On the Internet, Freedom of Speech and Being a Dick

This isn’t a post about the Adria Richards thing. I don’t have much unique or all that interesting to say about it, honestly.

But this is a post about the Internet, and its response to Adria Richards and those who have stood up for her over the last few days.

Take Gina Trapani, for example. Gina’s an excellent writer, great podcaster and successful developer. While I don’t know Gina personally, I’ve followed her work for ages and look up to her.

Last night she tweeted this:

Now, as NSFW as that is, it’s important to see it. Gina and others aren’t making this up. Just a quick pass through her mentions on Twitter show tons more garbage.

Gina’s not alone, of course. Numerous women in the tech industry have had violent messages hurled their way in the last few days, with Richards receiving the brunt of it:

Richards’ own site and that of her employer, SendGrid, were subject to denial-of-service attacks. Richards was personally bombarded with rape and murder threats. Someone sent her a photo of a naked, decapitated bound woman’s body with the caption “When I’m done.” A concerted effort began on 4chan to get Richards fired. Instead of standing up for an employee in the face of rape and death threats, SendGrid caved. It fired Richards because, in short, she was a trouble-maker.

Here’s a quote from the Verge article on the event:

But in a world where thousands of anonymous men can instantly gather to deliver swift retribution against any perceived threat, it’s easy to understand why more women don’t speak out.

While it is eroding in many ways, the Internet was founded with anonymity near and dear to its heart. Sadly, anonymity gives bullies courage, and can enable people to say terrible thing that they (probably) wouldn’t say in person. (Of course, some people are horrible to others with or without a keyboard in front of them.)

Another cornerstone of the Internet is the freedom of speech. The web has given a voice to the masses, as the Arab Spring showed us just a couple of years ago. But too many times, that voice turns negative.

Here’s Alexis Ohanian:

We, the tech community, should be taking a hard look at our response to the aforementioned events. Aren’t we better than this? I’m not talking about the trolls. There will always be frenzied agitators who are just mashing away on their keyboard, trying to outrage people. I’m talking about how many (otherwise reasonable-seeming) people I saw who were comfortable and self-righteous in calling a woman a bitch/cunt/etc from their Twitter, Hacker News, or, yes, reddit account.


Now, the name Alexis Ohanian should be familiar to many of you, as he’s the co-founder of Reddit. Reddit famously doesn’t intervene with user content most of the time.

Here’s Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire:

In practice, Reddit generally stands up for the “free speech” of its site, meaning pretty much anything and definitely everything sexist remain on Reddit without getting pulled, moderated, or mandated. In fact, Reddit even rewards its super trolls. This is the same site that gave an award to Violentacrez, a.k.a Michael Brutsch, a.k.a the “biggest troll on the web” behind the creepshots and jailbait subreddits. The people who run the site justify that kind of action as a part of the site’s philosophy, which Ohanian gets at in his latest plea: “These amazing open platforms for speech work because an internet connection is all we need to share an idea with the connected world,” he writes. That lax policy, however, still results in a lot hateful people talking about terrible things, which was very much on full display as the Richards scandal played out last week from SendGrid to hackers and the tech-troll community in between. Apparently, this time things went too far for Reddit, or at least Ohanian, who would like to remind the “rock star” nerds what it feels like at the other end of things: “Plenty of us got used to being ignored,” he writes. “Many of us were bullied. But what did we learn from it — empathy or hate?”

My guess, Mr. Ohanian, is that the answer is hate, despite your blog post that reads:

We need to know the answer, because suddenly we are the cool kids. They’re making movies about us. We’re “rock stars.” Holy shit, the rest of the world is finally realizing how awesome we are. The geek has inherited the earth. And now that we’re the powerful ones, we need to remember: with great power comes great responsibility. It’s irresponsible to continue to act as though we are victims.

Ohanian’s hypocrisy aside, a single fact remains at the heart of this issue: the freedom of speech we all enjoy the Internet doesn’t entitle anyone to be a dick.