Jon Ronson: How A Tweet Can Ruin Your Life

In this exclusive extract from his timely new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson investigates a peculiar case of online retribution, and asks how we arrived at a situation where the fake indignation particular to social media can have such devastating real-world consequences

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“I am a nobody,” said Hank, “just a guy with a family and a job, a middle-America type guy.”

Hank wasn’t his real name. He’d managed to keep that aspect of himself a secret. He was talking to me via a Google Hangout from his kitchen in a suburban house in a West Coast American town I promised him I wouldn’t name. He looked frail, fidgety, the sort of man more comfortable working alone at a computer than talking to a human stranger via one.

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On 17 March 2013, Hank was in the audience at a conference for tech developers in Santa Clara when a stupid joke popped into his head, which he murmured to his friend, Alex.

“What was the joke?” I asked him.

“It was so bad I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “It was about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle – a ridiculous dongle. We were giggling about that. It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.”

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A few moments earlier Hank and Alex had been giggling over some other Beavis and Butt-head-type tech in-joke about “forking someone’s repo”. “We’d decided it was a new form of flattery,” Hank explained. “A guy had been on stage presenting his new project and Alex said, ‘I would fork that guy’s repo.’”

(In tech jargon, to “fork” means to take a copy of another person’s software so you can work on it independently. Another word for software is “repository”. This is why “forking someone’s repo” works both as a term of flattery and also as sexual innuendo. Just in case you wanted to know. I think it is a very special sort of hell where you’re compelled to explain to a journalist some terrible throwaway joke you made 10 months earlier and the journalist keeps saying, “I’m sorry. I still don’t get it,” but that was the hell Hank found himself in during his Google Hangout chat with me.)

Moments after making the dongle joke, Hank half noticed the woman sitting in front of them at the conference stand up, turn around, and take a photograph. Hank thought she was taking a picture of the crowd. So he looked forward, trying not to mess up her shot.

It’s a little painful to look at that photograph now – knowing what was about to happen to them. Those mischievous, stupid smiles that follow in the wake of a dongle joke successfully shared would be Hank and Alex’s last smiles for a while.

Ten minutes after the photograph was taken a conference organiser came down the aisle and said to Hank and Alex, “Can you come with me?”

They were taken into an office and told there’d been a complaint about sexual comments. “I immediately apologised,” Hank said. “I knew exactly what they were talking about. I told them what we’d said, and that we didn’t mean for it to come across as a sexual comment, and that we were sorry if someone overheard and was offended. They were like, ‘OK. I see what happened.’”

And that was that. The incident passed. Hank and Alex were badly shaken up — “We’re nerdy guys and confrontation isn’t something we handle well. It’s not something we’re accustomed to” — and so they decided to leave the conference early.

They were on their way to the airport when they started to wonder exactly how the woman sitting in front of them had conveyed her complaint to the conference organisers. They suddenly felt anxious about this. The nightmarish possibility was that it had been communicated in the form of a public tweet. And so, with apprehension, they had a look.

A bolt of anxiety shot through Hank. He quickly scanned her replies, but there was nothing much – just the odd congratulation from a few of her 9,209 followers for the “noble” way she’d “educated” the men behind her. He noticed ruefully that a few days earlier the woman – her name was Adria Richards – had herself tweeted a stupid penis joke. She’d suggested to a friend that he put socks down his pants to bewilder TSA agents at the airport. Hank relaxed a little. The next day Adria Richards followed up her tweet with a blog post:
“Yesterday, I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.”

She explained the background – how she was a “developer evangelist at a successful start-up” and that while the men had been giggling about big dongles the presenter on stage was talking about initiatives to bring more women into the industry. In fact, he’d just projected onto the screen a photograph of a little girl at a tech workshop.

“Accountability was important. These guys sitting right behind me felt safe in the crowd. I got that and realised that being anonymous was fuelling their behaviour. This is known as Deindividuation. Theories of deindividuation propose that it is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation causing antinormative and disinhibited behaviour. Deindividuation theory seeks to provide an explanation for a variety of antinormative collective behaviour, such as violent crowds, lynch mobs, etc…

“…I stood up slowly, turned around and took three, clear photos. There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry. It takes three words to make a difference: “That’s not cool.” Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.”

