On complicity, faux-feminism, and how not to be an asshole on the internet (and real life).
I wasted the better part of the day yesterday, and a sizable chunk of today, responding to a post by Violet Blue called The Apple fanboy problem. The post doesn’t warrant that level of attention. It’s just unacceptable.
The perfect response came from Jeff Carlson on Twitter:
— Jeff Carlson (@jeffcarlson) February 6, 2012
In a sane and just internet, you could leave it at that. Blue’s post is needlessly inflammatory, defensive, and it misrepresents everything that happened. And worse, it’s clumsily framed as an expose of some aspects of internet culture, when it’s simply a case of a writer being held accountable for something she’d written and instead choosing to respond in the worst way imaginable.
There’s not much need in going through a point-by-point. Shawn King, one of the men called out in Blue’s post, recaps the situation in his posts Hear that noise? That’s Violet Blue’s backpedalling and Violet, Violet, Violet…. While it’d be possible to disagree with his tone or his interpretation, the actual events are all laid out, quoted and linked. Every publicly-visible thing written — posts and comments on the relevant blogs, not private emails or Twitter comments — about the whole nonsensical business.
While it’s not necessary to hold personal blogs to the standards of journalism (although it’d be nice), you do have to hold posts on a professional tech blog to those standards. Even if you want to call it “punditry” or “opinion” or “culture” writing, there are certain things you just don’t do.
You don’t dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as a “fanboy.” That’s the kind of thing that gets you laughed off of blog comments, much less actual blog posts. I don’t think even PC World is allowed to use the term anymore.
You don’t make ridiculous claims like “Women are already geek outsiders in Apple culture.” This is the computer brand that has been so associated with educators, artists, and publishers since 1984 that it’s even become a stereotype. That’s like saying “Vegetarians have always been outsiders in Greenpeace culture.” And that’s not even a case of catching Blue on a technicality or focusing on one poorly-worded or insufficiently thought-out phrase: it’s the premise of her entire article. When she puts herself forward as having insight into the culture of tech, that’s the first thing she’s supposed to get right.
You don’t call out people by name and accuse them of instigating an attack on you, when it’s right there perfectly clear in the public record that they did no such thing. Gruber’s link post quotes a relevant portion of her article with full context, and he mentions a valid point that two commenters (whom he correctly identifies!) made: that doesn’t look like a “booth babe,” but a developer. Accurately quoting a writer’s writing and commenting on it is not an “attack.” It’s a desperate stretch even to call it “chastising.”
You don’t present unsubstantiated allegations and anonymous complaints as if they were fact. She offers two completely unidentified quotes from people on the internet calling out Gruber — someone who’s notoriously contentious, but more on that in a minute — and presents them as evidence of some long history of unprovoked attacks from him and by the Apple community at large. We the readers are supposed to take these as serious indications of his character, even though it’s genuinely unconscionable that we should take any of the attacks on Blue from Twitter and elsewhere as if they were true indications of her character.
You don’t take a personal complaint, slap an Apple logo on it, and attempt to frame it as an Apple-related story. I still have no idea what was going through her mind, much less what was going through the mind of the editor who approved it. The most charitable explanation is that it was a sincere but inept attempt to turn one event into some kind of overall culture analysis. But at best, that would demonstrate a gross lack of awareness that nasty comments directed at writers happen everywhere on the internet, whether it’s about tech, politics, video games, comic books, and for all I know, even stamp collecting. And it makes absolutely no attempt to do any kind of research, interviews, or anything resembling actual reportage. The post is so inflammatory and filled with lazy generalizations, it’s hard to feel charitable about it. It’s a lot more likely that it was just a transparent attempt at link-baiting and a clumsy smear campaign.
But the worst example of laziness and sloppiness, is the deplorable way she continues to handle a simple case of mis-identification. Getting the wrong name for a photo subject is not, and never was, the issue. Even the woman in question, Zsófia Rutkai — who seems awesome and is one of the only people involved who’s able to come out looking reasonable — doesn’t care. No, the issue is that when called on it, Blue blamed everyone else for giving her bad information.
The witch hunt was based on inaccurate information about Macworld exhibitors that the men had provided to the public.
No. Shawn King and John Gruber, “the men” in question, didn’t provide the information. A commenter on the blog post did. King didn’t make the comment, and he didn’t “deliver the story to John Gruber.” King made a post about it, which got picked up by Daring Fireball as an afterthought. Blue included that info in an update on her post without bothering to check it.
Like everyone else, I assumed that Mr. Gruber and Mr. King were stating accurate and true facts.
