My Byline Here

When I worked in Communications at Charles Schwab, our CIO was a big believer in openness. He regularly met with employees at all levels and highly discouraged anonymity. This was a big deal because morale was low and many people wanted to “vent” in a way that they believed had little repercussions.

In retrospect, I could not agree with him more. With the exception of some extreme cases, the benefits of open far outweigh the benefits of anonymity.

Unfortunately, this is counter to what many libertarian-leaning people would have you think. For them, anonymity increases meritocracy, removing ‘barriers’ that may stifle expression such as title, education, race, gender.

If I lived in this vacuum of theory, I’d have to agree.

Ironically, however, most of these anonymity-proponents have never experienced these barriers themselves, and when we move from theory to reality, the picture changes. While it’s true that in very specific scenarios there are reasons to preserve anonymity, the vast majority of public exchange benefits from linkages to real-world identity. While the alleged barriers to meritocracy have yet to emerge as a significant force, the dark side of anonymity is all-too-prominent. When consequences are removed, conversation quickly devolves into corrosive exchange that scarcely resembles any form of constructive discourse.

And this goes “both ways”: when an entrepreneur sought to reverse the power equation by creating an app allowing women to anonymously rate men, the results were good for pretty much nobody. Again, no checks or balances to the ratings easily leads to all sorts of negative and potentially libelous behaviors.

The extreme of this happened late last year with Silk Road, the anonymous marketplace which served as a breeding ground for illegal activity and ultimately the channel for conspiracy to commit murder.

I applaud publications who are changing their commenting policies to preserve a semblance of true discourse and exchange. And I will observe the new wave of anonymous social apps with great curiosity and caution.

The World Needs a Free Web

I spend a lot of time thinking about this as a Mozillian. And just this week I had the privilege to meet the producer of an upcoming documentary addressing the challenges we have in this regard.

But today I had the utter joy to see why this issue is so tangible. So palpable.

If there were no free web, there’d be none of this. Profuse thanks to Deanna for calling this important material to our attention!

Progress or Compliance?

The Internet exploded this week when Adria Richards chose to use her social media audience as the first channel to air her offense at some comments made at Pycon. Much has been written about this, including further offense that people have actually questioned Adria’s response to her own offense. Everyone’s offended.

To be clear: offense and even outrage is justified considering the vitriol that ensued (including real, disturbing threats and job losses). It’s worrisome and harkens of regressive tendencies in tech and the job security and safety of many in this industry.

However, the bigger picture so eloquently outlined by Amanda Blum is very important. Blum calls out a pattern of social media dysfunction where Richards has reacted to multiple instances of offense through public channels, which invariably (if you use social media, it’s not surprising) led to incendiary exchanges and a general degradation of relations.

Blum says it so well:

All she had to consider was “what outcome am I looking for?”. If the outcome is “change the way these men are speaking” she’d have taken a different route. If “make as big a deal of this as humanly possible with no thought to consequence” was her outcome, she chose right.

When I look at this big picture – what do we want things to be vs. how do we feel about specific incidents – I have little sympathy for the “if someone is offended they are off-limits to criticism” approach others (whom I love dearly) have put forth. There are SO many reasons why putting a quarantine on any critique of an offended person’s reaction is counter-productive and leads to horrid consequences…here are just a few:

  • It confines the situation to feelings rather than uses those feelings constructively. Not to belittle feelings; if I suspend disbelief (and had not read the very salient context provided by Blum) and posit that she has for reasons of pure fate encountered a large backlog of awkward sexist situations, certainly frustration, insecurity, awkwardness, and fear are all rational reactions. But acting on them vs. weighing out what the desired outcome should be led to lots of disservices. Disservices to her, for assuming that is all she is capable of is reacting (or cyber-bullying, in this case). To the offenders, for not allowing them a chance to explain themselves before the world knew. And to the Internet, for escalating a series of reactions about an offense rather than healthier, more constructive conversations about what can be done to prevent them. Regardless of what Matt Lemay says about the conversation being good, it would have been *way* better had it not been launched by a shitstorm of threats and polemics. Easily avoidable.
  • It absolves the offended of any responsibility to think bigger and act in a way that actually helps others. In this sad case, giving Richards a self-centered carte blanche to do whatever she feels is ok wasn’t just therapy. It led to some real, horrid and significant backlash. Social media tends to do that. If she truly wanted a healthier environment in tech, her passive-aggressive “I will only Tweet and out them en masse” manner would not have happened. She could have followed Jolie O’Dell’s script. If she was too afraid or timid to do that, she could have addressed it with the conference officials who had already made it clear they care about this stuff – clearly a supportive audience. But she chose vendetta, not activism.
  • It leads to an environment of fear and compliance rather than freedom and enlightenment. Again, play it out: say some company hires her for PR purposes (it’s a leap to think someone would hire her for her commmunity-building skills; SendGrid’s explanation makes perfect sense). She joins the team. Do you think anyone would feel free to say _anything_ in her presence given her passive-aggressive terrorist approach to conflict? All ingredients to an environment of compliance, fear and resentment rather than an enlightened, educated workplace.

In short, when you choose to involve social media as the key channel for your conflict, you go beyond your personal therapy. You affect lives. Think before you point, shoot and post.