UPDATE #2: A Failure to Communicate: Why Everything Probably Isn’t a Conspiracy

UPDATE #2: (Feb. 22, 2015) At the bottom, I comment on TLDR‘s new episode revisiting their “Quiet, Wadhwa” piece.

UPDATE: (Feb. 15, 2015) On Saturday, Venture Beat published a response from Vivek Wadhwa to the TLDR episode I discuss below.

For a year in middle school, I carpooled with the family of a girl whom I’ll call Suzanna. Her mom or dad would take me to school in the morning on their way to work and my dad would drop her off at home in the afternoon.

Suzanna and her family were all very kind and generous people. If we had enough time in the morning her mom would stop at the Bashas’ near my house and buy us soda and snacks. (A practice which I guess these days sounds rather negligent, but which Suzanna and I thoroughly enjoyed.)

My dad wanted some way to repay Suzanna and her family for ferrying his smart-assed spawn to school every morning, so one day, upon picking up Suzanna, he asked her if she’d like to get something to eat with us when we picked her up the next day. Suzanna said sure, that would be great.

Here’s where it gets sticky, I’m almost positive either Dad or I told her to make sure her parents were okay with that first. We didn’t want to spoil her dinner or anything.

So the next day, we all go out to eat after school. We had a great time, it was a lot of fun, etc. Upon returning home, we found that Suzanna had not in fact informed her parents of this outing.

Her mother was so worried that her daughter had not returned home on time that she called Arizona’s highway patrol. (Neither Dad nor I owned cell-phones at the time, nor if I remember correctly, did Suzanna, so there was no way of contacting any of us while we were out.)

Dad was very confused. What was Suzanna’s mom so worried about? We were only out for about an hour more than usual. I was what they’re calling nowadays a “free-ranged kid,” so I imagine Dad wouldn’t be too worried if I were gone for that long.

Dad’s adorable naïveté about this whole situation was made more ironic, considering that he, like millions of other Americans, watched (and still watches religiously) Dateline, 20/20, and those other TV news magazines that frequently indulge in “true crime” reporting.

South Park had a different name for it. (Image courtesy Comedy Central Press.)

It took me a few tries, but when I was finally able to get Dad to understand what was likely racing through Suzanna’s mother’s mind throughout all this, he was horrified and upset that I would consider such a thing. It certainly never entered his head.

At this point, I’ll mention that Dad’s an immigrant. He came to the U.S. from Thailand in the early ’80s. Even my 14-year-old self wondered if that colored how this whole thing was perceived.

Children of first-wave immigrants, or anyone who’s seen “Shit Asian Dads Say,” understand how a less-than perfect command of English and a, let’s say developing, understanding of American social conventions can often result in (usually) hilarious situations.

They got everything right, down to the wrapping of electronics in plastic like a madman.

In any case, the confusion was cleared up and Susanna and I enjoyed the carpooling services of each other’s families for the rest of the year, including detours for junk food and slightly-better-than-junk-food food, though this time with more perspicuous parental notification.

I tell you this story, dear reader, in an attempt to illustrate how easily ominous conclusions can be drawn from the mundane.

Because if Meredith Haggerty and the producers of “Quiet, Wadhwa,” the Feb. 6 episode of TLDR1, On the Media‘s spin-off podcast on Internet culture, acknowledged this, they could have produced something much more interesting than the deeply flawed episode they actually made.

At the time of this writing the original piece has been removed and replaced with the following note:

TLDR episode 45, published Friday, February 6, has been removed. We are working on a piece for On the Media that will include a range of views on advocacy for women in technology.

Addendum:

WNYC decided to remove this episode, because it centered on an internet debate about author Vivek Wadhwa and we failed a basic test of fairness: we did not invite him to comment. We are planning a follow-up that will address both the original issue and the ensuing conversation around the removal of the episode. We are keenly aware of the discussion out there and will release the new piece as soon as it is ready.

The 11 minute segment has been re-posted by a helpful fellow here. Give it as listen as I’ll be discussing it in detail.

So if TLDR is now scrambling to produce a segment that “includes[s] a range of views on advocacy for women in technology,” then what did they actually produce on the Friday last?

The episode is a discussion of Amelia Greenhall’s recent blog post about an academic/tech entrepreneur named Vivek Wadhwa, who has positioned himself as an advocate for women in tech. A position that some (many? most?) women in tech would prefer be filled by actual women in tech.

Greenhall, an accomplished woman in tech, describes how Wadhwa became the go-to authority on the subject by “trading up the chain;” leveraging the publication of one’s work in one outlet in order to get it published at bigger and better places.

Readers, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure trading up the chain is how the publishing industry works. It certainly doesn’t make Wadhwa an expert on women in tech, but it doesn’t show why he shouldn’t be writing about it either.

Greenhall’s issue with Wadhwa is that he’s “taking up space,” and “sucking all the air out of the room” by getting published and quoted by journalists on the issue of women in tech instead of actual women in tech. But is that Vivek Wadhwa’s fault or the fault of the editors and journalists who’ve published his work and sought his comments?

Wadhwa should turn down interview requests on stories about women in tech and point journalists towards “someone more qualified,” says Greenhall at the end of the piece. And while I agree it would be nice if, for example, the co-architects2 of the current horror show in the Middle East stopped opining about America’s foreign policy and handed the mic to someone else, you know an idea is bankrupt when the proposed solution is for discredited pundits to self-deport from the conversation.

Why do journalists get a pass here?

