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May 17, 2013

When Geeks Attack

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Photo Credit: Nicolas Silberfaden

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Against this backdrop of growing inequity, the stereotypically introverted programmer—think of the Mark Zuckerberg portrayal in The Social Network—has evolved into a far more cocksure, frat-house kind of figure. These so-called brogrammers have reason to believe they can act with impunity: The demand for computer engineers is outpacing virtually every other industry in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has translated into six-figure salaries and over-the-top perks like concierges, car service, and free gourmet meals. Wall Street's masters of the universe have been supplanted by Silicon Valley's big-swinging code jocks. And thanks to the anonymity of the Internet, fueled by a dogmatic belief that all speech is free speech, they have made the very act of being a woman in the industry something of an occupational hazard.

Case in point: Last year, Bay Area video blogger Anita Sarkeesian, 29, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 to fund a series of YouTube videos about how women are portrayed in video games. That effort triggered a massive online hate campaign that saw her Wikipedia page vandalized—her photo was replaced with a pornographic image and her bio edited to describe her as having a "master's degree in whining"; among the many threatening e-mails she received, one included images of video game avatars raping her. "The perpetrators turned the entire Internet into a battlefield," Sarkeesian would later say in a TED talk about the affair. "They came after everything and anything that I possibly ever had online."

Sarkeesian's Kickstarter campaign ultimately generated nearly $160,000 in donations and inspired sympathetic write-ups on Slate and in The New York Times, signs that perhaps the ruthless trolling of outspoken women online has galvanized a backlash of its own. Already some of the industry's biggest players, among them Intel, Mozilla (developer of the Firefox browser), and the Linux Foundation, have lined up to underwrite Ada Initiative events. TheLi.st, a group founded by New York digital-media gurus Rachel Sklar and Glynnis MacNicol, pushes for more women on typically men-only tech panels. And outrageous examples of brutal trolling against women are fast becoming causes célèbres.

SUCH IS THE case of self-described tech evangelist Adria Richards, 35, driven underground after she tweeted a photo of two guys sitting behind her at a Silicon Valley conference in March whom she overheard cracking sexually charged Beavis and Butt-Head–type remarks. When that tweet later resulted in one of the guys getting fired, Anonymous, the vigilante group of "hacktivists," unleashed a ferocious retaliatory campaign against Richards and her company, SendGrid, a cloud-based e-mail delivery system with headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. (A YouTube video purportedly uploaded by members of Anonymous declared that Richards' actions "must be accounted for.") They disabled SendGrid's website for six hours, while Richards' personal information was allegedly published online. Before long, she was inundated with expletive-ladened racist tweets and e-mails, some threatening rape and worse. By week's end, SendGrid had fired Richards for what they said was her ill-advised handling of the matter.

But by then the whole affair had made international headlines and Richards—like Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student turned overnight icon after Rush Limbaugh eviscerated her on his radio show for her comments on free birth control—had become an emblem of a larger movement. Only it's in absentia. Since she was fired, Richards has stopped tweeting and blogging. In tech parlance, she's off the grid now, laid low by our digital era's version of a torch-and-pitchfork mob. "I know it's important to pick my battles. I know I don't have to be a hero in every situation," Richards reflected on her now-defunct blog, But You're a Girl, just before she was terminated. "Sometimes I just want to go to a conference and be a geek."

 


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