The cloud-based email startup SendGrid confirmed in a blog post Friday that it fired developer relations "evangelist" Adria Richards because of a tweet she sent about what she thought was sexist behavior at the PyCon developers conference, setting an unfortunate precedent for a tech industry with diversity problems but no shortage of "dongle" jokes. "Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line," writes CEO Jim Franklin, referring to a tweet by Richards which said men making sex jokes during a conference was "not cool." The tweet resulted in the termination of one of the men from his gaming company, PlayHaven, and an outcry on his behalf from hackers.
Many people, however, would consider this move a protection of free speech, arguing that she deserved to get fired because she reported a private conversation on Twitter, a public forum. "Feedom of speech is only for people who aren't her apparently," a person with the Twitter handle Metal Jared tweeted at me. By exercising her free speech she curbed his free speech, goes this line of thinking, and since he got fired she should too. Franklin seems to agree with that, noting that PyCon changed its policy, putting in a note about the problem with public shaming:
But, free speech doesn't exactly work like that and PyCon has since removed that note, admitting it had "poor wording." (It's now working on something better with help from the community.) The man who got fired said something in a professional setting and Richards put a face and name to his statements. For some reason, a certain type of Internet folk think that the right to free speech includes the privilege of other people not saying mean things about you. The way this works in practice is that people on Reddit and 4Chan and Twitter will say terrible, harassing, and hateful things about Richards (and anyone who stands up for her) because they think she shouldn't have said something.
It's also worth noting that a lot of the hate toward Richards seems to stem back to a personal dislike for her. A widely linked post about the situation begins, "Let me get this out of the way: I don’t like Adria Richards," writes Amanda Blum, a Portland based tech consultant. It's her way to bond with the reader before getting into the very troubling reactions to Richards's tweet before writing, "There was little reasonable chatter, instead she was attacked not as a person or developer but as a female—a bitch."
Another line of thinking suggests that the better way for Richards to deal with the dongle joke would have been a discussion behind closed doors. It's unclear what would have resulted if she had went that quieter route, since it's impossible to explain something that didn't happen. But, really, is it not OK to tweet or write about something that happens at a work conference? Isn't that what these events basically are for?
When Samsung used a group of drunk bridesmaids to point out all the "lady things" its phone can do should I not have written about that in a blog post and tweeted it out on Twitter? The Internet, or at least the part we spend the most time on, is basically for telling people what we think about things. That purpose is why all the Redditors keep fighting for their right to anonymity when they tell the each other what they think about unsuspecting women's butts. Never-mind the irony of a culture that created and has thoroughly embraced Twitter now suggesting that certain things can't be tweeted by certain people. There are no special rules for the tech community on the platforms they evangelize, despite what some people would hope.
The counterargument to that is that Richards did not see or experience real sexism because "dongle" and "forking" jokes aren't sexist and therefore she misused her public platform of 20,000 Twitter followers. "Even I've made 'fork' jokes," wrote one commenter who disagreed with my post yesterday. But just because something happens all the time does not make it OK. The institutionalized sexism in the developer world is well documented, and as Richards admits in her post, the tweet was a reaction to conferences worth of similar humor. And certainly the reaction since her tweet has revealed the ugliest side of sexism in the tech world. But, most importantly, if the man had not done or said something sexist he would still have his job at PlayHaven—his company's statement suggests that this was not an isolated incident. Richards didn't ask PyCon or PlayHaven to fire him. She pointed to the PyCon code of conduct and tweeted the man's face along with his badge name. Theoretically, if her tweets had no merit then it wouldn't have resulted in the man's firing—and maybe people wouldn't have gotten to immediately defensive. If she overreacted, as many claim, then she would have just written a stupid tweet and some people would have agreed or disagreed.
SendGrid has one possibly reasonable reason for firing Richards: She could no longer effectively do her job. She works in developer relations and clearly because of her actions many developers don't want to work with her anymore. That's the unfortunate reality of making an unpopular statement in the face of discrimination: This woman has become a liability to a company.