clear however, none of the vague things I’m mentioning are about my ex. I’ll call him out on his indiscretions specifically and most of what he’s done isn’t going to be talked about here.
Recent events & kids these days
Recent events in the news — such as the young boys in Ohio who sexually assaulted a teenager — and the media responses, which were for the most part completely ridiculous, made me feel the need to write this. We have an entire generation that is riddled with apathy where teenagers are taking videos of gang rapes, rather than stepping in to help the victim or even calling the police. Kids are bullying each other to the point of suicides and mass murders in schools. No one has given them the guidance and tools to stand up and help each other. While I’m sure that the bulk of the kids out there are good, upstanding, lovely people, even in my day (I’m 36) I was teased terribly and very few kids would help me or stand up for me. By the time I got into high school, most of my friends had confided in me that they had been molested by someone, and I had my own ‘bad touch’ experience story to tell.
In high school I remember pushing an older student up against his locker for grabbing my friends breast (we were 14 or 15), and I know of a few girls who lost their virginity via the tender embrace of date rape. I encouraged these girls to come forward, told the mothers of the rapists and did all that I could at the time. I ran with a group of skater boys and we tried to stop adult men assaulting their girlfriends outside of bars at night. I can’t even imagine what would go through the mind of a young person nowadays, or what values they could have been taught, that would make them think that standing idly by is even remotely acceptable behaviour for a human.
It’s like technology has become a shield that bars emotion from our interactions, allowing a person to passively sit by while the unspeakable happens.
Young people in the industry
The tech and web community is blessed and cursed with a huge number of very young people who not only skip college/university altogether, but some of them are hired before they even finish high school. The brightest of the bright. These protégé are intellectual forces to be reckoned with. They don’t remember a time before cell phones when friends had to plan to meet up with each other in advance and just actually showed up at designated times/places. A time when you could be a badass teenager, do all the bad things to yourself, and it didn’t show up on YouTube the very next day. They think slightly differently than those of us in the ancient stages of over 30 years old, and it makes them insanely good programmers, designers, hackers and security people. We want the hell out of these kids in our companies. But they are still kids. They have not gone through all the social nonsense that we have, in the same venues. They are thrust into the working world and expected to just behave like adults. Sorry young people, it’s one of those irritating times when someone older than you says, “When you’re my age, you’ll think differently.” It’s the annoying truth.
I have been working in web since 2000, but I started going to industry conferences when I was 29 years old. By this point, I had already had a myriad of terrible things happen to me. I had experience with people who have mental illness; my childhood was not ideal; I had been attacked by men; and I'd been drugged at bars. I was pretty up on my awareness that there was plenty of bad in the world. I am also not a person who hero worships anyone, aside from my Mom and my recently deceased Grandmother (who are both the best people in the universe).
My first conference felt like home. I was so incredibly excited to learn new things, to know that other people cared about having their code organized. People cared about user experience and wanted to make products not only sell money, but actually be good for the people who bought it. I saw all the good things that existed, and still exist about the web community. I got to meet the people who wrote the books that I had been reading, the ones who I quoted to my boss to try and get him to let me invest the time to fix our site, claiming that I could increase our profits by changing a few flows (I did rock that shit btw and got a massive bonus - yay me, my web team and boss).
I was starting to see these speakers as role models. They were people who I aspired to be like and who were inspiring me to change the web! (I too, smell the cheese here, but I’m being honest.)
After meeting my ex, who spoke at conferences and is moderately ‘web famous’, I started to meet even more speakers. I saw how the younger people flocked to these folks, literally following them around like puppies. SxSW was the most dramatic of these events, with the non-stop drinking and festival-like atmosphere. Speakers were not just smart people with good ideas, they were rockstars. Rockstars with groupies.
Then I noticed that a reasonable percentage of these speakers really did see themselves like rockstars; they were behaving like complete and utter assholes. I would joke that within the first 3 slides you could tell if someone was at the conference to try and pick up. Showing pictures of their kids and talking about how they make pretty babies, but no mention of their wife. Shots of themselves leaning up against walls with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, or something else that should be on an album cover. It bordered on the ridiculous. People have been going to industry conferences for years and years to cheat on their spouses. This is not anything new or revolutionary. But when you put someone in the position of power, as a speaker, as a role model, and then create an atmosphere of free booze around them, you are pretty much lining up their prey.