I’d like to hear why the editors of the various outlets in which Wadhwa’s writing and words have been published chose to hear from him. I think it would be quite revealing to hear the criteria by which journalists deem someone an expert whose voice deserves to be heard over others.

But instead of traveling down that path, the discussion turns to Wadhwa’s perceived creepiness.

Much is made about Wadhwa’s “token floozies” comment. I would tell you more, but I don’t really know much more. In the TLDR episode Greenhall just repeats what she wrote in her blog post:

There was the “Floozies” incident. Basically Vivek got on stage at a Bloomberg conference in January 2014 and talked about the importance of hiring women in influential leadership roles, not just as “token floozies.” He tried to ignore the criticism for several days, including a blog post by management consultant Mary Trigiani calling him out for it. He then published a condescending public response to Trigiani that belittled and gaslighted her as having “personal difficulties.”

The full context of Wadhwa’s words seem important here. Is he saying that all or most women in tech are “token floozies”? Is he saying that “token floozies” is what the boards of tech companies want, and that this is a bad thing?

Few things are more suspicious than a narrative crafted around a two-word quote from a lengthy speech. If the context supports the claim, people are pretty eager to show the full context.

However, the Daily Beast article Greenhall links to doesn’t link to the actual talk Wadhwa gave. Nor does Trigiani’s blog post. I’ve done some searching for the talk, and while I can find a number of Wadhwa’s talks, I can’t find one from the “Hacking Gender” Bloomberg conference in January 2014. If anyone knows where I can watch/listen to it, please let me know.

Wadhwa’s “condescending public response” was posted by him the the comments of Trigiani’s post and on Medium.

His response is dismissed out of hand with another two-word quote. Here’s the paragraph where Wadhwa supposedly “belittled and gaslighted [Trigiani] as having ‘personal difficulties'”:

When, later in the evening, someone pointed out that the slang word that I used had a different meaning than I thought, I apologized profusely. I felt really, really horrible and I literally lost sleep over this. You, on the other hand, stormed away and behaved in a highly unprofessional manner. I asked several people why you were reacting this way and they said that I should ignore you because you had “personal difficulties”. A couple of people said you had a reputation for behaving in this manner. I did not want to ask more because I was not sure of what was motivating you to behave the way in which you did. That is why I chose not to respond to your barrage of angry tweets.

And here are the paragraphs from Trigliani’s blog to which it appears Wadhwa was responding:

By Tuesday evening, I was enduring the remarks of a so-called expert in talent who fretted that “token floozies” in companies like are not truly women of the tech workforce. Who then refused to explain what he meant. For two days now.

You see, he expects only to pontificate. To not answer questions unless they are posed in a way that flatters his ego and sustains his superiority, both in the asking and the answering. Should this man be challenged, watch out. He cites Duke University, Stanford University, Singularity University, WASHINGTON POST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and startup Trove as the stars in his CV, and so far, they see no need to call for an explanation, either. Rumor has it he has a book coming out about how women are leaving tech employers in droves.

So in context we see that Wadhwa was in fact responding to her challenge for an explanation.

In context we see that Wadhwa’s “gaslighting”3 could also be just as neatly interpreted as Look dude, I heard you were going through some heavy shit, so figured it would be best to not respond, but now you’ve slammed my work on a public forum, questioned the intentions behind my work, and accused me of being unwilling to respond criticism, so now I’m responding.

It’s the shit you have in your tape library which gives seemingly unrelated incidents perspective.” (Screenshot by author.)

On the claim that Wadhwa is frequently “condescending” or “paternalistic,” I’d like to remind everyone that he is a professor at two “Ivy-plus” schools. He’s written books and his articles have been published in national newspapers.

I’m not saying any of that qualifies him to opine on so much as the opening of a new jogging path in San Jose, but college professors are pretty damn condescending and paternalistic—not just towards women in tech, towards everyone.

Heck, my uncle is a retired elementary music teacher and if someone pushes past him on the subway, he has to fight the urge to stop the young man and lecture him on manners.

So if one criticizes Wadhwa’s work—as everyone should be able to—it shouldn’t seem crazy that he might go into professor mode, assuming that the disagreement is due to his failure to effectively express himself, and that if he keeps trying, eventually everyone will agree with him.

Even if that isn’t an accurate assessment of his behavior—which it very well many not be—it’s no less unreasonable than Greenhall and Haggerty’s apparent assumption that Wadhwa acts like a paternalistic, condescending prick when he converses with women.

But perhaps Wadhwa was wrong to mention “personal difficulties,” whether or not they indeed exist, in a public venue, yes? They are “personal” after all. Maybe it would be better if he tried communicating to his critics via a more informal platform? Maybe he could be more easily understood in a more casual conversation?

Well if you listened to “Quiet, Wadhwa,” you know where I’m going next.

“He has a tendency,” darkly intones Haggerty, “to DM” or direct message his female critics on Twitter.

Greenhall describes Twitter’s DMs thusly:

It’s really like this non-consensual, ‘let’s go over here, where people can’t see you criticizing me, maybe I can talk to you there.’ Wadhwa has done this to several women.

(UPDATE: (Feb. 15, 2015) In his Feb. 14 response published in Venture Beat, Wadhwa says that he has only sent Twitter DMs to one woman, Kelly Ellis, who’s screenshots of the conversation are discussed below.)

Haggerty:

It really feels like the Twitter DM can be like the “hand on the knee” of social communication.

