Discrimination by Design: Tech Business, Bias, and the Trolls

“The world of coding appreciates your vagina.”

My coworkers and I looked at it and other comments piling up under a video of iJustine, a perky, blonde haired, doe-eyed YouTube presenter, explaining how she coded her own bracelet which was 3D printed by our company.

It was 2014 and the 3D printing startup we worked for had teamed up with Google to work on their Made with Code initiative, which aimed to get young girls involved in technology and understand the basics of programming. Under the tagline “the things you love are made with code,” featured coding projects that included fashion designs, emojis, video games, and our 3D printed friendship bracelets were all packaged up in a pastel-hued, rah-rah girlpower website.

MadeWithCodeBracelets

The comments kept coming, “Proof that being a hot girl can make you rich, and allow you to talk about shit you have no clue about. Yet there’s this big push for feminism, claiming gender inequality in the West is a thing. LOL.”

“You don’t need ‘empowering’ at a young age, Let them be free and dont expose kids to externals ideas or some kind of gender agenda [sic].”

“I sure as shit hope this gets more girls into coding. So i can laugh at their extreme disappointment when they realize it’s nothing like they thought it would be thanks to retards like ijustine.”

Based on their screen names and avatars, all were written by adult men. L., our design education lead shook her head, “This video is for children. We’re going to delete these, right?”

No, our white male CEO insisted, we needed to leave the comments open to encourage dialogue and resist the urge to shut down free expression. Instead of deleting the offensive comments, or closing comments on the video all together, L. was instructed to politely respond to each one. We had just spent significant time and company resources to support a project that encourages girls to code and we were more concerned with protecting the “free speech” of YouTube trolls then ensuring the intended audience for the project, pre-teen and teenaged girls, felt safe watching it.

I shook with rage, as she too became trollbait and received responses such as, “Perhaps [your company] would be better served if they hired people to do this that actually cared to know things instead of just wanting to promote female supremacy.” Her intelligence and the mere fact that she dared to be a woman with a voice on the internet was ripped apart in the comments section.

She went home early, frustrated and demoralized not only by the comments of anonymous trolls, but that when she showed our leadership what was happening to her they again responded, “It’s an open forum. We don’t want to shut down expression, we just want to show them our response.” Almost three years later and the comments are still there, making me shudder to look at and enraged about who had to bear the burden of that “reasonable” response.

This incident is the mere tip of the Internet trolling and discrimination in tech iceberg. I began this piece last year and the recent memo a male engineer circulated at Google proclaiming that more women were not engineers because women were inherently incapable of the type of thinking required for coding and that Google was promoting a culture of “liberal bias” made me think about this story again. Google fired the engineer, but then white supremacists planned rallies in Mountain View, New York, and San Francisco, among other cities, this weekend to “protest” his firing (though fortunately, thousands more anti-racist counter protesters showed up and in most cases the white supremacists didn’t show up at all or quickly retreated).

I think about how the United States’ Troll-in-Chief has enabled and encouraged these more public showings of white supremacy and sexist violence, though this culture of violence and sexism has always been present in American society and in Silicon Valley.

Giant blow outs around harassment and discrimination happen so regularly in the tech world we have started to forget about them. And the culture doesn’t change. Remember how Twitter lost a possible purchase by Salesforce and Disney in 2016 because it is laden with trolls, white supremacists, and misogynists? Already seems like ancient internet history. Remember how Ellen Pao got driven out of Reddit when she tried to remove some of its trolliest elements? How the CEO of Uber had to step down after an unending series of legal and ethical “scandals,” which seem baked into the company’s DNA?

This is not by accident. All of these “incidents” of bias are by design. They are the result of conscious business decisions made by actual people.

Back to my small story above—what I learned on that day was not that the internet was full of nastiness—I knew that from the days of Aol chat rooms—but I saw first hand how our leadership made a distinct decision that privileged trolls over the young women who were our customers and women who were their employees.

Leadership may brush these comments off by “words that can’t hurt you,” but when I saw what happened to L. that day and think about the psychological damage caused by online harassment of outspoken feminists like Lindy West, game designer Brianna Wu, writer and speaker Anita Sarkeesian, and actor Leslie Jones, who have the audacity to think they can express themselves on the internet and have an opinion about comedy, video games, and nerd culture among other topics, I want to hold the companies that allow these behaviors to continue directly accountable.

