The Riptide of Titstare

Where old media bros meet new media bros

It is unfortunate for John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan that they released their report, “Riptide: What Really Happened to the News Business,” on the same day that two Australian hackers presented an app on the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon stage called “Titstare.”

One was a report generated out of an in-depth, wide-ranging series of interviews about the collision of old media with the encroaching realities of digital technology from 1980 to the present. The other was an app designed for men to take pictures of themselves “staring at tits.”

What do these two things have in common?

Well, I’ll tell you, Jethro! They are both the result of a near-homogeneous assemblage of mostly men across an industry where women are marginalized and/or rendered less visible.

The three “Riptide” authors interviewed 61 people, 54 of whom were white men. (Five white women, two Indian men.) These interviews, they claimed, represented “a broad but select group” of “primary participants” and from their recollections they extrapolated “what really happened to the news business.”

As the Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson noted, “that’s a 100 percent white male group using 90 percent white male perspective on the changes in journalism field and calling it a defining narrative.

The words “women” “gender” “hispanic” “diversity” “minorities” “Latino” or “African-American” are not included in the report.

After the predictable blowback about Riptide’s lack of diversity (predictable to anyone who is conscious of diversity issues, that is), the authors doubled down on their choices in a blog post, saying that they’d “sought to interview many of the key people” in the institutions key to their story, and “at that time, they were, regrettably, overwhelmingly white and male.”

TechCrunch Disrupt, too, is, regrettably, overwhelmingly white and male. The speaker lineupis consistently 80+% men, with women typically clustered in judging-panel roles (as opposed to fireside chat keynotes or panel participants). Alexia Tsotsis is one of two top editors at TechCrunch and she, and Leena Rao and other women in the TC editorial lineup, are active presences onstage, and push back strongly against sexism in print and in person. But still, the ratios register a massive majority for men on stage.

(In 2010, after a blowup about the role of women at TechCrunch triggeredby a comment I made about those ratios, the conference added a last-minute panel of all women to talk about the issue, which opened with the moderator, TechCrunch then-columnist Sarah Lacy, complaining about having to talk about the issue. That was the last time the issue was addressed as part of the TCD lineup.)

And so, it is into that environment that the Titstare gents confidently walked. They thought their idea was hilarious, a bit of harmless humor. They didn’t think it was a big deal, because nothing about the place where they were presenting made them think it would be. Boys will be boys, and where it’s mostly boys around to reinforce those norms, the lines between what’s cool to say in a professional context relax and blur. (Two words: Booth babes.) Dissent will tend to be shushed, and people who object will be told to calm down and learn to take a joke. And because such “jokes” have minimal negative feedback, it’s less noticeable when envelopes are pushed. That’s how these things usually happen — someone gets a bit too comfortable, and a line is crossed. But the comfort comes from somewhere.

And so, back to Riptide. If Messrs. Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan are outraged that I would draw a causal line directly between their hallowed journalistic report and a pair of doofuses joking about boobs, well, that’s because there is one. It’s impossible not to look at the collection of faces they assembled for their interviews and not see that same comfort — the comfort that this is the community worth talking to, listening to, considering, including. That’s the comfort of the status quo, of the majority pretty cool with the way things are, of privilege unruffled by its origins and effects. That’s the comfort of a 100 percent white male group using 90 percent white male perspective calling it a defining narrative.

Back in April, when Adria Richards called out dudes making jokes about dongles behind her at a conference, the then-CTO of Business Insider, a guy by the name of Pax Dickinson, tweeted that “if overhearing a mild silly joke about “dongles” is enough to drive a woman out of tech, we probably don’t need her.” Dickinson never questioned that he belonged to the “we” and that that “we” got to decide whether someone like Adria Richards was in or out.

Dickinson was also extremely outspoken on Twitter. “Outspoken,” as in, he’d tweet things like, “Women’s suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. How’s that for an unpopular truth?” and “A man who argues on behalf of feminism is a tragic figure of irony, like a Jewish Nazi” and “Who has more dedication, ambition, and drive? Kobe only raped one girl, Lebron raped an entire city. +1 for Lebron.” Amazingly, he’s got worse. (Yes, even worse. Note the date.) His Twitter feed was not unknown to his colleagues and superiors.

His version of the “we” was one where there were few repercussions with speaking his mind, and anyone claiming otherwise was a whiner (here’s him dismissing claims that women get harrassed online: “that’s not the experience of myself or anyone I know. There may be some mild insensitivity but slurs & threats? Never.”) People around him got used to him and his firebrand ways, and he got used to them being used to it. That complacency lasted until earlier this week, when Valleywag posted a bunch of his tweets in a veritable bro-splosion, and the outrage suddenly bro-sploded back. He was fired the next day.

These things are all linked. You can say — and some will! — that it’s just a few bad apples, but they’re pretty damn comfortable in the bunch, and for the most part, the bunch seems to like them apples fine. This isn’t about Titstare or Pax Dickinson, though. It’s about the communities wherein they find it so easy to thrive. It not an accident that, in those same communities, the thriving of women and minorities is fewer and further between.

And so, we’re back to Riptide. The authors had nothing to do with the TechCrunch presentation, would likely recoil from Pax Dickinson’s ouevre — and yet, the currents swirling around the past few days have everything to do with them. It’s what happens when the easy flow of the status quo meets the rush of a new reality, asserting itself from outside the comfort zone.

It’s a tide that is turning. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Rachel Sklar is the founder of TheLi.st, and a frequent writer on media, tech & culture. If you like this post, you’ll like TheLi.st newsletter, for which you may sign up here. Photo via the excellent Scouting NY. Soundtrack in my brain writing this via Martin Hamlisch & Edward Kleban.

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