Greenhall:

I don’t follow that many men because I’ll see them through Twitter lists, but if you’re mutually following them, that opens up that DM channel and you just get a lot of unwanted private messages that are pretty gross usually.

That’s a hell of a lot of intent being ascribed to Wadhwa. First, Greenhall’s insinuation that Wadhwa is using Twitter’s direct messaging system to send untoward messages to women to ensure that their responses are not public is undermined by screenshots taken by Kelly Ellis, a woman he messaged, in which he asks her to make the entire discussion public:

So his plan is to have a secret conversation, only to request that it be made public, because…? (Screenshot by Kelly Ellis.)

Ellis posted two sets of screenshots of her DMs with Wadhwa here and here.

The other element of intent placed on Wadhwa is that everyone knows that only creeps who send “gross” private messages send Twitter DMs to women and yet he sends them anyway.

First, it’s not clear that Wadhwa is aware of that convention. Do many or most male Twitter users know how some/many women view DMs? Conversely, maybe the guy who promotes himself as an advocate for women in tech should know these things and by being unaware, he further crystallizes why he should stop.

But even if Wadhwa is aware, to whatever extent, of how (most? all? some?) women perceive DMs, it’s quite possible that the idea that he could come across in such a manner, just as the notion that a mother might—for completely understandable reasons—grow increasingly worried when Suzanne should have been home 45 minutes ago and was last seen with that middle-aged foreign guy she doesn’t know too well, never crossed Dad’s mind either.

Regardless, the aspersions continue to fly. In his direct messages, Greenhall notes that Wadhwa repeatedly invites the women he’s conversing with to continue the discussion in person at some point:

He asks them to come meet him, like, ‘meet me in person,’ ‘come to Standford,’ ‘come to my office,’ ‘come meet me,’ ‘come sit on my lap, you bad, little, young woman.’

Indeed, Wadhwa could be attempting to lure women to his office for nefarious purposes. (I’m assuming the last quote isn’t actually a direct quote.)

Or looking at it another way, maybe Wadhwa is frustrated that members of a group for whom he sees himself as an advocate are upset with him and the written word by which he makes his living isn’t helping, and in exasperation he asks some of these women to meet him to discuss this in person, hoping that maybe then they might understand that he is on their side. But for reasons for which he’s at fault (which I’ll get to below) and other reasons which are entirely unfair, they’ve stopped buying what he’s selling.

I do admit though, the sinister explanation makes for better radio.

(UPDATE: (Feb. 15, 2014) In his Feb. 14 response published in Venture Beat, Wadhwa gives his own account of his conversation with Kelly Ellis.)

In his response to Trigliani’s blog post on his “floozies” comment, Wadhwa blames his poor understanding of American slang, as he learned English in India, where the dialect contains far more Britishisms than American slang. Wadhwa expresses similar confusion in a DM with Kelly Ellis:

Wait, who gets to define these words again? (Screenshot by Kelly Ellis.)

Greenhall and Haggerty suggest this even further disqualifies him from writing and speaking about women in tech. Greenhall argues that:

[e]ven if you do take him at his word, I think it’s totally disturbing. Has he really been this spokesman for women in tech for all these years, while he’s believing that women can’t be nerds, because that’s like super misogynist because [venture capitalist firms] only want to invest in nerds and they have a lot of power in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area.

Wait, Wadhwa’s misunderstanding the nuances of certain American slang words is misogynist because VCs only want to invest in nerds? Is Greenhall saying Wadhwa believes that? Has Wadhwa made that claim about VCs? Is there data to support that claim? Was there any actual reporting done in this episode?

I always thought “nerd” implied a sense of social isolation, whereas “geek” meant an obsessive knowledge about a particular thing; e.g. there can be sports geeks, music geeks, computer geeks, etc. There appears to be a wide variety of definitions of and connotations with the words “nerd” and “geek” in the English-speaking world alone.

Why must everyone subscribe to the same nuances of words like geek and nerd to comment on women in tech?

Haggerty and Greenhall then share Wadhwa quotes that confound them.

Haggerty:

‘Women should let the boys have their social media while they save the world.’ What does that even mean?

Good question, Haggerty. Why didn’t you ask him?

(UPDATE: (Feb. 15, 2014) According to Wadhwa’s Feb. 14 response published in Venture Beat the line Haggerty is bewildered by is the title of an article he wrote “on why the future belongs to women.”)

I realize that this is an opinion piece. Amelia Greenhall has every right to publish her opinions. However, Haggerty and the producers at OTM and TLDR are journalists with an obligation to ensure that their broadcasts meet the ethical standards of their profession. Among which are to:

– Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.

– Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

– Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

“Quiet, Wadhwa” concludes with a list of genuinely scummy examples of his shameless self-promotion—including stealing bylines—over actions that would help ensure journalists heard more from women in tech, like actually pointing journalists towards women in tech.

(UPDATE: (Feb. 15, 2015) In his Feb. 14 response in Venture Beat, Wadhwa contends that the examples listed in the TLDR episode as evidence that he obscures the work of women to promote and enrich himself are incorrect or mischaracterized.)

But TLDR‘s failure to meet “a basic test of fairness,” as the note on the removal page puts it, calls into question all of the claims put forth in the episode.

While I don’t think Vivek Wadhwa deserves to be the go-to guy on women in tech (more so than anyone else, at least), I don’t think it’s very productive to attempt to silence him in return for all his egocentric bloviating.

