Digging Beneath the Surface: That Amanda Blum Article on Adria Richards is Not What It Seems

An article by Amanda Blum portrays Adria Richards, who has been subjected to the wrath of the internet, in a pretty damning light. Amanda describes Adria as "a bully who uses these instances to her personal gain, driving traffic to her blog." She cites two interactions with Adria which, admittedly, look pretty bad. Adria comes off as someone with a pattern of exposing falsely perceived sexism in the worst possibly way. When you dig beneath the surface, you find that Amanda's stories aren't nearly so bad as they seem. In fact, Adria comes off as, on the whole, quite reasonable -- despite the initial bully depiction.

Backstory: At PyCon, a python developers conference which purports to have a relatively large percentage of women (only 20% still), two guys made some jokes to each other laced with sexual innuendos (something about the word “dongle”). Adria Richards, a Developer Evangelist, was bothered by these comments and took some a picture of them. She then reported it via Twitter (with their picture) and asked PyCon staff to speak to the men, which they did. Then, she followed up with a blog post. As a result, one of the two men was fired. The internet got mad and then Adria was fired.

Before I go on, let me be clear here: Amanda Blum also made a number of points in her post which I agree with, and which I think everyone should take heed of. Whether or not what Adria did at PyCon was wrong (and the vast majority of us believe it was), the reaction towards her was ugly, disgusting, and morally wrong. So Amanda, if you're reading this, I do support the main point of your article: this treatment was not okay.I also understand why you don't like Adria. It's frustrating when you're trying to do something that you think is perfectly okay, and someone is accusing you of endorsing sexism.

With all that said, I disagree with the depiction of Adria as "a bully who uses these instances to her personal gain, driving traffic to her blog." The only stories that people have cited in building a pattern of behavior from Adria is PyCon and Amanda's stories. If this is such a pattern, where is everyone else with their "Adria Is Crazy" stories?

The Alleged "Pattern of Behavior"

Amanda cites two interactions with Adria:

#1: Adria was offended by a talk titled "Getting the Money Shot" that did, in the abstract itself, state "how thinking like a porn director will help you achieve the 'money shot.'" 

Here's Amanda's take:

She’d never told us she was offended, she’d never told Danielle- she told her podcasting audience and blog readers that we were promoting porn.  In the end, after great drama, she attended and deep sixed her talk, instead lecturing the attendees about how porn wasn’t acceptable at conferences [emphasis mine]. The beginners in her class were less than amused and ultimately, deprived of the opportunity to learn from her.

I personally wouldn't really much care myself, but Adria's right. This is a direct porn reference and doesn't belong at a technical conference. Porn is deeply offensive to many groups of people on religious as well as gender grounds (and just I-think-it's-morally-wrong-and-vile grounds). This is just not a "don't talk about sex at a tech conference" issue. Many people feel that porn is inherently evil -- exploitative, damaging, etc. I may not agree with that, you may not agree with that, but a lot of people do. It's just too offensive to be a "fun / joke" addition to a tech conference.

So here's what happened:

  1. Adria mentioned on her podcast that she wouldn't be attending the conference if that talk made it in. It was still being voted on, so she hadn't reached out to the conference organizers. Because, you know, why raise a fuss about it if the talk isn't necessarily happening anyway? (The reason that she mentioned it on her podcast was that she was explaining to her listeners that she was planning on attending but was having second thoughts.)
  2. Amanda found out what happened on the show and reached out to Adria.
  3. Adria explained in an email why she was offended to Amanda: What’s Wrong With Using Sex In Tech Conference Presentations?
  4. Amanda responded, frankly, pretty rudely and aggressively to Adria. Read the emails between them. Adria comes out looking much more level-headed. Amanda did not treat Adria with respect. Amanda tells Adria (who, by the way, is a speaker at this conference and usually we treat our speakers a bit more nicely) that she's "overreacting", "exaggerating", and that the talk is "obviously not about porn" (apparently, despite the title and abstract referencing porn, it's "obviously not about porn"). Amanda then basically lectures Adria to "reach out in a far less volatile way" next time.
  5. Later, after these emails had been exchanged, Adria blogged about the situation. In the blog post, Adria even admitted that she made a mistake in mentioning it on her podcast prior to talking with the organizers, and apologized for doing so.
  6. Adria added in one slide at the very end (slide 27, after her contact info) of the her talk about porn + tech conferences. Personally, I wouldn't describe inserting one slide at the very end (particularly after contact info) as "deep sixing" a talk and depriving people of an opportunity to learn from her.

