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When Social Media backfires

Adria_RichardsA valuable lesson can be learned from an incident that occurred over the last week for companies, employees and PR people regarding the inappropriate use of social media, abusing its power, and the perils of hiring an employee who is perhaps a vigilante promoting an agenda possibly inconsistent with your company focus. It displayed the very real dangers and liabilities of polarizing customers through the actions of one individual, a “Tech Evangelist“, through the misuse of twitter which erupted in a PR disaster and probably incurred huge financial losses to the company concerned.

I am not going to go into details of why I personal strongly disagree with how she went about what she did in this blog, but I will unfortunately need to give a bit of background on exactly “what” happened according to news on the internet to explain the ensuing chaos. In a nutshell, a woman, Ms Adria Richards, overheard a conversation behind her by two guys involving some sexual joking/innuendo of computer “dongles” at a tech conference. Face it, “dongle” is a funny word.

To be clear: the conversation was in no way directed at her. She merely overheard it (eavesdropped if I may assume), but she was “offended” by what she heard. What did Ms Richards do? Did she turn around and say: “Guys, I don’t think this is the appropriate place for those jokes and if you continue, I am going to report you to the conference organizers or your company!”

No, instead what she decides to do is to turn around and takes a snapshot of these two guys – and every innocent bystander behind her – and sits down. Then she tweets the picture to her twitter account publicly “asking for assistance” from PyCon, the event/tech conference organizers. Why she assumed that the 9,000+ followers of hers would be interested in this or why she, as a supposed tech guru would think this was appropriate to publicly shame people like this on such a mass scale, I have no idea. I always assumed most of our society’s justice systems involved a “verbal warning” followed by more punitive, slowly escalating degrees of disciplinary action, not a public execution “right off the bat”.

HER TWEET: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and “big” dongles. Right behind me #PyCon”

Guys_at_Python_Adria_Richards

image deliberately blurred out to protect the bystanders

Note that there are several people “behind” her. This tweet is possibly defamatory to not only the two individuals she was trying to single out, but every visible face in the photograph. I certainly wouldn’t want my face in this picture.  I really wouldn’t want to be associated with it.

The conference organizers reacted immediately. They pulled the guys aside. The guys apologized. They were eventually asked to leave the conference. The fact that they apologized seems to point to the fact that they probably would have shut up if she had confronted them directly and this would have been the end of this whole messy situation.

Shortly after this incident, PyCon amended their Codes of Conduct to include this clause: “Note: Public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community. PyCon does not condone nor participate in such actions out of respect.”

It most certainly appears they were not happy with the manner in which she handled this either. It is quite common on most public forums for “naming and shaming” to be frowned upon, so once again, I question why a woman with her experience didn’t handle this situation more conservatively.

But, sadly, it doesn’t end there. One of the guys she photographed was fired from his job, apparently a father of three. The news of him being fired and posts about how Adria Richards’ actions were a catalyst (many threads/posts started appearing with headings like: “Adria Richards gets two guys fired for nothing” or “two guys fired for dick jokes”) appear on a hacker, forum news and blog sites.

On one particular forum, a user by the name of “MrHank” identifies himself as one the men and explains that although he made a dongle joke, the other bit about “forking a repo” was a form of flattery and Ms Richards misunderstood entirely when they said they would like to “fork that guys repo”. For those that don’t know “Forking a repository” is a technical programming term for “copying someone else’s work” and we all know the adage that “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. He apologized again to her on the forums for the dongle joke, but expressed that he wished she had told him he was making her uncomfortable.

Ms Richards commented that she was sorry he was fired, but was not content to leave it there, she tells him on the forum that she has blogged about it and even links her blog.  After personally reading the blog, I must say it’s a case of the old adage of “a man hitting rock bottom and then proceeding to dig”.

Her blog is in my personal opinion a rant of a woman with an apparent feminist agenda (despite her claiming to the contrary) where she attempts to explain her action away as a some sort of fighter / defender of the weak for all the apparently oppressed women that had to be subjected to hearing similar “dick” jokes at previous conferences. In one tweet, she even compares herself to “Joan of Arc”. Her apparent delusions of grandeur and self importance are scattered throughout the article and it is pretty apparent she thinks she’s some sort of misguided saviour when she even ends the article with: “Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.” – a bit grandiose, no?