In the end, I think this incident will only serve Amelia Greenhall and Meredith Haggerty’s ideological opponents. The malicious intent they were certain they read in Wadhwa’s Twitter messages will be heard in the sloppy reporting, the episode’s removal, and whatever OTM comes up with to replace it.

But maybe they would have heard that anyway. There’s this quote I like from Sarah Miller in a Time article. It aptly diagnoses the problem with the simplistic narratives peddled by advocacy journalism. “While the world should certainly have respect for feminism,” Miller writes, “I’d like to see feminism have a little more respect for chaos and ambiguity.”

To chaos and ambiguity.

UPDATE #2: (Feb. 22, 2015) Last Thursday, TLDR released an episode revisiting their “Quiet, Wadhwa” piece. You’ll grimace through all 23 minutes of it, but it’s quite illuminating.

TLDR producer Katya Rogers admits to being “in a bubble” when she and Meredith Haggerty produced the original piece. In an age of identity politics, I really hope journalists’ ethical obligations to be fair and seek comment from all parties won’t be tossed aside as an insidious method of silencing and minimizing those who journalists cast as the victims in their narratives.

It seems both Haggerty and Wadhwa thought that a long, mostly un-edited interview would vindicate their respective positions. The end result, however, is that both of them come off even worse.

Haggerty continues to appear oblivious to the implications of blithely comparing someone’s behavior to sexual harassment in a news broadcast.

Wahdwa refutes the accusations of financial impropriety, byline-stealing, and “taking up space” in the conversation which Amelia Greenhall leveled at him, but comes across as every bit the paternalistic, condescending prick that the original TLDR episode cast him as. Lots of lines like “these women don’t understand how journalism works” and asserting how awesome an advocate he is for women and minorities.

Although I still think the problems with his tone are largely compounded by the cultural barrier through which he’s attempting to communicate.

Since TLDR doesn’t confirm Greenhall’s accusations or deny Wadhwa’s denials for the more easily-confirmed claims regarding money and properly crediting people, I’m going to assume the accusations are bunk. Which means all we’re left with is tone policing.

I’m sorry, but I can’t agree that someone should be “quiet,” as TLDR #45 instructs, because I or others dislike his tone.


  1. I don’t mean to pick on On the Media again, but I listen to them a lot so I hear a lot more of their brilliant moments and their missteps than those of other news outlets. 
  2. The others being various monstrous dictators and murderous zealots. 
  3. Gaslighting is a disturbing form of mental abuse. However, online the term is frequently wielded against anyone who suggests that the wielder’s interpretation of something may be incorrect. By suggesting that you didn’t mean for the wielder to interpret what you wrote in that way, you are also suggesting that the wielder is crazy, and thus you are gaslighting. Scott Alexander explains this sort of motte-and-bailey stratagem here. Put simply, people want to apply a term loaded with serious implications upon conditions that are far removed from the scope of the original meaning. Gaslighting is a real phenomenon that is no doubt also practiced by abusers on the Internet. The term should certainly be employed when appropriate, but the word carries too much freight for journalists to toss about lightly. 

‘So…You Want to Hear a Story, Eh?’ – GamerGate and Media Narratives

on_the_media
Viewers of the full image still doesn’t know about his knifeshoes. Image source unknown. Contact me if you recognize the artist.

Sorry, this will be another discussion of GamerGate (let it be the last one)—the latest skirmish that doesn’t matter from the culture wars that I can’t stop clicking. Every crappy blog needs a post whining about an article on a far more noteworthy publication with which they disagree. I guess I’m getting mine out of the way now.

For almost two years I’ve been listening to WNYC New York Public Radio’s On the Media program distributed though National Public Radio. I’m slowly making my way through their immense archive that goes back to 2001. They’ve been “explaining the news” long before it was cool.

NPR recently adopted the admirable editorial policy of avoiding false balance. NYU journalism Professor Jay Rosen notes the two most important bits:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

SMBC Theater explains what happens when the news media strives to appear objective at all costs:

The NPR model works well for issues in which researchers conducting multiple, large, well-controlled, peer-reviewed studies have reached similar conclusions. It also works for less-scientific issues in which mountains of evidence clearly lie on one side of the argument. Just because a former Navy SEAL writes in his memoir that his buddy totally saw WMD in Iraq doesn’t mean journalists should give weight to his unsupported claim by covering it

However, the model is not very useful for covering a broad-based social movements, particularly social media activism. Let’s look at the nature of this kind of Internet activism to understand why the “balance of evidence model” can lead to crappy coverage.

1. Joining an online campaign is easy.

To participate in the conversation one must only like, share, reblog, retweet, or comment. The discussions within the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the early environmental movement, among others, was often held in print publications. Back in the day, if you wanted to participate in the conversation, you had to get your comments past newspaper and magazine editors.

2. Nothing is official.

There are no leaders in online social media activism. One person might start a Twitter hashtag. A particular online community might have strict moderators or prolific users. But no one can claim to speak for the movement in any sort of representative way. There’s no official body to publish goals, or condemn certain tactics. Meaningful self-policing is nigh impossible.

3. Again—anyone can join.

This includes trolls who couldn’t care less about either side, seeking simply to provoke people and create drama. It includes sockpuppetry from both those who agree and disagree with the movement, who seek to carry out vote brigading, post anonymous attacks, or surreptitiously post content in the name of their opponents.

