“Speaking up every. Fucking. Time”

How one feminist publisher is taking on the worst of Silicon Valley (and some of her allies, too)

By Elizabeth Spiers
Illustrations by Victo Ngai


The last time I heard directly from Shanley Kane, it was by email.

“Leave me the fuck alone and don’t ever contact me again,” she wrote, before launching into a two-day Twitter barrage demanding that I stop harassing her, her friends, and her family, and calling me a stalker. It might have been fair, or at least accurate, if I were doing any of the above.

There are a few of my recent life experiences that I’d put into a category of “almost more trouble than it’s worth.” Training for a long distance race in single-digit weather; attempting to get Time Warner Cable to explain how it had double-charged me for six months of service; and now, writing about an up-and-coming website and its intriguing but controversial founder. All of these things have redeeming value, though unless you enjoy the idea of freezing slowly while still moving, or are a connoisseur of soul-destroying hold music, the first two have some obvious downsides.

The negative side of the third only became apparent when the subject in question, Shanley Kane, alerted anyone who was following her that my story was in the works, and attributed all manner of bad faith—and a few colorful adjectives—to me, my journalistic process, and my ethics.

Kane is the 27-year-old cocreator and now sole proprietor of Model View Culture, an indie website and print quarterly that publishes essays and interviews about tech culture and diversity. When Matter approached me about profiling Kane, I was already familiar with her site’s long, thoughtful articles, a few of which I’d read and passed around myself. I knew less about Kane, mainly that her name had surfaced in some controversies on Twitter. She often met with disagreements by using various profanities to describe her opponent, which seemed like an odd contrast to the tone and style of the site she ran. Her anger was part of what made people uncomfortable, because that’s what female anger does generally to men—even when it’s obviously and unqualifiedly justified.

Earlier this year the New York Times fired its executive editor, Jill Abramson, with the ostensible rationale that she had not managed her newsroom well. When pressed to explain what that meant, Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, talked specifically about her management style, which could be brusque and “bossy”. Others referred to her habit of shouting at staff, and reports included a heated argument with her male second-in-command that ended in him slamming his hand against a wall. Her inappropriate displays of anger got her fired; his seeming restraint saw him promoted in her place.

https://twitter.com/shanley/status/440596535105970176

So I was thinking about Jill Abramson when my editor called. I was crunched for time because of my upcoming wedding, and it wasn’t something I needed to do professionally or financially, but I kept thinking about Kane’s palpable anger on Twitter and how people were reacting to it—how unacceptable it seemed to be to some people in the tech community and whether it would be viewed the same way if she were a man. I’m also a former indie publisher myself, and I was interested in how Kane planned to make the site work, which I know from experience is not easy.

The more I read, the more curious I was. For many of us who do this for a living, being able to indulge that curiosity and find out what’s really going on is what makes any of it worth it, even when it turns out to be a lot of trouble.

That’s when I flew to San Francisco to meet Shanley Kane.

It was last year that her journey from activist to publisher really began. In August 2013, Bryan Goldberg, a founder of the sports website Bleacher Report, announced that he’d raised $6.5 million in funding for Bustle, a new site targeting women. “Isn’t it time for a women’s publication that puts world news and politics alongside beauty tips?” he wrote, before explaining that “knowing the difference between mascara, concealer, and eyeliner is not my job.”

The news was criticized by women, publishers, and women’s publishers. Among them was Kane, who worked as a product manager for a San Francisco tech company. She tweeted her disgust. “I’m pretty sure I taste blood in my mouth every time I read about this Bustle shit. Fuck. It.”

Along with her friend Amelia Greenhall, Kane saw Bustle as an indicator of how the technology industry marginalized women, and failed to fund and support female entrepreneurs the way it did their male counterparts—even when those men were working on products that specifically targeted women. They also thought coverage of Bustle’s launch was symptomatic of larger corruptions in technology media.

