What It’s Like to Be A Woman On the Internet
In July of 2017, I wrote an article on Medium that NewCo published entitled What It’s Like to Be a Woman at a Tech Conference. When it was first posted, it went viral, and the blank faced image of me giving a thumbs up in the middle of a crowded wine cave full of men (taken by a coworker at a tech conference in Napa) became a well-known symbol of women in tech. Over the last couple years, folks have recognized me at conferences I speak at and say things like “you’re the girl from that article!” all over the world (London, Vancouver, Italy, Atlanta, Kansas City — you get the point), and someone once shared with me that the thumbs-up image became a Slack emoji reaction for their engineering teams. I’ve been incredibly moved by men and women thanking me for the perspective and sharing my insight into what it’s like to function as a gender minority in the software engineering world. If you’re unfamiliar with my brand, I’m a quirky white girl who wears bows in her hair, loves pink glittery things, owns too many enamel lapel pins, and has a bit of a LaCroix obsession; a stark contrast from your typical male engineer in a Patagonia jacket who studied computer science at Stanford (in fact, I have a theatre degree).
These days I work at Microsoft as a Developer Advocate. If you’re unfamiliar with Developer Relations, I’ll give you the TLDR: Typically, I have described my role as a “liaison between customers and engineers”, or “an extroverted engineer” (only partially true for me, as I’m an ambivert). My job involves using my engineering skills to help educate other developers how to do things well with Microsoft’s tools (I also do fun hacking on Furby dolls sometimes, and make fun Android apps - it’s a pretty sweet gig). In a way, working as a Developer Advocate involves being a public face for an engineering tool/brand/product- its equal parts marketing/branding/engineering/ educating. I often keynote at conferences in other countries, speak at local Bay Area meet-ups, and get to meet a lot of cool smart people around the world.
On Friday January 11th, 2019, I had just hopped into an Uber home and began to browse Twitter. My notifications were normal for the most part- some friends tagging me in RuPaul’s Drag Race memes, followers asking “Will you be at [insert tech conference here] this year??”, and some likes on a post I had made earlier about Furby hacking. To set the stage, I’m by no means “a celebrity”, but I’ve had a tweet of me posing in an empty women’s restroom go viral (not as sexy as it sounds - see below), and I’ve been known to do a #ad campaign or two for ModCloth or other techy/nerdy clothing companies in the past. I love social media (maybe a little too much, according to the Digital Wellness app on my Pixel), and I often use Twitter and Instagram as a platform to share my experience as a woman in tech. Much to my friends’ dismay - I keep my DMs open. I’ve gotten many amazing speaking opportunities through my DMs, and have met some amazing friends from Twitter in real life.
So, when I received a tweet that said something along the lines of “@ChloeCondon is this you?!” that day, I almost didn’t click it…
Sometimes, I’m unable to check all my notifications and DMs - especially on this particular day where I had been in several coffee meetings across town and hadn’t had much downtime on my phone. I originally assumed the link would take me to yet another BitCoin/Crypto/Blockchain article that I had been tagged in (you can read more here about that ridiculousness, or you can watch the 1st seven minutes of this keynote I gave at DjangoCon in 2018). But as I opened the link into Instagram and began to read the caption/comments, my blood began to boil.
As you can see from the image, some person I had never met or heard of named “Tee Medlin” had posted the well known image of me from my 2017 article with a caption saying I was stalking him. I scanned the comments, mouthed “What the FUCK?” several times, and raced up the stairs to my apartment to hop on WiFi and tweet about it.
Here’s the crazy part- the pure happenstance of the situation is insane to comprehend. Someone who follows me on Twitter, who had read my article at some point, saw a man he knows from North Carolina on his feed, saw the Instagram post featuring my image, and tweeted it to me because he recognized it and thought it was odd. Tee Medlin’s Instagram account has since been deleted (it’s unclear if this was done by him, or the fine engineers over at Instagram). I think that if the stars hadn’t aligned, and if the acquaintance of Tee who found the image hadn’t tweeted this to me, AND I hadn’t by chance took the time to click/look at the link, all of Tee’s behavior would have gone completely unnoticed. My photo would have sat there, along with the “funny” comments and likes until the internet/planet get destroyed someday. The amount serendipity of the situation is difficult to comprehend.
But here we are 2 days and several tweets from Seth Rogen later (there’s a whole thing with a wax statue… it’s hard to explain - just read the thread). Ok, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is the Twitter thread for folks to catch up who haven’t. It’s full of twists and turns, and several rabbit hole threads for you to go down. Would suggest sitting down with a nice glass of Merlot and diving in for an hour:
And no, this isn’t some hacker dude in a basement trying to get credit card info from the elderly (although, it looks like Tee dabbled in some shady business himself - one can find this with a simple Google search of his name). I know there’s lots of “Russian bot” chatter these days, but this is a real-life human man who has faked an entire life for over 5 years. I can assure you, this isn’t artificial intelligence or machine learning - as I said in the recent Mashable article, “However, if I’m wrong, and this is very good AI- congrats to whoever built it because this is groundbreaking work, my friend.”
If you came here for a write-up/breakdown of the thread featuring top secret messages from his friends/acquaintances that DMed me, you can stop reading here. Unfortunately, many folks online have been posting personal information about Mr. Medlin, and I do not condone threats against him or his family in any way. Though I have sufficient cause to believe this is not a hacked account, and that this took some serious time/effort to create such a deep rabbit hole of an online life, I in no way want to ruin this guy’s life. He is likely an individual who is unstable and needs treatment. He has suffered enough, and I am grateful to be given an opportunity now to shed some light on my perspective of this situation as a woman in tech, and a woman on the internet.