To illustrate this point, a friend (who we’ll call Alice) and I argued whether the “notes” (likes and reblogs) on a Tumblr post can be used to extrapolate the number of Tumblr users who agree with the sentiment of the post. Below is a screenshot of the post in question. If I remember correctly she found this on r/TumblrInAction or some such place.

poc_guy_3liza_tumblr
Screenshot by author.

Alice’s argument was thus, opinions in a population follow a bell curve. Depending on radicalization, the bell curve may be shifted, or have larger or smaller standard deviation. In any case, approximately 5 percent of a population lies beyond two standard deviations from the mean. It’s reasonable to assume these are the “radicals” of a population. If we assume that one “note” equals one person, and there are over 360,000 notes, then 2.5 percent of those notes is 9,000 people. So 9,000 people on Tumblr think brandishing a weapon and threatening property destruction is a reasonable response to catcalling.

I haven’t an earthly idea if those statistical assumptions are correct or applicable in this case, but the bigger problem that I see is that Alice is assuming those 360,000 people constitute a representative sample of Tumblr users. I think it’s quite likely that many if not most of those notes are the result of someone who trawls Tumblr for outlandish opinions and posts them to r/TumblrInAction.

We might find more precise numbers via a content analysis. However, we’d have to distinguish between honest opinions and “ironic” notes, for lack of a better word. We’d have to take sock puppet users into account. We’d have to account for vote brigading.

However, all of this excludes the very real possibility that this anonymous submission to fuckyoustreetharassment.tumblr.com is in fact a stealth parody, written with the intention to satirize Tumblr users, feminists or both. And if it is, how many people who liked or reblogged the post recognize that it is one?

This isn’t to say that the news media shouldn’t cover social media activism or that it’s impossible to derive anything meaningful by studying it. For example, Andy Baio recently conducted an excellent analysis of GamerGate tweets over a 72 hour period. However, like any such analysis, it’s unable to tell journalists what they must know before any meaningful editorializing; how many people support what?

So keeping these three points in mind, note that journalists like simple narratives. They want afflicted to comfort and comfortable to afflict. It’s an easy story for them to write and for readers to understand.

Some journalists like Casey Johnson at Ars Technica might conclude that a handful of screenshots of anonymous chat logs and discussion board posts from a single online community is sufficient to deduce the motivations, attitudes, and identify of the tens of thousands of people who tweet and retweet a particular hashtag. (Ars editor Kyle Orland understandably thought it was unfair when similarly flimsy evidence was used to draw conclusions about the motivations, attitudes, and actions of him and his colleges.) However good journalists recognize that reality often fails to follow a tidy narrative. So what can good journalists following the “balance of evidence” model accurately say about Internet activism?

This hashtag has spawned a lot of discussion online with an x number of shares.”

This person says he’s received anonymous threats which he attributes to group A. Police say they are investigating.”

Some comments ostensibly in support of the movement are inflammatory. Many members of a popular online community for group A have written comments condemning threats and personal attacks.”

This stuff sounds a lot more banal and uninformative without all the editorializing, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately this is how OTM opened its recent coverage of GamerGate (audio, 8 minutes, read the transcript here) in host Bob Garfield’s interview with Polygon editor Christopher Grant:

Garfield: Though women now represent half the video gaming community, a Pew study this week revealed that gaming is the least welcoming online space for women. The conclusion seems to be borne out by the ongoing troll crusade known as #Gamergate, wherein a small rabble is using a trumped-up scandal as cover for a full-on attack on female game-makers and game critics. Until the story materialized in the New York Times last week, one influential gaming publication, called Polygon, did its best not to feed those trolls, but finally weighed in with a letter from the editor, Christopher Grant. Chris, welcome to OTM.

Here’s the Pew study Garfield cites. Below is a chart from the report to which it seems he’s referring.

pew_online_harassment_communities
From Pew Research Center’s “Online Harassment Study,” Part 2: The Online Environment, Oct. 22, 2014.

To say “gaming is the least welcoming online space for women” I suppose is correct, but Garfield would get full points if he reported Pew’s full explanation:

Fully 44% of internet users believe online gaming is more welcoming to men, while just 3% believe it is more welcoming toward women. Half believe it is equally welcoming to men and women, a proportion much lower than any of the other environments. While most online women believed online gaming was equally welcoming to both genders (55%), a substantial minority believed it was more welcoming to men (40%). Men were more likely than women to think online gaming was more welcoming to men, 49% vs. 40% [emphasis mine].

These aren’t numbers male gamers should be proud of, to be sure. My fellow male gamers should be embarrassed and ashamed that so many women think they are unwelcome or less welcome to participate in our pastime. But, as I said before and will likely be saying a lot more in the future, the numbers don’t jibe with the narrative. I’ve heard the gaming community was a hotbed of misogyny. Where women are resoundingly unwelcome and constantly harassed, resulting in many would-be women game developers leaving the industry in droves.

At the very least I was expecting a majority of female respondents to report that they felt online gaming was an unwelcoming environment.

sheri_no_girls_allowed_cover
What I thought gaming was like.

But if the supposed oppressors in this narrative think a community is more unwelcoming than the supposed oppressed do, then perhaps the narrative is balderdash.

sheri_no_girls_allowed_2
When gaming is actually more like this. Both photos by Sheri McShane. CC BY-ND 3.0.

Moving on, Garfield informs listeners that GamerGate is “the ongoing troll crusade…wherein a small rabble is using a trumped-up scandal as cover for a full-on attack on female game-makers and game critics.”