Social Networking turns against her with a brutal vengeance. The situation goes viral. People start digging up everything on her past history, past tweets of her clearly showing how she made exactly the same type of jokes, some that same weekend and calling her a hypocrite with double-standards, details and past posts of alleged racist comments and man-hating comments emerge. A past associate blogs about how they “never liked her” as she was too volatile. Every part of her character and personal life was made public with one person declaring how callous she was by giving up her cat, Turtle, of 18 years away as she didn’t want to pay the security deposit for her new apartment  Violent threats, rape and death threats come from all over the world. Her Facebook, Twitter accounts go silent. Many of the comments were vile, despicable and hateful.

Some of the harshest comments I read, ironically, were from women. In my opinion, from my observation of the whole drama as it unfolded, the overwhelming majority of people were against her actions, but obviously didn’t condone violence. Unfortunately, extremists do pop out the woodwork wherever there is a volatile situation ~ like sharks in a blood feeding frenzy.

We_are_legion_AnonymousThe hacker group, Anonymous, allegedly got involved and SendGrid, her employer became a victim of a Denial of Service attack. Their business services were interrupted. Their servers were crippled.

The internet turned against Ms Richards. Many, including (allegedly) Anonymous demanded she be fired.

A few hours later, she was fired – as it was stated on SendGrid’s Twitter and Facebook feeds that her services were terminated. Shortly after this news, the Facebook “likes” on this comment went over 2,000 and the discussion and hatred towards Ms Richards in the ensuing comments makes it doubtful whether she has any future in Public Relations. She certainly has polarized the community towards her and incited much anger. The SendGrid CEO wrote a clear concise article with their reasons for dismissing her. No matter what SendGrid did, they have been damaged by this incident. Perhaps part of the reason she was fired was a desperate attempt to get the hackers off their back to allow their servers to start working again. Who knows?

It’s sad that two people lost their jobs and all of this could have been avoided if Ms Richards had merely done the sensible thing and confronted the men that apparently upset her so. In my opinion, her actions were the catalyst for her own destruction.

The lesson for a company using social media? If you’re a company and wish to have someone in charge of your social media, make sure that their Facebook history, their blogs are not a liability to your business. Make sure that they are not too impulsive when handling potentially volatile situations. Make sure their personal agendas are not a threat to your business. Perhaps put a clause in their job contract that if their personal comments on twitter negatively affect your business, they may be dismissed or reprimanded. While I personally feel equality in the workforce is important, I certainly wouldn’t want to polarize customers by an individual with their own agenda.

The lesson for employees? Another example: a few weeks ago, I posted on my Facebook wall that I generally Google and use Facebook to assess prospective candidates for positions. One individual had a photo publicly displayed of her apparently popping ecstasy tablets. It may not have been “e”, but by all accounts, it appeared to be and appearances are all that matter in this case. Certainly, the other photos on her Facebook page photos indicated the same event was attended by some seriously inebriated individuals. Many employers have their HR department scan social media sites prior to interviews. Be careful what you post. If you have a personal blog, make sure it does not conflict with the interests of your company. Temper your comments. One silly mistake may ruin your career.

I guess Ms Richards was partly right about one thing – she is a bit like Joan of Arc – she got burnt too.

Related blogs, links (warning – some explicit content):

Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost – One of the best articles from a work aquaintance

Was It Appropriate For Adria Richards To Tweet A Photo – a cool-headed legal perspective

Adria Richards, a picture chart – The Dilbert Comic is disturbingly prophetic of this event.

Other thoughts:

“Technology Evangelist” ~ It’s an interesting job description that I had never heard of before, but I suppose it is an appropriate term if you’re trying to convert a customer from one way of technology thinking to another, but I digress.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in the blog are the personal opinions of the author, Craven Coetzee. 

Ms Richard’s photograph obtained from Facebook – which is publicly accessible all over the internet – and used merely for illustrative purposes.

I wish all parties the best for the future and hope that they have take something away from this and learned from their mistakes.