While some days on the internet are great, there are are certainly days it becomes a garbage fire. This week’s Twitter adventure, however wasn’t a garbage fire. It was a burning garbage truck that crashed into a gas station — then volunteers put out the fire and my faith in humanity was restored… until the flame started up again and we realized that this fire was bigger than all of us could have ever imagined.
From this experience, I think there are many lessons to be learned. For one, never believe anything you see online. There are already many blogs, books, and films that have already touched on the dangers of looking too deeply into others’ social media presence (Ingrid Goes West does a great job of illustrating this, if you’ve never seen i t- highly recommend 🎬). What we put online is a highlight reel - no one is posting about how badly their break-up is going, how they don’t understand taxes/401k, or how they have a bunch of unpaid parking tickets (ok, except maybe that one crazy high school friend you still follow who is now in a pyramid scheme and ties it all back to Herbalife, but I digress).
Secondly, I’ve learned that while the internet can be awful and insane sometimes, there are truly good people out there as well. The amount of folks, many complete strangers, who helped do all this detective work, commented words of support, and DMed me to check-in on my personal safety and mental health has been amazing and I am thankful. I gained about 5k followers in 2 days, only 2 of which said not-so-nice things. Not a bad average for Twitter for once (although, to be fair, I didn’t get to see every notification as this thing blew up online - so who knows 😅).
And third, and most importantly, that sometimes being a woman on the internet can be a full-time job. As I mentioned before, my role as a Developer Advocate involves a lot content creation, face-to-face interaction, and requires me to have an online social presence. In the past, I’ve dealt with everything from men commenting on online videos of me saying I should “get a tan”, I’ve been DMed creepy messages on Twitter/LinkedIn/Instagram/etc. with messages like “hi”, “nice smile you got there”, and “your beautiful” (I usually respond “ *you’re ”, on that last one), and have even stumbled upon entire forum posts about me and how as a woman with a non-traditional background I’m unqualified to work in tech. Over the last three years, I have learned to brush it off and I almost always “never read the comments” if I know they’re negative (in fact, I have a necklace and pin of the mantra). But these things add up.
In the past, I’ve dealt with this type of harassment with comedy, and a healthy combination of empathy, compassion, and “sick burns”. When I was fed up with getting creepy DMs, I began sending Avengers spoilers to men:
However, not every woman is like me. Not every woman online feels comfortable calling these things out. Not every woman has the online social network that I have. Cyber bullying and online harassment are so common these days that at a certain point I stopped reacting to the amount of inbound variations of “hey ur hott”s I get any given week. In the past, people have recommended I change my profile picture image to a cartoon/drawing, not have open DMs, and list my boyfriend in my Twitter bio. And to that I say “I like how I look”, “I get many professional opportunities in my DMs”, and “lol what is this MySpace? I’m not wasting character count on my relationship status”. But doing so creates more work, and requires more emotional energy to manage.
Ok, before a fine gentleman comments something similar to “Pooooooor Chloe- she gets sooooo many compliments” below - don’t. And if you think sending such messages is “fine” and “not creepy”, I hate to break it to you- it is. Twitter is not a dating site. Neither is Instagram. And especially not LinkedIn. Being a woman online means responding to and ignoring these types of messages, and rolling your eyes at men who actually use the phrase “well, actually” to make sure sure you know that they know things better than you do. It’s obnoxious and incredibly common. Sometimes I completely refrain from posting a strong opinion online, or take extra time to carefully craft a tweet in such a way that the “well, actually” squad doesn’t make an attack. I wish I was joking, but sadly- I’m not. Being a woman on the internet can be terrible sometimes.
Unfortunately, me writing this article isn’t going to fix things overnight. We have a very long way to go until this awful behavior towards women online stops (and let’s face it- it likely never will). But I’m writing this article to shed light on an issue I think most folks (especially men) don’t see a whole lot of since it’s often behind-the-scenes and often only seen by the women who receive them and their partners/close friends. The creepy DMs, the gross messages from dudes on LinkedIn, the blog comments, and the “well actually”s on our tweets add up. It needs to stop.
Obviously, the lovely blokes who send/write/post this kind of trash are likely not reading this article. But for the dudes out there who are angry and want to do something about it, I’ll say this: call out this behavior if you see it happening. Now, I’m not suggesting you “feed the trolls” and come to our rescue in the comments section, but I’m saying we need to teach our friends, children, colleagues, and loved ones not to do this.
Additionally, I would encourage everyone (yes, even women) to take a step back and be aware of how you are engaging with folks online. Are you using a condescending tone? Should you start out a DM with “hey Chloe I’d love some advice on Azure for my team - let’s chat” vs. just a creepy ominous “hey”? Is what you’re about to write necessary? Hurtful? I think we can all stand to be a little more aware of our actions online. I’ve certainly said some not-so-nice things in the past in a fit of frustration. But hey- there’s always the “delete” button… and the ability to apologize.
So what’s next? I don’t know gang. I know that I’ll continue to be an advocate for women in tech and speak out about these issues. I also know that change isn’t coming any time soon when it comes to internet trolls. What I do know, however, is that while the internet has its fair share of garbage humans, it also has some wonderful supportive humans that restore my faith in humanity daily. So, thank you friends- and keep fighting the good internet fight.
Nolite te online trolls carborundorum, y’all 💋 xoxo Chloe
P.S. If you’d like to commemorate the rabbit-hole/clusterf@ck Twitter thread, and want to support Girls Who Code- please consider buying a t-shirt here: https://www.customink.com/fundraising/thumbs-up-for-girls-who-code