Wonderful! Such unequivocal language means we’re finally going to hear how GamerGate’s leaders (I guess we’re also about to learn who its leaders are!) orchestrated the anonymous threats against Quinn, Sarkeesian, Wu, and others. We’re going to hear about extensive opinion polling or social media analytics whereby we learn that most GamerGate supporters also support rape threats and death threats.

Of course, what we actually hear more of that armchair psychoanalysis about how GamerGaters are Tea Party-esque reactionaries, terrified at the prospect of sharing their pastime with new faces.

GRANT: In reality it’s a, it’s a re-balancing. Video gaming on the heels of its 2011 Supreme Court victory, increasing sales, increasing software and tools that make making games open to more people than ever. As it grows into that, I think a lot of people have a lot of concerns about new voices. Voices that are often times critical of what’s come before, entering the fray. It’s an old war. Right? It’s the battle against progressive voices. What they see as political correctness being inserted into a formally “safe” space. It is a culture war.

Okay, well that’s a nice opinion. Too bad it’s given sans facts or any evidence at all really. I’ve said in previous posts that I find the “scared about new voices” line unconvincing in light of broader polling data about Millennial attitudes on diversity. It’s entirely possible gamers are generally progressive but hold reactionary attitudes about gaming. But I’ve yet to see any data that backs up the “Tea Party” theory of GamerGate.

BOB: The kinds of complaints that we heard about gaming and its occasional misogyny, its sexist characterization of female characters and so forth. We’ve heard them about the larger popular culture for decades. But there is not a concerned effort to attack and threaten the critics. Why do you suppose that this subculture of gamers has been so, uh, well…vicious?

GRANT: It’s accepted to criticize these tropes. And fail the Bechtel test, the Bechtel test being two women having a conversation that isn’t about a man. Every year, plenty of movies fail that test. Gaming was under-analyzed, right? It was shunned from academia. Under-critiqued. But a lot of the criticism that’s also been leveled against games has been hyperbolic. A bad faith effort. There’s not shortage of examples of the main stream media vilifying games. And getting basic facts wrong. So, a lot of the gaming audience looked at that criticism and learned a certain way of responding to it. Which is that it’s wrong. It’s ignorant. And then when criticism from inside happens. Criticism about the way women are presented. One example that’s very notable here – they deal with it in a sort of hysterical way. In a reactionary way.

It’s certainly bracing to hear someone tell me what GamerGate supporters are upset about with such certainty, because it means I won’t be able to remember any examples of people criticizing the gaming press or gaming critics for hyperbolic or inaccurate blather. None.

BOB: Do we even know who the ‘they’ is?

GRANT: We know who some of those people are, right? A lot of them are anonymous. Gamergate would be quick to say — well that’s not who we are. It’s this logical fallacy where they can define a movement whose inclusion is exactly ten characters long. All you need to do to be a member of this movement is type #Gamergate in Twitter. And so they’ll reject any behavior that they don’t want. While basically condoning it and allowing it and boosting it. It’s this very strange intentionally chaotic mission. Where they reject basic order and structure. So as a journalist its really hard to tackle it. And the only benefit I can see of being leaderless, of being amorphous is that they can continue their campaign of harassment with little to no culpability.

Wait, if GamerGate supporters aren’t allowed to define their movement, then why does the media get that privilege? How exactly does the ability of any jackass to sign up for a Twitter account mean GamerGaters are “basically condoning it and allowing it and boosting” threats and harassment? Why is it so easy to find examples of GamerGate supporters condemning (and reporting) threats and harassment? With no leaders to decide anything, how did this leaderless social movement decide it would remain leaderless and unorganized?

I presume Grant has been on the Internet long enough to know that Twitter hashtag campaigns don’t have leaders. People see something going on and decide to join in. A few months ago, women took the opportunity with the YesAllWomen hashtag to describe the “obstacle course of sexual menace,” to quote Jordan Klepper, though which they navigate daily. No one made the idiotic suggestion that the movement was intentionally remaining “leaderless” and “amorphous” so asinine nonsense could be freely posted in news publications and the Twitterverse.

Finally on this point, the notion that the gaming press has struggled to “tackle” GamerGate is beyond farcical.

BOB: IS there any public face. Is there anyone who is willing to attach his — I assume his — to this whole supposed scandal.

GRANT: Their actually is a notable her, Christina Hoff Sommers. She’s a scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute which is a right-leaning think tank. She has no interest in video games. But she was interested in maybe getting some new converts to her particular ideology. A lot of cases the people who are signal boosting this topic, doin’t have anything to do with games. People like Adam Bolland who uses his platform on Twitter to sort of amplify a lot of this stuff. He’s not a gamer. He doesn’t have an interest in this culture. It’s a political platform. A lot of the Gamergate adherents are really happy to embrace these opportunists. They call Christina Hoff Sommers ‘mom’ — it’s a very strange, I don’t know, almost like hunger for validation. They do not have a lot of public faces. The ones that they do have they are very attached to.

You know what they say about assumptions, Bob….

In Dan Auerbach’s Oct. 28 Slate stratagem for tricking the Grangerfords and the Sheperdsons of GamerGate into stopping, he lists the failed tactics GamerGate critics, among which is the “[c]onvenient erasure of Gamergate’s many female, LGBTQ, and minority members, however wrong they may be.” Here are some of those folks who’ve added their names and faces in support of GamerGate, including game developers and journalists who Grant has ignored. My favorite example is game dev David Jaffe who was for GamerGate, before announcing that he feels he has to condemn it (but is still supports it).