No. Like everyone else, Mr. Gruber posted a link to a website that everyone with an internet connection is free to read. And Gruber actually correctly identified the man who left the comment. He didn’t state a fact, he quoted a commenter with a citation, “According to Tim Breen,” which is something Blue has yet to do.
Simply posting a link to a comment with the name of the commenter correctly identified — that’s closer to reportage than anything that Blue has done to this point. And yet, she paints herself as a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein for getting to the bottom of this breaking story — which, again, was never the problem people had in the first place — which just amounts to contacting a company and asking “hey, who is this?” (And one of her “attackers,” Shawn King, had already helpfully provided the link to the company, since this whole “Google” thing can be perplexing to those who aren’t part of the Apple Illuminati). And then, most galling of all:
People so eager to do a blog post takedown that they don’t check their facts for days, and do a follow up to take another shot at the person in the crosshairs… they must be pretty unhappy, right?
It’s just jaw-dropping. You can’t blame your readers for not doing fact-checking on an article that you wrote. Period. Failing to identify, and then mis-identifying, a person photographed in a puff piece about a tech show? That’s perfectly excusable and ultimately completely forgettable. Going on the defensive to a bizarre degree and blaming readers for your mistake? Inexcusable.
And all that is just a small part of the sloppy mistakes, misrepresentations, and bizarre claims that make it abundantly clear it’s an example of bad journalism that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
Unless, of course, the writer were to refuse to admit responsibility for making a sloppy but ultimately harmless mistake, and she instead tried to frame it as an example of institutionalized sexism, misogyny, and threats of violence against women.
Which would mean that those of us who do take accusations of sexism very seriously now have to waste our time going on the defensive about something that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.
So take a step back, and look at the post that started the nonsense: MacWorld 2012: The Island of Misfit Toys.
It’s largely inoffensive. It’s a substance-free account of going to a trade show on a tech blog that never actually mentions tech. It gives a single anecdote from the show floor, goes into considerably more detail about the show/party that night, and then name drops Steve Jobs which I guess was supposed to count as some kind of eulogy. I’ve read more vapid reports of trade shows and press events on Kotaku. Hell, I’ve probably written stuff with less substance (but didn’t get paid for it, I feel obliged to point out).
Except the post has “MacWorld 2012″ in the title, but the only bit that actually talks about MacWorld is a weird description that could be interpreted by any sane and reasonable person as being offensive to women.
Let’s be clear on this: Blue’s attempt at a rant about the sexism pervasive throughout the Apple community is the result of people in the Apple community pointing out to her that she sounded misogynist.
Gruber’s “chastising” “attack” quotes the relevant bit, unedited, in its full context, and says concisely and objectively what was objectionable. Blue sees a woman at a kiosk in a trade show and takes a blurry photo of her. Without once talking to the woman, because the woman seemed “sad” and her demeanor made her “unapproachable.” Then Blue writes an article calling the woman a “booth babe,” giving not her name or any of her thoughts about the show, but describing her only as a “pretty brunette,” and spending a paragraph talking about her “breasts that were packaged air-tight in a tight, branded t-shirt.”
It’s obvious and not completely relevant, but it bears mentioning anyway: if a man had written that, he’d have been virtually castrated by the “misogynist” Apple community within 24 hours.
The link on Daring Fireball doesn’t even say that much, though. It says what plenty of ZDNet commenters said: that the woman doesn’t seem like a booth babe, but a developer who happens to be a woman. (As it turns out, she works in Public Relations. Still not a booth babe).
Blue came right out of the gate calling people “fanboys,” blaming John Grueber [sic] for launching an attack on her, and trying to frame it as an issue of men vs. women.
What’s most telling, I think, is her cursory dismissal of the very idea that her post could be construed as misogynistic. She is, as she so often reminds us, feminist and sex-positive. She even links to an earlier post she’d written (good SEO!) as evidence that she didn’t mean “booth babe” as a pejorative.
It’s the article that begins:
CES doesn’t look much like a cutting-edge convention now that problems have emerged around the hired female models dressed in provocative outfits to be “booth babes” at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past week.
CES 2012 booth babes told press that women prefer raising kids to being in technology, men publicly harassed the babes for dates, and female attendees probably wondered if they’d accidentally wandered onto the set of Mad Men.
and then goes on with an extended fantasy interlude about what if the genders were reversed and wouldn’t that teach us all a thing or two about female empowerment? The women would be the ones who get all the respect, while the men stand around being objectified!
Blue tells us that that’s obviously how she meant “booth babe.” Which assumes that 1) people are not only aware that ZDNet still exists, but they read it regularly, instead of just googling for “MacWorld”; 2) the article in question doesn’t give a completely damning (and outdated) impression of booth babes as being nothing more than vapid models with no idea what they’re talking about; and 3) Blue’s internet presence is so pervasive that she can “take back” the term and coin it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means, all in the space of two weeks.