Amanda colors the situation as Adria overreacting and handling it poorly. When you read about what actually happened, you come out with a somewhat different impression.

Porn is too offensive to many people to be in a technical talk. While Adria perhaps shouldn't have mentioned the issue in her podcast prior to discussing the issue with the organizers, this was not entirely unreasonable either. The topics were still being voted on publicly, and she was no longer sure that she would be attending.

Amanda's reaction, on the other hand, was quite rude and aggressive. This is not the way that I would handle an interaction with a conference speaker if I were organizing a conference.

#2. Adria was offended by a spoof of an XKCD shirt that she felt painted women poorly.

The way Amanda tells the story (and I'm not saying she had ill-intent here; just that the story was a bit vague in key points), it appears at first that the conference just took an existing XKCD comic and then Adria got offended. According to Amanda, Adria "made the situation immediately public and rallied her troops."

Is this what happened? Not exactly.

First of all, the comic used was a spoof of an XKCD comic -- it was not the exact comic. I don't think Amanda was trying to mislead people here. However, someone could easily read her blog post and think that they just borrowed an existing XKCD comic, when in fact they changed it in important ways.

Second, whereas the original XKCD comic painted one woman to be smart and the other one to be neutral intelligence-wise, this t-shirt comic paints both women to be stupid. Again, not something I would be especially bothered by, but I can see Adria's point here. You have a technical(ish) conference where the t-shirt graphic portrays dumb women. This is probably not a good idea.

The original XKCD comic: two women, one of whom is smart (the other's intelligence is not referenced).

The t-shirt graphic. Both women (or at least one) are portrayed as stupid.

Third, Amanda says that Adria "made the situation immediately public." Based on the links Amanda provided as reference, this is a pretty significant exaggeration. Adria commented on a blog entry announcing the shirts by the person in charge of the shirts calmly and clearly expressing her objection to the shirts. Is this not a perfectly appropriate place to raise an objection to the shirt? I would have thought so.

Fourth, Amanda says that Adria "rallied the troops." I'm not sure what Amanda means by that, but I see absolutely no indication of that having happened. No one on the blog commented agreeing with Adria. So, if Adria "rallied the troops," she apparently didn't point them to the blog post about the t-shirt (wouldn't that be the first place you've point the troops? Surely at least some of the troops would comment?). And Amanda didn't provide any links or description about how Adria "rallied the troops."

Fifth, Adria was not aggressive at all in raising the objection to the shirts. She calmly and clearly articulated why she objected to the shirts. She was, in fact, perfectly respectful in raising this issue. However, the response to Adria (by the t-shirt creator, not Amanda) was pretty aggressive towards her.

So, what was this pattern of behavior of Adria's?

On the whole, in the two instances that Amanda points to, Adria comes off looking pretty bad... but only if you don't look too hard.

When you drill into the details of the situation, however, you find that Adria was, on the whole, fairly reasonable in both situations. You could still say she was "overly alert" to sexism in these cases, I suppose, but this is not such a terrible thing. In both cases, she had valid points. Porn is too offensive to many people to be in a technical conference, and the XKCD-shirts do paint women to be stupid. Both objections are perfectly valid to raise.

Moreover, Adria responded to both situations in a fairly reasonable way. She was not overly aggressive or hostile. Rather, she explained her objections clearly and fairly. (I cannot say the same thing of the conference organizers.)

Amanda alleged a pattern behavior which, frankly, isn't backed up in the post (at least not once you get past the high-level summary). And, interestingly, I also have yet to see someone else write up a similar set of issues. In fact, everything I see about people who have worked with her is fairly positive. Maybe there are a bunch of other stories lurking in the background, but I haven't seen them: not from Amanda and not from other people.

Regardless, whether Adria has a pattern of behavior like at PyCon, it does not justify how the angry mobs of the internet handled it. We should speak up and have rational discussions about these issues; that is valuable. It is perfectly okay to object to how Adria handled the situation.

What is never okay, even for far worse "crimes" than this, are: rape threats, death threats, racial slurs, sexist slurs, DDOSing and basically blackmailing her company, calling her fat and ugly, and such behavior. Even if you somehow (bizarrely) think that once someone is "guilty" of wrongdoing how they are treated doesn't matter, other groups - black people, women, etc -- are affected by this treatment too.

It was not okay here and it is never okay.