So they did what any good entrepreneurs do when they spot a market for a product that doesn’t exist: They decided to make it themselves. Model View Culture was born soon after.

With a name that played on programming jargon, Kane and Greenhall defined it as “an independent media platform covering technology, culture, and diversity.” It started publishing in January, producing an online issue every three weeks, each featuring 10 or so articles, as well as a quarterly print publication that costs $60 a year.

For anyone interested in how women and minorities are treated in technology, Model View Culture had an immediate impact. Its message resonated with many who felt that the industry hadn’t truly welcomed them, or believed that its layers of privilege—combined with the wholesale belief that Valley culture exemplifies meritocracy—had unfairly advantaged the Valley’s dominant archetype: white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, straight engineers.

A large part of the site’s appeal was Kane herself: in particular, her approach to her opponents. She was unafraid to go after people she thought were part of the problem, and some of her tactics were contentious. On Twitter, particularly, her reactions were visceral: all-caps denunciations telling the relevant offenders to fuck off, calling them assholes and pieces of shit.

In some cases, these were reactions to comments made at her—often the predictable, creepy barrage of misogynistic blather that gets directed to women who write about gender and inequality issues (or women who write in public, period).

Sometimes they were primal battle cries of a sort—a protest against the injustices that seem to pile up every week, ranging from the grossly insensitive to the overtly criminal. It is easy to be with her in spirit after incidents like that of RadiumOne CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, who was fired in April, far too late and far too reluctantly by his board of directors after he pleaded guilty to battery for beating his partner (hitting her 117 times in half an hour).

In other situations, though, her censure seemed inexplicable or wildly disproportionate to the purported crime. Sometimes she was reacting fiercely to people of both genders who were simply asking questions or mildly dissenting to what she was saying. Sometimes it was impossible to even trace what the FUCK YOUs were in response to. Would-be allies were shot down for not behaving appropriately, whether their behavior was a function of willful ignorance, or naïveté, or something undecipherable.

The Twitter conversations—if you can call them that—were striking all the more because Kane’s more formal articles seemed to be written by an almost entirely different person. They were long, analytical pieces with an academic bent, advocating for things like better mechanisms for conflict resolution, more robust and proactive HR departments that prioritize diversity, or alternative approaches rather than simply telling women to “lean in” in order to succeed.

Kane’s passion, frustration, and anger still come through in some of her long-form writing, though. In a now-deleted Medium post titled “An Open Letter to Women Who Work in Technology,” Kane wrote:

Make no fucking mistake that you occupy your cushy tech salary, your mid-level management job, your paltry access to power by permission of the patriarchy. It is a deal with the devil. They will pay you, and let you make small career advances, in exchange for acting more like a poster child than a revolutionary, more like a mother than a peer, more like a secretary than a boss. In exchange for you shutting the fuck up, in exchange for you being content with your cute women-in-technology dinners, in exchange for your affirmative-action speaking slots, in exchange for you focusing more on “community building” than burning shit down.

It was a polemic against ambivalence and complacency and, more important, a demand that women be aware of their complicity when they allow themselves to be ambivalent and complacent. It would have been far less effective if she’d simply written something more diplomatic, like, “Maybe we should all think about how we’re allowing ourselves to be incentivized to keep quiet.”

Julie Pagano, a software engineer and diversity campaigner, has written about this phenomenon—and points out that “being an ally does not shield you from criticism when you make mistakes.” But it’s hard to see how simply telling someone to go fuck themselves or calling them an asshole is a criticism of a mistake in any meaningful sense. “Stop doing this asshole-ish thing” and “you are an asshole” are two distinct sentiments. One is a criticism of a mistake; the other is a sweeping character judgment. It’s not an issue of tone; the anger is apparent in both statements. It’s an issue of content.

In one sense, Kane’s barnburning approach can be useful. It certainly underscores the urgency of the problems she talks about. Kane is fighting a war, and any crimes real or perceived will be met with total social media annihilation—an effective tactic, but one that fails to take into account a key tenet of modern ethics: proportion. When does boneheaded insensitivity deserve an accusation of boneheaded insensitivity and when does it deserve total denunciation?