In that comment, Blue says:
One commenter on Twitter suggested I dressed her down for being “not slutty enough.” This is absolutely untrue. And is very revealing about the person that said it.
Speaking of something that’s very revealing about the person who said it: Let’s look at Blue’s defense of her use of “booth babe” with the most charitable interpretation possible.
Blue assumed that a woman at a kiosk of a trade show, notable only for being “pretty” and for having breasts packed into a tight T-shirt, was some kind of nebulous “woman dev, woman hacker,” (because same difference computers whatever!), and not someone who was there just to look pretty. And Blue felt perfectly comfortable bestowing her with this new female-empowering connotation of “booth babe,” meaning a woman who knows her stuff and has something substantive to say about the technology she’s representing.
So Blue took her picture without talking to her, and then wrote about her hair and her tits and how she looked unapproachable and “sad.”
Instead of engaging the woman, asking her about her experiences, her thoughts on women in technology, her comparisons of MacWorld to previous years, what it’s like to be a female developer, her name. The kind of things that reporters at trade shows do. Apparently there was only one woman at MacWorld whose impressions of the show were important to Violet Blue.
It was never just about getting a name wrong. It’s that even when you take Blue’s backpedalling at face value, it’s still offensively dismissive of women in tech.
The Even Worse
Which is why it’s so appalling when she tries to frame it as a case of “how the internet treats women.”
It starts in her attempt at a defense in the comments, and then continues all throughout her irresponsible “Apple fanboy” post. She starts right out describing it as “an online witch hunt” against “a female blogger” based on “inaccurate information about Macworld exhibitors that the men” had provided.
Correcting and dismissing Blue’s posts was never about Men vs. Women. It’s about accuracy vs. inaccuracy, good writing vs. bad writing, journalism vs. whatever the hell it is she’s doing, and misogyny vs. respect.
I confess to never having heard of Shawn King before his post was linked on Daring Fireball. But all Violet Blue had to do was to look on King’s blog, on the very same page as the posts that mention her, to see him calling out a male writer for inaccuracies in an article about MacWorld. King calls the writer a “moron” and says “this is why the public hates journalists.” Hostile? Maybe. I dunno, maybe the writer deserved it. But it’s sure as hell not sexist.
And John Gruber is one of the most prominent writers in tech, especially where Apple is concerned, so he doesn’t need my defense. But it’s not a defense, it’s a fact: Gruber doesn’t stage witch hunts against women. Period. He criticizes stupid things people say on the internet about technology. Trying to run an expose on him as having a long record of “hostility” is like printing a shocking expose about rampant “perversion” on the internet whenever Violet Blue writes about dildos. For each of them, it’s pretty much their thing.
And Gruber regularly calls out writers on their inaccuracies. He will tear a poorly-written and poorly-thought-out piece to shreds, but I’ve been reading Daring Fireball for years, and I can’t recall a single instance where he’s staged a personal attack. He’s rude, sure, and he’s outspoken, and he’s often controversial, and I frequently disagree. But it’s simply not hostile to point out when someone prints something wrong. People are supposed to stand behind what they write, even on the internet.
Not to mention that there are plenty of female tech journalists who write about Apple — just off the top of my head, I can think of Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica, and Lara June and Joanna Stern of The Verge/Engadget — and yet I can’t recall a single time that they’ve attempted to present themselves as the victims at the center of systemized sexism on the part of Apple “fanboys.” Whereas it only took one MacWorld for Blue to tear the lid off a shocking web of systemized misogyny on behalf of a cruel woman-hating Fanboy Tyrant.
Blue’s attempts to claim that the Apple community is hostile to women aren’t just irresponsible, they’re demonstrably false.
Yes, King’s posts are increasingly dismissive of Violet Blue. But he’s not dismissive of her for being a woman, but for demonstrating a near-complete lack of journalistic integrity. That’s the point that King has made from the start. Unfortunately, King’s posts on the topic are to discussions of journalistic integrity what Michael Moore is to corporate responsibility: there’s a perfectly valid point at the core that you’d totally want to agree with, but it’s presented badly enough that you just kind of want to dissociate yourself from it.
I don’t think King is wrong so much as tone deaf. Point-by-point rebuttals (though justified) and calls for petitions just come across as petty internet sniping. Giving a condescending post title like “Violet, Violet, Violet” just comes across as demeaning, even though it wouldn’t come across the same way if he were talking about a man’s writing.
