Women and the backchannel responses

I wouldn’t normally write a blog post in response to my own post, however I’ve had such a lot of comments that I really wanted to properly respond.

Firstly, I did not expect this to touch the nerve it so obviously has with so many people. I wanted to offer my support to the women who had been treated like this, ensure this behaviour does not go uncommented on and also start the discussion in terms of how we can stop this kind of thing happening. I didn’t want it to take the shine off what was an excellent day and achievement for Boagworld, and I apologise if that has happened.

I’m going to pick up on a number of the themes that came through in the comments yesterday. I’ve linked directly to some comments just to save people new to the discussion reading through all of them but generally the same points were made by a number of people, either here, on other blogs or on Twitter.

“We should just ignore this behaviour”

Several commenters suggested that we should just ignore these people and they would go away. I would agree that in many cases ignoring trolls and nasty comments is the way to go. During the show in fact the comments were ignored for the most part, we certainly were not giving air time to these people by detracting from the conversations to respond to it. A backchannel for a conference or chat on a live stream however is different to a normal message board setting. These comments were very visible to people participating and watching, not bringing this subject up in some way would really have meant accepting that this behaviour was ok and that boys being boys is perfectly appropriate in a professional setting.

I do not need to be told to “avoid schoolboy chatrooms“. I was dealing with trolls on usenet when many of the people commenting on Friday were still in primary school, so I have a thick enough skin to not be personally hurt by this stuff. What I am concerned about is the message it gives to other women, particularly young women, who want to work in the industry.

“These aren’t people from our community”

The Boagworld community is a really friendly place. I’m not a participant but have read many threads there and the attitude there always seems incredibly friendly, supportive and helpful towards newcomers – even if they are asking the same questions everyone else has asked a million times before. However the 200th podcast attracted an audience from the wider web community. Some of the nasty comments may well have been from kids who had just discovered a lively stream on Ustream, however some of those commenters quite obviously knew of the people they were making comments about, outside of the podcast, which makes me believe that at least some of those posting are people who work in some way in this industry. In addition, the Boagworld chat was not a unique event. The same attitude has been taken towards women on conference backchannels, by people attending a conference, presumably not 15 year old boys.

“Preventing anonymity is not the answer”

Some commenters were concerned that preventing people from being anonymous just creates another problem. In this setting I disagree. Being able to be anonymous is one of the web’s strengths. There are many reasons and places where hiding behind a nickname is appropriate and allows people to ask questions and get support on sensitive subjects, or speak up when they would be in danger if their identity was known. However, if you are contributing in a professional setting at a web design conference or in a chat, then you should be very happy to be identified and stand behind your words. My suggestion of Facebook Connect was really just a throwaway suggestion – I’m sure we can create better solutions – or offer a range of ways to confirm someone’s identity. I’d love to see more discussion on this.

“Women need to take responsibility as well and not act flirty or suggestively”

I have some difficulties with this point of view, and I don’t think that Jen in her comment meant any of the women on the show. If a woman is overtly flirting and then complaining about attention, well then she probably needs to stop doing the former before she can complain about the latter. However that was not the situation on Friday. The fact that some women, and men, behave in a provocative way does not give anyone a free pass to treat all women like that. If we start down this line then, once again, we are telling people they have to conform to be accepted, that as long as they look dowdy and unattractive we will believe they have a brain. Well, hooray for computer engineer Barbie, is all I can say to that!

“This should have been addressed during the show”

Kimberly makes a very valid point that perhaps it would have been better for this to have been addressed during the show. It’s difficult, obviously the show had a schedule to get all of the participants in and able to do their segment. There were people coming on via Skype from different timezones who had set apart part of their day to come on the show. A discussion about these issues could well have totally derailed the schedule and also taken the whole show to somewhere far less fun and positive.

That said, I think that anyone planning on having any kind of backchannel does need to consider, in the light of this and other situations, how they will deal with issues like this if they arise. Both from a technical point of view – being able to identify people, ban effectively and so on, and from the point of view of how it is dealt with by presenters and those running the channel in terms of what they say in reaction.

“This is just jealousy”

I have seen suggestions that the comments – particularly those expressing the opinion that someone is only involved because they are attractive – come from jealousy; from the attitude of, “why is SHE there and not me? It must be because she is pretty.”
Sarah has addressed this issue head on in her own post, which is worth a read. The issue of jealousy and bitterness directed towards people who are well known in this industry is a whole other subject, and one I might address here another time. What I would say though, is that in general, the “names” in web design and development are some of the nicest and most open people you could ever hope to meet. Most people you hear of regularly, you hear of because of the huge amount of time and energy they put into their work and in giving away freely their talents and knowledge. Most of us only get to write books and speak at conferences because we spent years giving stuff away for free on our blogs, and it got us noticed.

If you are doing cool stuff tell people about it, write about it, find small events that ask for speakers and talk about it. Find high profile people who are involved in that area on Twitter and drop them an @reply. If what you are doing is good, you’ll be amazed how quickly word spreads. Get yourself involved in discussion forums, help people out, show them you are an expert, and you can get the sort of attention you want. That is the beauty of this community, give something and you will get stuff back. Sit in a corner and whine and you’ll be ignored.

What happened on Friday was not a one off, it was simply a very overt example of this kind of behaviour. Writing it off as a non-issue, and blaming a few bored kids makes light of the fact that this type of thing happens all the time. No-one is suggesting you cannot criticise a person’s work – far from it. However, you criticise their work, you present an argument against their viewpoint, you do not make personal remarks that have absolutely nothing to do with whether they do good work or have a valid point of view.

Jen Strickland on the 14 Feb 2010:

Yes, Rachel, I wasn’t referring to any of the women in the show at all! Those three are very responsible, colorful, and professional.

There are bad examples of anything everywhere. We can only do what we can to be better and encourage others to do so. Of course, we also need to speak up when hurtful things occur, as you have done. Brava!

Clare Warburton on the 15 Feb 2010:

I wasn’t paying attention to the chat stream during most of what I heard of this broadcast; suffice it to say that i found what you all were saying was a bit more informative ;) apologies to those who did make productive comments/suggestions who i would add probably wouldnt mind at all being identified. Removing anonymity and directly addressing the immature and just wrong banter ought to help educate and inform. Thank you Rachel for speaking out!

Rich Quick on the 16 Feb 2010:

Got to be honest, I hadn’t realized this was something which happens at conferences .. in which case it’s pretty pathetic and I appreciate you and Sarah pointing it out.

I tend to spend my time listening to the speakers, rather than talking crap online.

It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, having been in the industry for over a decade, so hopefully it’s a small minority of morons .. but they definitely deserve to be called out. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky and not met these kind of people in my work.

I think your suggestion about removing the anonymity is a really good one, especially at physical conferences.

Not that I’d ever say those kind of idiotic things, but if I were ever tempted, the idea of having Ryan Carson shout out “would Richard Quick please stand up and explain why you’re a sexist ****” at FOWD would probably make me keep my opinions to myself!

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