Over the course of a weekend in San Francisco, I met and interviewed Kane three times: Dinner one evening, lunch the next day, and then tea that afternoon.

She was reserved but not shy, and certainly not meek, which is what people often think of women who are not demonstrative or outgoing. That reserve made dinner—a vegetarian meal and a couple of glasses of wine—a pretty staid affair, but when we got to the subject of what activists are doing in technology, and where Model View Culture fits, she lit up. Kane had a deep sense of activist history, and talked about creating a movement that was far more inclusive: thinking about what trans men experience in the industry, for example, or how queer influence on technology has been essentially erased, even though gay people were instrumental in developing some of the first social apps because there weren’t safe ways to meet and date openly.

Kane is petite and her style a little gothy—black hair, black clothes, black eyeliner. It was sort of what I’d imagined from her online persona, but also not exactly: After all, she also has a penchant for posting photos of bunnies (she has a pet rabbit named Marzipan) and exclamations about lip gloss that she likes.

She spoke with a bit of a Midwestern lilt, and paused every now and then to think of what she wanted to say, punctuating funny stories with a dry laugh.

“I was kind of a fuckup in high school,” she said. “I kind of cleaned up my act a bit in college, started focusing and studying.”

In fact, her professional trajectory was similar to that of many people who leave home for college and then move to other, larger cities for their career. Originally from Minnesota, she went to Columbia College in Chicago, where she studied fiction writing. She read and enjoyed Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and the usual “old dead white men,” as she put it.

She followed that with a master’s degree in professional writing at Carnegie Mellon, with a focus on technical writing, and finished her degree right after she turned 22. Then she moved to San Francisco, which she pictured as a culture with “lots of queer stuff, lots of liberated people and just a hippie, good place I was excited about.”

She got an entry-level job working at a tech PR firm. The staff was made up primarily of women, but the company was owned by four men. “Those companies really mill out young women,” she said. Eventually she went to work for one of her clients, an enterprise software company, as an early hire.

By the time Bryan Goldberg made his Bustle announcement, Kane was working at Basho, an open-source database company, giving industry talks on how to scale product management and organizing hackathons. In November 2013, shortly before Model View Culture launched, she quit her job to work on the site full-time. Leaving for her own start-up made her happier than she’d been in years: She didn’t have to report to anyone anymore, and could do something that aligned with her values. “I’ve been reporting to abusive and/or incompetent men my entire career, so I feel very free from that negative influence,” she said.

Independence clearly matters to her, but as we sipped colorfully named brews at a teahouse, she expressed some conflictedness about how some of the more visible activists operate.

“One thing I’ve struggled with is that I don’t relate much to the ‘women in tech’ movement,” she said, as we sat cross-legged at a low table. “A lot of the effort I find to be very apolitical or safe, very tame and ultimately ineffectual, like, ‘Let’s have a wine and cheese dinner for women in tech and talk about networking,’ while that doesn’t really produce change in the system.”

She hesitated, sighed.

“I obviously don’t want to fight with other women, especially in public, because that just gives men so much more to go on. On the other hand, there are so many women in tech, specifically white women. You’re talking about a group of people who are some of the most affluent women in the world. And it can be difficult to watch women in that position refuse to even take a small stand on some pretty serious issues.”

She also believes that taking a stand entails forcing people to change. “Venture capitalists, left to their own devices, are not going to suddenly start funding more diverse groups,” she said. “If you can make a massive PR scandal for them that will threaten their reputation and will threaten the interest of their limited partners, then you might force them to change.”