(And to be fair, how are you supposed to handle names responsibly and like an adult when someone puts a registered trademark after her pseudonym?) [Stupid assumption on my part deleted, with my genuine apologies.]
And of course, using archaic words like “bint” simply has more weight to it than saying “moron” or “jack-ass” or even “dick.” And like it or not, fair or not, when someone is manipulating a discussion to frame it as an example of institutionalized sexism — even when it’s not — you have to be careful with the words you choose. Because you will not be given the benefit of the doubt, and every valid point you make will be dismissed, in favor of focusing on how you say it.
So obviously, what I’m saying with all this is that it was perfectly valid to wish violence on Violet Blue and call her an “ugly whore.”
Except wait no, that’s not what I’ve been saying at all. And it’d be pretty disgusting to even imply that’s what I’ve been saying.
But that’s how this kind of manipulation always works. It’s unfounded, Us vs. Them, guilt by association. If you disagree with me, then you’re obviously supporting the viewpoints of Internet Fucktard Number 1056 over here. It’s the same kind of lazy, baseless attack of generalization as using the intellectually bankrupt term “fanboy.”
Except if you call me a fanboy, I’m going to laugh it off. If you call me a sexist, I’m going to get pissed.
I said earlier that I’d never seen female tech bloggers that I respect write an article about pervasive sexism among Apple pundits and their unthinking minions. They very well might have, and I’ve just never seen it.
What I can say with absolute certainty, though: I would never, ever want to read any of those women’s unfiltered email inboxes. And that’s just on the PC- and gadget-oriented blogs. I don’t even want to imagine what gets written to people whose “internet presence” intersects with video games, like Veronica Belmont and Morgan Webb. I’ve seen glimpses of what was written about them publicly, and it’s enough to make a person reconsider the advantages of eugenics.
People like to think of the internet as being some kind of great equalizer, but it’s certainly not. It gives everyone equal voice, but without giving everyone equal eloquence, intelligence, common sense, or decency. There are plenty of articulate, seemingly intelligent people who write absurdly misogynist things. There are plenty more people who just aren’t thoughtful enough to consider they might be saying offensive things, or aren’t well-spoken enough to speak about something without using slurs. (And a few thousand years of institutionalized sexism means that there are a lot more insulting words for women than there are for men). There is a small but not insignificant number of genuine psychopaths. And there are millions of people for whom it’s absurd and archaic to even think that women are in any way inferior to men.
And to someone who actually cares, the easiest and laziest way to get him to back down from an argument is to claim that he’s complicit in behavior that he’d never want to be associated with. And it’s bullshit. It sucks when it’s used as an attack, and it sucks when it’s used as a condescending “teachable moment,” like a year ago when an entire chunk of the internet was informed that they were complicit in violence towards women.
People say nasty stuff on the internet. The more outspoken you are, the more you’re going to attract. It sucks. I’m a regular reader of Daring Fireball, and I can’t even imagine how many times Gruber’s been called a “dick.” (I must be responsible for at least five or six, myself).
And I’m about as far from internet celebrity as you can get, and I’ve still had a few comments about the way I look and one guy (an Apple pundit, coincidentally) tell me to “fuck myself in the neck,” for one of the least contentious things I’ve said online.
“But it’s different for women.” Of course it is. There is still a huge category of people — men and women both — who will judge women based on their appearance before anything else. (Like, for instance, their hair color and the distribution of their breasts in a T-shirt). And women can never casually brush off threats of violence.
The question is how you’re going to react to it. Are you going to ignore it? Are you going to make a genuine attempt to educate people about it, with a reasonable adult discussion including real people who are affected by it? Or are you going to paint yourself as defenseless victim, posit anonymous gossip as fact, make sweeping generalizations, and label everyone who doesn’t jump to your side as a crypto-misogynist complicit in the horrific treatment of women? Are you going to act as if there’s no difference between the person who says “you made a mistake” and the idiot who says “you’re a whore?” Does the difference even matter to you?
I can have sympathy for being the subject of internet mob mentality. I’ve seen it happen twice just recently to people who completely didn’t deserve it, and I railed against it. They’re caused by people latching onto a piece of one-sided gossip and spreading it. You fight it by getting the facts out. You don’t by pouring gasoline on the fire, launching an unsubstantiated smear campaign of your own in an attempt at public shaming to deflect attention away from yourself.
I don’t believe that Violet Blue is actually a misogynist. I think she wrote something that undeniably comes across as sexist and dismissive, and the responsible thing to do would have been simply to own up to that — even acknowledging that it sounded sexist would’ve been more mature and responsible. But we’re supposed to just give her the benefit of the doubt and take it for granted that she’s not disrespectful to women, even though nobody else is entitled to that.