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On The Internet, Everyone Knows You’re A Dick

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In light of the recent PyCon debacle in which an offended party publicly shamed two developers at a conference for discussing dongles, I thought it would be interesting to address the problems of “lad culture” on the Internet (and, partially, the Silicon Valley/Alley societies) where wizards stay up late and make dick jokes over IRC.

A close friend of mine asked me why she was never included in a cliquish group of guys who hung out at the same events she visited, and I told her it was because they were, to a degree, facing a very specific and detrimental dilemma. I believe that men/boys in tech are at once inclined to be polite to the point of harm to women – expressing a protective patriarchalism and elevating the woman in the industry to the level of untouchable Madonna – and are also inclined to one-up each other in an electronic form of the dozens, slinging the most outrageous things they can think of in order to make the group laugh. This does not excuse their cliquishness or diminish her hurt at being excluded, but tech culture (and many cultures where men are often alone together socially and professionally and the female is the anomaly) is at once hopelessly awkward and horrible at the same time. I would wager that the men at PyCon were called out not because they were an anomaly, but because they were caught by someone who was angry enough to react.

But something far worse happened after the fact. Dunderheaded jokes at professional conferences are not professional, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the Internet’s immediate and disproportional retribution and the hu´ers that protest far too much.

The great thinker Joel Johnson addressed this problem when he wrote:

This is my theory: outcast cultures, formed by those who feel a shared exclusion from the mainstream, must survive an awkward adolescence before integrating fully back into the culture from which they are spawned. And like most teenagers, there is a lot of whining, misfired blame, and crying about “never asking to be born” before those cultures realize that despite their memory of an idyllic second childhood, everyone must eventually grow up.

The culture that bred the sort of behavior at PyCon is, in short, the same instinct that drives other “outcast cultures” to dress differently, curse authority, and generally be wildly unpleasant to those around them as a protective measure. The same situation would arise at any gathering of nerds, and PyCon, even given the mainstream nature of Python programming, is such a gathering.

Boys clubs are corrosive and dangerous and have, for the most part, been hidden or destroyed over the past few decades. That doesn’t mean that these unique cliques won’t pop up like mold on bread given the right circumstances. And, while I agree that the official reactions were far too harsh for the crimes, it seems that now the complainer, Adria Richards is being attacked by Anonymous, and her personal information is being strewn across the Internet.

This is where the old “Python programmers will be Python programmers” argument breaks down. Because now, when bad behavior happens and someone is upset, an asymmetrical reaction will occur that attempts to protect the group rather than the individual. It is a rancid form of self-protection that wound its way into the depths via Jesse Slaughter, Brian Krebs’ SWATing, and the folk justice meted out by various hordes of Internet vigilantes.

I’ve seen strong, intelligent women stalked online because they were women and their proximity to the things the lads loved was enough to make them targets of derision and anger. The nastiness finds purchase in mundane discussions about one technology versus another, and sexism and misogyny is often celebrated in online forums that, for the vast majority of users, are simply a pleasant diversion. Richards was wrong to publicly shame a pair of dicks, but the reaction to the shamer is far worse.

It needs to stop.

I know this cry into the wilderness will do little to help Richards. However, we as users and creators of technology are partially responsible for the ability of a group of ragers to mass against a common enemy. We take far too much personally and put far too little thought into our straw men.

To defend the laddishness of tech culture is impossible and, I would say, not the point. The laddishness is a product of too much frustration, too much striving, and too much time spent behind the keyboard. When this laddishness metastasize into true hate posing as defense of the herd it becomes truly dangerous. It is a waste of energy akin to methodically lighting a car on fire because you don’t like the song on the radio.

In explaining “our” peccadilloes to my female friend, I was forced to face what I and other men dedicated to the cultivation of their online lives have become: we are shy people lashing out at perceived threats, be it mildly in the form of refusing invitations or virulently in the form of online retribution.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon featuring two pups talking. One says to the other: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That was, once upon a time, a comment on the freedom afforded us by life behind the screen. Now, however, given the nastiness we exhibit and the good heart of the average labrador, I doubt those dogs want anything to do with us.