For all her criticism of Silicon Valley’s start-up entrepreneurs, though, she is proud to be the founder of a young company in San Francisco that (unlike many of its peers) actually generates income. Despite this, she was guarded whenever the question of Model View Culture’s progress came up, refusing to go into specific numbers in terms of revenue or even site traffic. “Women and people who work in the space get subjected to a ridiculous amount of scrutiny,” she said. “People will find anything that they can on me to criticize me or criticize my company, so if I say how much we’re making, people will be like, oh, that’s not enough money. Or if we’re making a lot of money, it’s like, oh, you’re profiting off of it.”

Still, Kane said the company is profitable so far, and her focus is on making sure it sustains itself and continues to grow. She doesn’t view it as the beginning of a media empire, but would like to be able to do some modest expansions, perhaps a news component at some point.

Today, though, it is a small affair, and Kane spends most of her time working from her apartment. She described herself as someone who doesn’t like a lot of people, though she has a small circle of close friends and supporters she sees periodically.

That circle had just drawn a little closer: A few days before I met with Kane, Greenhall, Model View Culture’s cofounder, announced that she had left the company.

“It was important for me to build a business which could be run sustainably, for years, with a long-term goal of working only 40-50 hours a week and being able to take weekends off, and occasional vacations,” Greenhall wrote on her blog. “However, it became clear that my cofounder had a different vision for the future of the company that wasn’t compatible with those values, and our visions differed enough that we could no longer successfully continue to be business partners.”

Kane agreed that being a publisher has been a lot more work than she anticipated, but said the workload is outweighed by the gratifications of running an independent publication. (Greenhall did not respond to a request for comment.)

And then there is an added motivation: If she realizes her vision of a small, self-sufficient media outfit, Model View Culture could be unlike much of what exists in tech press. It wouldn’t have the inherent conflicts of Pando, the website where Goldberg made his Bustle announcement, which is funded by some of the same people it would ostensibly cover.

“Tech PR is a very broken industry in a lot of ways,” Kane said. “It’s in the middle of two sides of corruption. You have your client on one hand and then you have the tech press on the other.”

I asked her if she thinks the tech press as a whole is corrupt. “Yeah, absolutely,” she said. “A lot of it is funded by the VCs and it’s directly funded by money from tech companies in the form of advertising, so it’s inherently incapable of being able to report honestly on the industry.”

I’m skeptical about the ability of specific outlets to be fair when their investors can, and do, affect coverage. But for most news-driven journalistic outlets, the business and editorial sides are separated by what industry people call the Chinese wall. It means that in most cases, reporters aren’t even aware of what’s happening on the business side. I ask about Valleywag, the muckraking tech site that’s part of Gawker Media, in particular. Its owner and publisher, Nick Denton, takes great pride in its editorial independence. (I was the founding editor of Gawker, and think Nick would rather lose an arm than allow an advertiser to kill or manipulate a story. Sometimes I think he even takes a perverse joy in telling them no.)

Here, her critique is a little different: It’s one of substance, not corruption. “Valleywag is like a petulant child that pretends to take a critical stance toward technology, but at the end of the day they’re essentially a tabloid,” she said. “It doesn’t create any cultural change… it’s entertainment.”

https://twitter.com/shanley/status/458346237612138496

She also objects to its relentless coverage of companies owned by young white men, even if it’s mostly skewering them. “Why is there no investigative journalism [in tech]?” she said. “The closest we get is a Vanity Fair piece about the Google founder and his affair,” she says, referring to a 2014 article about Sergey Brin’s love life.

Kane views Model View Culture as a longer-term antidote to that: all substance, no frill, no entertainment. It is, unsurprisingly, an uncompromising, hardline view.

By the end of our time together, we had talked for more than four hours—quite a lot for somebody who is fundamentally a bit of an introvert and probably exhausted by long conversations with strangers. She was willing to talk more, though, and answered nearly all of my questions, but she also seemed relieved when the interviews ended, happy to get back to work and to Marzipan.

When we concluded our last interview, I reminded Kane that I was going to speak to people who could discuss Model View Culture, what it was doing, and its impact. I asked her to suggest people I could talk to, people who would be familiar with both the site and with her.