Breaking bad in the web
The stuff I’ve been hearing of goes well above and beyond just cheating on partners too. There is a layer of sinister terrible in our speaking community that just makes me want to scream. Guys who have documented records as sexual offenders, right down to wearing an ankle bracelet while they were speaking at a conference. Guys who systematically try to destroy the career and reputation of the women they are victimizing after they are done with them. Guys who take advantage of the incredibly drunk at the various events, with varying degrees of sexual assault. Not to mention the lesser, but still poignant, super douches who are just completely disdainful of any women who are speaking at a conference because they seemingly can only learn from a person if they have been coding with their penis, or drawing with a stylus duct taped to their cock.
Sadly, my vagina was not great at coding; the keyboard kept getting sticky. But it did happen to be really great at organization, so I got to teach a class about project management at Tech4Africa, while I was working at Apple. I personally did not run into men dissing me for being a woman at the conference, but I did have a few in my class that just hated project managers at large, which is not a new struggle I’ve had to encounter in tech. Why they were taking a class about project management is another puzzle altogether. I have to give mad props to that entire conference, the organizational team, and all the people who I met there. To my knowledge, all the women speakers were treated with nothing but respect and I hope that others will use it as a model of how to run a conference properly. The people who I met there continue to be some of the most supportive of me to this day.
The speaker community is not that freaking large. I’m sure people who are running conferences have to have heard about these people and know who they are. It is our responsibility as ‘elders of the tribe’ to keep these people away from a position of power and not make them role models to our already compromised youth. There are SO MANY other good people out there to choose from. The web community is lousy with smart, amazing people, who genuinely care about their topic of choice. We need to make this a safe space for people to learn and be inspired again. It is just a sad truth that the narcissistic manipulators among us are really drawn to that sort of thing because it gives them the praise they need to feel good about themselves and the opportunity to wreak havoc on those who idolize them.
So what do we do?
We the people, the good people, have a responsibility to stop bad things from happening when we see them happening. We have to be good role models for our young people. How can we expect the teenagers to stop recording rapes on their phones when we just watch the known speaker predator chatting up the young girl at the conference event as she downs the free martinis and tweet non specific snarky things? A quick, “Hey, do you know he’s married and has done this to many girls before you?” or “That guy is really quite the asshole” or “You should really stay away from Speaker-Predator” would be a good start. If a girl looks a little too drunk, take her back to her hotel. Friends, go to conferences together. At school, we had ‘designated thinkers’ who would keep tabs on the other people they went out with to make sure no one went home with a random stranger. This saved me from having a very bad night a few times when someone put something in my drink.
I met my ex at a conference and he was married at the time. I was helping out a friend who was speaking and had made a microformats cheat sheet that he was going to give out at his talk. The ex actively pursued me at this conference, but I didn’t really know of him, so wasn’t aware of his circumstances. Other people knew he was married though. They knew he was married when he was giving me back rubs, when we sat and chatted for 6 hours straight, and when he followed me up to my hotel room. No one said anything. I later noticed the ring and sent him on his way that night. Clearly, we ended up together later after chatting online for a while (there was a lot of misinformation I was given), but I wonder what would have happened if someone had tried to talk to me about it right then.
Conference organizers need to seriously step up. I know that a lot of things are starting to be put in place to include women speakers, begin organizing codes of conduct for events, and otherwise restore conferences to their intended purpose, but a lot more still needs to happen. I don’t know what the answer is here. Blacklists for people who use conferences as hunting grounds? How official or unofficial this could be is beyond my legal knowledge.
I just know that apathy is not the answer. In order to be a good person, you not only have to not do bad things, you have to stop bad things from happening whenever you can. I know that’s how I’m going to raise my son, and I would hope that the good people out there will not only feel the same way, but act on it. We’ll all be better off for it. Remember, we are a community, a family, and families have to look out for each other.