To end, I’d like to ask you to compare Bob Garfield’s interview with Chris Grant with this On the Media piece on news coverage of Israel-Palestine (audio, 24 minutes, transcript here). Moderating a debate between two seemingly intractable sides of a controversial issue is harder than agreeing with someone over how much you agree with them, but the listener comes away with a far deeper understanding of the issues. (I found Friedman’s conspiratorial view that reporters covering the Gaza war went out of their way to avoid shooting footage and photos of Hamas fighters unconvincing, but his point about erroneously simplistic narratives is well-taken.)

UPDATE #3: More On Why Anonymous Comments Are Worthless

rion_sock_puppet
Photo by Rion. CC BY 3.0.

I talked a bit about GamerGate last week and how befuddled I was over how the gaming press continues to point at and fan themselves over the outrages shat out to us by anonymous people on the Internet. I’d like to explain exactly why this is point sticks with me.

Last year, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik spoke with On the Media‘s Brooke Gladstone about his new book Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (audio, 8 minutes, transcript here). He explains some of the sockpuppetry once practiced by the Fox News PR department:

There’s a long stretch, years where people working for Fox News PR were not only supposed to spin and send out press releases and get good publicity for their people, but late at night they were supposed to be on the blogs, responding to every negative and even neutral blog posting, no matter how large or small the following that that post might have. So one person said she had over 20 aliases that she used to file these comments. Another person had over 100 aliases. They had to use laptops that had been bought from secondhand stores and repurposed and not purchased on corporate credit cards because their bosses didn’t want it traced back to Fox News or the News Corp. They didn’t just respond to the postings. They responded to other people’s comments.

So one PR person described getting a call, being woken up at 2:30 in the morning, by the woman who’s now the head of PR for Fox, Irena Briganti, and she said, why are you embarrassing me like this? And the person said, what do, what do you mean, having been just woken up.

And she says, you know, you haven’t responded to comment #67, or whatever it was on this posting.

I find it endlessly ironic the lengths to which groups with a persecution complex will go to become the very people they fear and hate.

But yeah, anonymous comments.

You don’t know who wrote them.

You don’t know what their motives are.

Attempting to extract genuine sentiment, ideology, or demographic data from the content of anonymous comments either makes you a fool or a hack with an agenda.

UPDATE: I’m surprised I didn’t see this earlier. Shortly after dozens of stolen photos of naked celebrities were leaked online a month ago, Emma Watson delivered a speech at the UN, urging men to to fight discrimination against women. A group apparently linked to 4chan then threatened to release nude photos of Watson in retaliation. News outlets breathlessly reported on this new violation about to be inflicted on another woman by the misogynistic Internet. Except it was a hoax by people who were apparently attempting to have 4chan shut down.

Of course the same journalists who fell for that prank are now breathlessly reporting on every new anonymous threat participants in the GamerGate story say has been leveled at them.

UPDATE #2: Another quick addendum. My college professor who inspired/assigned me to create my own website is a strong advocate for using one’s real name and standing behind one’s words. And while agree that we’d all be better off if we avoided anonymity on the Internet, it’s not as if online services that attempt to coerce people into giving out their real names are sources for honest opinions. Case in point, this Google Plus user:

rick_deckard_google_plus
Will the real Rick Deckard please stand up? Screenshot by author.

UPDATE #3: Video game reviewer Alanah Pearce got tired of the torrent of rape threats and death threats, but instead of writing articles blaming gaming culture or male gamers, she identified the “Little Sh*ts” and told their moms.

Also, and it’s not like we didn’t already know this, but just as anyone can join #YesAllWomen or #GamerGate, anyone can send rape threats:

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/393756/student-fakes-rape-threat-advance-diversity-initiatives-katherine-timpf
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/25/university-of-chicago-facebook-threat_n_6219100.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/03/meg-lanker-simons-hoax-university-wisconsin_n_3210326.html

UPDATED: For Some Reason, People Still Take Anonymous Internet Comments Seriously

“Why would you listen to, believe, and write articles about what he said?” Photo by Paul VanDerWerf. CC BY 2.0.

I read this Deadspin article titled “The Future of the Culture Wars Is Here and It’s GamerGate.” In the piece, Kyle Wagner compares GamerGate “to the ever-present aggrieved reactionaries whose most recent manifestation is the Tea Party.” Like the Tea Party, writes Wagner, GamerGate supporters have created an unsubstantiated persecution narrative which they’ve managed to get everyone to acknowledge. The way in which they’ve managed this feat, he suggests, will be the template for future clashes in the culture wars:

Tomorrow’s Lee Atwater will work through sock puppets on IRC. Tomorrow’s Sister Souljah will get shouted down with rape threats. Tomorrow’s Tipper Gore will make an inexplicably popular YouTube video. Tomorrow’s Willie Horton ad will be an image macro, tomorrow’s Borking a doxing, tomorrow’s Moral Majority a loose coalition of DoSers and robo-petitioners and scat-GIF trolls—all of them working feverishly in service of the old idea that nothing should ever really change.

However, I’m still having trouble buying into the GamerGate narrative as it’s been presented by the gaming press. For the better part of a decade my friends and I have been saying that there should be more variety in video games. We’ve talked about how offensively patronizing it is for game developers to think that we, as young men, want to see women constantly objectified. I’ve read and watched and agreed with mainstream critics like Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who lament that every third new release is about space marines.