On Monday June 9, I sent her a reminder email. A curt reply came back: Kane said she had considered the request, and said she didn’t realize my reporting would mean I would talk to other people. She asked me not to subject her friendships to “public scrutiny” and said she didn’t want me to talk to anyone.

At this point, I knew Kane was familiar with the process of reporting, and how journalists—ethical ones, at least—don’t allow the subject to dictate who they speak to, or what they ask. Not only had we talked about it several times, but her professional background included a stint in a PR firm. So it seemed disingenuous at best, and manipulative at worst, to feign ignorance of the fact that profiling her would involve talking to other people. In order to believe that was the case, I’d have to believe that she didn’t listen to a word I said about process, and that the entire time she was working in a firm whose express purpose was to interact with journalists, she managed to learn nothing about how journalism worked. I didn’t think that was the case: Kane is intelligent, she understands media and is a frequent critic of it. But I had introduced an element that she couldn’t entirely control—conversations with other people—and that made her uncomfortable.

I thought her response was, to use a Shanleyism, “total fucking bullshit.” So I sent her an email back explaining the reporting process again and noting that I was asking for suggestions, not permission, which was something I did not need.

Shortly afterward, Kane emailed back: “Leave me the fuck alone and do not contact me again.”

Over the course of the following day, she posted pieces of our email exchange to Twitter, along with dozens of other tweets claiming that I was harassing her, contacting her friends and family against her will, and cyberstalking her. In all caps she tweeted, “LEAVE. ME. ALONE.”

This created the impression that I was not—intentionally, I think. In fact, I hadn’t contacted her, beyond a final note that I’d send her an obligatory request for comment before the story was filed. Even more surprising was the allegation that I was harassing her family and friends. I still don’t know anything about Kane’s family, except what she told me: that they don’t work in technology and are proud of what she’s done with Model View Culture. Despite this, later that week, she took further action: She removed all her posts from Medium, deleted her account, and made her Twitter account private (it has since been opened to the public again).

https://twitter.com/shanley/status/453582856216780800

By this point, I was familiar enough with Kane’s MO to expect that if there was a single thing I’d written that she didn’t like, I would be on the receiving end of a tweet instructing me to perform the physically impossible act of having sexual intercourse with myself. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would happen before I’d written a word of the story.

I don’t take issue with the contention that my emails after her claims of ignorance were “condescending.” I get condescending when I get angry, especially when I feel like I’m being pushed around or manipulated. I’m not proud of it: If I were to redo those emails, I would react a little less strongly (although I find it ironic that some of Shanley’s followers, upon encountering an angry woman who isn’t Shanley, take issue with those emails because they didn’t like my tone). As a reporter, I know it’s important to try to separate personal emotional reactions in order to give everyone a fair shake—even if the subject in question is calling you an asshole on Twitter and maligning your ethics.

Do I think the offense warranted her barrage? No. But it is in keeping with Kane’s strategy of going after mosquitoes with machine guns. In terms of sheer efficacy, it definitely gets people’s attention.

Ultimately, if I had been working on an “investigative profile” of Shanley Kane, as one of her followers alleged, that would have been a shame—resources aimed in the wrong direction. There are many opportunities to cover tech in the way that, say, Wall Street is covered, but investigative reporting is an expensive and labor-intensive job, and the people who are equipped to do it tend to gravitate to severe stories from conflict zones, wide-scale corruption, and so on.

This is something I’d asked Kane about when she would still talk to me. “There has to be something between that type of investigative journalism and the bullshit that covers tech,” she said. “Why is there none of that? I mean, women get raped by their bosses in tech all the time. No one fucking writes about that.”

Except there are outlets writing about that: They are just ones that she doesn’t entirely like. On Twitter, she describes Valleywag’s coverage of violence against women in tech as “media fetishism” and accuses the site of using “[female] pain as currency.” As a responsible media outlet, you should be covering violence against women, but if you do—at least for an outlet Kane disapproves of—you’re obviously just exploiting female pain.