Companies like Twitter, Google and YouTube, and Reddit are not bastions of democracy despite whatever their lofty missions. We need to remember they are for-profit companies. That means they can fully allow and decide how their platform gets used. As a for-profit corporation they are not a neutral platform. “Well, it’s a slippery slope to start regulating speech, and once you do so you create a dangerous precedence,” the argument at my old company went and seems to go at tech companies in general. Really? Let’s not forget about the “paradox of tolerance” outlined by philosopher Karl Popper and making its rounds on the internet lately – the idea that to create a “tolerant” open society we, paradoxically, must limit intolerance.

tolerance

Twitter leadership has admitted, and then readmitted, that they “suck” at protecting users from trolling and abuse, especially after extreme harassment temporarily drove Leslie Jones’s from the platform after Ghostbusters: Answer the Call came out last summer. They even went so far as banning “alt-right” aka white supremacist accounts from Twitter (so Troll-in-chief’s hasn’t been deleted how?) post-election. However, these mea culpas fall flat unless a user policy putting user safety first is not only created, but enforced.

From my own experience, it’s unambiguously clear that a comments such as “the internet appreciates your vagina,” calling a YouTube presenter a “retard” and griping about teaching young girls not to be afraid of computers as a promotion of “female supremacy” are not contributing to a productive, or interesting, dialogue about when and how to teach kids to code and how to engage young girls in STEM education.

If companies truly care about making tech more inclusive and diverse, as they claim to by supporting initiatives like Made with Code, they need to step up their user policies, invest in teams that can investigate and block abusive behavior on their platforms, and look hard at how they treat employees who are not white and male. Short of that, they are just protecting their investors, shareholders, and advertisers by keeping account numbers high and privileging harassment and trolling above real user engagement (no surprise).  

There also needs to be a lot more self-examination and investigation of bias, both overt and “unconscious.” The repeated incidents of harassment of women and minorities in tech and in the working world, and the world in general send a clear message: men in power do not want you here, do not want to rethink how they do business, do not want to give up their power.

Tech companies, and companies in general, justify the way they continue to practice discrimination in hiring by using ideas like “excellence” and “culture fit”. Until tech companies are able to have an honest, non-defensive conversation about why more women may work on their Customer Support or Marketing teams (or work cleaning their offices for that matter) than on their technical teams, they are not truly stepping up to create more equitable places to work and products that serve all of their users.

In the meantime, the burden of keeping one’s self safe online and sane at work falls to the most vulnerable communities. The onus is on those targeted by trolling and hate to keep themselves safe. Women and underrepresented groups in tech don’t need more mentoring and empowering programs, we need actual opportunities, fair hiring practices, and companies and products that are designed to protect their most vulnerable users on and offline.

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Interview with Impractical Labor in the Service of the Speculative Arts on NYFA Current!

The ILSSA Reference Reports, a component of the ILSSA Quarterly, are an ever-growing and collaboratively generated annotated list of resources relevant to ILSSA members. The group's founders call the Reports “our analogue Internet.”

Impractical who? Speculative what? What is she on about? If you love bookbinding, zines, letterpress printing, type writers, old Polaroid cameras, and any and all things that have to do with obsolete technology, you will love this project. Impractical Labor in the Service of the Speculative Arts was started by Bridget Elmer and Emily Larned, two artists who are letterpress printers and bookmakers that I greatly admire. It was Emily who suggested I intern at Booklyn, a Brooklyn-based book artists alliance, my first internship in New York. I also worked in Emily’s studio all through college, binding books, scoring and folding CD covers, and sorting type, in exchange for the use of her beautiful Vandercook press and lovingly homemade lunches. It was this kind of impractical labor, and Emily’s inspiring example of how to do it, that made me think very carefully and clearly about what it meant to be an artist and how one builds an artist’s life and balances their life and work.

Set letterpress type for the ILSSA leaflet, What is craft and why does it matter?, included as part of an ILSSA Research Quarterly.

Bridget and Emily’s project/organization is a membership organization that borrows from ideas of a labor union and a research institute and a performance project all rolled into one. I was very flattered to interview them for NYFA Current and I hope you will read the full interview here about their activities.