The girls I went to high school with generally didn’t seem to have much interest in video games. So it wasn’t until I went off to college that I saw just how many women are gamers too. I thought that this was great. Diversity in creative fields is incredibly important. More diversity among the people who create and enjoy video games will be great for the medium. New stories with different characters. What’s not to love?

Now I have talked to people who were upset that game developers are catering to the “casual” gaming demographic more and more, which includes many women. (Your aunt is more likely to play Angry Birds than Titanfall. ) However, their concern wasn’t that more women play or develop games, but rather that more games are including annoying features predominately found in mobile and social network games such as microtransactions and intrusive social media integration. But I’ve never heard anyone argue that the industry needs more CoD clones and space marines and fighting games with women who wear fewer clothes with every iteration.

Admittedly this is all anecdotal, which now that I think about it will sound like a “well I didn’t own slaves and I’m not a racist, so I don’t want to hear about race” screed. And perhaps it comes from the same desire to ignore and avoid responsibility for the the indefensible. But I want you to understand where my mind was on the issue of women in gaming when GamerGate flared up.

So GamerGate. Anonymous Internet assholes act like anonymous Internet assholes. They write undeniably awful things about people. They doxx people. No one defends that. But then the gaming press decides that those anonymous Internet assholes represent most if not all gamers.1 Game journalists immediately decided that the harassment of people like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn was something that most of gamers agreed with or accepted. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering why anyone is taking anonymous Internet trolls seriously or thinks that the “opinions” they express are in any way genuine.

Americans love trolling. I don’t see how anyone can read anonymous Internet comments and (1) reasonably conclude that they contain honest opinions, and (2) reasonably make vast generalizations about entire groups of people based on them. The only thing one can conclude about anonymous Internet assholes is that they are assholes who like provoking people. What I do know is that opinion pollsters conclude that my generation, which comprises gaming’s demographic, compared to previous generations, is more “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”

That doesn’t jibe with Kyle Wagner’s narrative that gamers are angry, white Tea Party-esque reactionaries, upset that gaming is a bigger tent now than it was before.

So if this is true, shouldn’t the moderate majority of gamers do more to speak out against anonymous Internet trolls who spout abhorrent misogyny? Certainly. We shouldn’t let these people define us or our hobby or make fellow gamers feel hated and unwanted. However, I also am frustrated with how completely and credulously the gaming press concluded that faucets of Internet assholery whose members have waged campaigns of vicious harassment against dozens of other unrelated groups over the years are actually gamers who represent the attitudes of the gaming community as a whole, or even just the white, male subset of gamers.

It’s interesting that Wagner makes the Tea Party comparison, because the Tea Party attracted quite a wide array of people before its co-opting by the GOP. And while there were Tea Party members who feared that the Kenyan-Muslim-socialist-Moon-Nazi in the White House would legalize gay marriage, a lot of people joined the Tea Party because they were furious over the bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and government corruption.

Wagner says since GamerGate is “doing a shit job of identifying the actual, honest-to-god problems in games writing,” it can’t really be about journalism ethics. (I grant that game journos might come to that conclusion if they only cherry-pick from anonymous Internet commenters, Look elsewhere, even among other anonymous comments, however, and one might find more substantive critiques.) Continuing with our Tea Party analogy, I hope we can agree that, regardless of whatever nonsense Todd Akin says, the relationship between government officials and Wall Street firms is worth discussing.

Indeed, Wagner concedes that there are pervasive, though apparently “unavoidable,” ethical issues in gaming journalism. I’m not sure I buy that, but that’s a post for another day. I just wish that in addition to the daily articles the gaming press publishes on the latest horrid thing anon said, they’d also start a discussion on the ethics of their profession and how to uphold them. If the media dedicated a fraction as much airtime and bandwidth to discussing the bailout as they did to gawking at the most outrageous thing a Tea Partier said, we’d be better off.

UPDATE: I sumbled across this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review titled, “Trolls make good clickbait: While the media have denounced recent trolling attacks, they simultaneously support the phenomenon,”

“As news have gotten faster and reliant on sensational elements, there’s also an uptick in trolling…the more you push clickability, the more likely it is for trolls to harness,” said Whitney Phillips, a lecturer at Humboldt State University who is publishing a book about trolling early next year. “Both sides benefit from the arrangement,” she added. “Trolls get a bigger laugh and the media commoditize it through advertisement.”

As one of the few scholars who have done empirical research on trolls, Phillips has often been interviewed by journalists digging into the underlying causes of trolling. But she noted that some of her arguments don’t seem to fit into the media narrative.

“The media are not particularly eager to call attention to the ways in which their editorial policies overlap with precisely the behaviors they are busy denouncing,” she said.

While it is hard to make any general claims about trolls and their motivation, attention is generally what makes them tick—and the sure way to get attention is by engaging in the most outrageous behavior possible, said Phillips. “They know how to hijack the news cycle; they’re very savvy at that,“ she said.

As it turns out that if you feed trolls, they come back for more. But as the news media comprises the biggest troll collective this side of 4chan, I guess they already knew that.


  1. I have always defined “gamer” as someone who plays video games as a pastime. Indeed that’s the only reasonable definition that I can see. But now I’m told that it actually means young, entitled, socially-inept, misogynistic men who play games. Though the gaming press tends to shift between those two definitions to whichever is most convenient.  As a friend explained; “it’s one of those quantum waveform collapse type things. You never know which definition you get until you see which type of polemic it is.”