And Model View Culture also writes about stories like that, just not in an investigative tradition. It features the recollections of people who’ve had those experiences, mostly anonymously. And if it expands the way she would like it to, there would probably be more of it. If that happens, I don’t expect that it will be comfortable to read, or that her approach will change very much.

But if she is successful, Kane will also have to wrestle with her inner conflict about what it means to publish—which is an inherently public act, by definition—and whether the risks and downsides continue to be worth it. Because there are risks and downsides to being public, whether in the context of her activism or her notoriety. Visibility for women and marginalized groups presents risk that it does not for people higher up the privilege scale, and I know from personal experience that being a woman who writes often results in semiliterate threats, harassment, and unsolicited assessment of one’s fuckability—even when your topics are things like interest rate policy and alternative energy sources. And every female writer I know has experience with stalkers. It’s despicable and inexcusable, and the only way to avoid it entirely is to not publish in the first place.

I do not believe, however, that the potential for vulnerability is a blanket immunization from criticism or coverage, especially for those who build professional identities around holding others to certain standards. Sensitivity to privacy issues, yes: There’s no information about Kane herself in this article that you couldn’t glean from her Twitter feed, or other information she’s already published, except maybe the sound of her voice and the color of the clothes she wears. This was a choice on my part, not a journalistic obligation—but agreeing to censor coverage because threats and critiques could escalate would preclude any journalism the subject wasn’t comfortable with for any reason at all, including not being able to control every single element of the story. Kane was happy to give an interview to another website a few days later, and had published far more about this story on her Twitter and on Model View Culture than anyone else, until we ran the version you’re reading now. Many of you wouldn’t have seen it at all were it not for Kane drawing attention to it. For someone who views visibility as a liability, she tends to publish at a volume and frequency that would suggest otherwise.

But this, too, is a tactic, and one familiar to anyone who’s worked in PR. It’s called “getting in front of” a story.

So if, on the way to the revolution, Shanley Kane takes out a few allies with friendly fire, I’m sympathetic to the people on the receiving end of it. But I also want several of the same things that she wants—things that the tech industry would already have if it were the progress-oriented utopia it aspires to be: diversity, equality, and a culture that valued its workers as full human beings.

And it would be naïve to think that this would be accomplished entirely by the tonally appropriate, the consummate diplomats, the people who always control their anger in public and never call anyone a shithead. “Speaking up every. Fucking. Time,” as she puts it, is done in a variety of ways, and big societal advances are never the result of monolithic strategies or tactics. Someone occasionally has to “burn shit down.” And Kane is good at burning shit down.

What remains to be seen is whether her sometimes gleeful arson, which often seems like an end in itself, also puts what she’s trying to build at risk. It’s difficult to build a media operation while refusing to engage with the subjects of the stories you’re trying to tell. And needless to say, you can’t call those subjects shitheads on Twitter in the course of reporting, even if you think it’s warranted.

But it might not matter, because right now the most compelling thing Model View Culture does is not news; it’s commentary. It’s Kane’s thinking about how the industry fails women and minorities and how it is willfully, sometimes criminally, oblivious. That is what put her on many people’s radar in the first place, and why her articles have been shared and republished and discussed. And it would probably be the case even if she were not engaging in fights with people.

And, yes, Kane is capable of behaving like a jerk. I’ve profiled public company CEOs with armies of publicists who haven’t tried to manipulate a story as much as she has. But the only thing that really tells me is that she’s a flawed human being, just like everyone else. (And that maybe she knows quite a bit more about media and interacting with reporters than she’s indicating on Twitter.)

But important work gets done every day by flawed people, sometimes even by assholes. No one should be more aware of that than people who work in the tech industry, where many of the vaunted innovators and revolutionaries were not warm, fuzzy people. Ultimately, they’re judged by their work.

This piece was written by Elizabeth Spiers, edited by Bobbie Johnson, fact-checked by Kyla Jones, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi.

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