But Hank had already been called into his boss's office and fired.

***

“I packed up all my stuff in a box,” Hank said, “then I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears but…” Hank paused. “When I got in the car with my wife I just… I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”

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That night Hank made his only public statement (he had never spoken to a journalist about what had happened before he spoke to me). He posted a short message on the discussion board Hacker News:

“Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel.

“She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. [But] as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have three kids and I really liked that job.

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“She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”

“The next day,” Hank said, “Adria Richards called my company asking them to ask me to remove the portion of my apology that stated I lost my job as a result of her tweet.”

***

I sent Adria an interview request. “All right, pitch me via email and if relevant, I’ll respond,” she replied. So I pitched. Successfully. We agreed to meet two weeks later. “We will meet in a public place for safety reasons,” Adria wrote. “Make sure to bring along your ID for verification.”

We settled on the international check-in desks at San Francisco Airport. I was expecting someone fiercer. But when I saw her half wave at me from across the terminal she didn’t seem fierce at all. She seemed introverted and delicate, just like how Hank had come across over the Google Hangout. We found a cafe and she told me about the moment it all began for her — the moment she overheard the comment about the big dongle.

“Have you ever had an altercation at school and you could feel the hairs rise up on your back?” she asked me.

“You felt fear?” I asked.

“Danger,” she said. “Clearly my body was telling me, ‘You are unsafe.’”

Which was why, she said, she “slowly stood up, rotated from my hips, and took three photos.” She tweeted one, “with a very brief summary of what they said. Then I sent another tweet describing my location. Right? And then the third tweet was the [conference's] code of conduct.”

“You talked about danger," I said. "What were you imagining might...?"

“Have you ever heard that thing, men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?” she said.

I told Adria that people might consider that an overblown thing to say. She had, after all, been in the middle of a tech conference with 800 bystanders.

“Sure,” Adria replied. “And those people would probably be white and they would probably be male.”

This seemed a weak gambit. Men can sometimes be correct. There is some Latin for this kind of logical fallacy. It’s called an ad hominem attack. When someone can’t defend a criticism against them, they change the subject by attacking the criticiser.

“Somebody getting fired is pretty bad,” I said. “I know you didn’t call for him to be fired. But you must have felt pretty bad.”

“Not too bad,” she said. She thought more and shook her head decisively. “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him. I do have empathy for him but it only goes so far. If he had Down’s Syndrome and he accidently pushed someone off a subway that would be different... I’ve seen things where people are like, ‘Adria didn’t know what she was doing by tweeting it.’ Yes, I did.”

“Hank’s actions resulted in him getting fired, yet he framed it in a way to blame me. If I had two kids, I wouldn’t tell ‘jokes’”

The evening Hank posted his statement on Hacker News, outsiders began to involve themselves in his and Adria’s story. Hank started to receive messages of support from men’s-rights bloggers. He didn’t respond to any of them. Later, a Gucci Little Piggy blogger wrote that Hank’s Hacker News message had revealed him to be a man with: “a complete lack of backbone… by apologising you are just saying, ‘I am a weak enemy – do with me what you will.’ [In publicly shaming Hank, Adria had] complete and utter power over his children. That doesn’t piss this guy off?”

At the same time that Hank was being feted and then insulted by the men’s-rights bloggers, Adria discovered she was getting discussed on a famous meeting place for trolls: 4chan/b/.

“A father of three is out of a job because a silly joke he was telling a friend was overheard by someone with more power than sense. Let’s crucify this cunt.”

“Kill her.”

“Cut out her uterus with an X-ACTO knife.”

Someone sent Adria a photograph of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Adria’s face was superimposed onto the bodies of porn actors. Websites were created to teach people how to make the superimposing look seamless — by matching skin-tones. On Facebook someone wrote, “I hope I can find Adria, kidnap her, put a torture bag over her head, and shoot a .22 subsonic round right into her fucking skull. Fuck that bitch, make her pay, make her obey.” (That one, Adria told me, although I couldn’t confirm it, was from a student at the New York City College of Technology.)

“Death threats and rape threats only feed her cause,” someone eventually wrote on 4chan/b/. “I don’t mean stop doing things. Just think first. Do something productive.”

Soon after, her employer’s website went down. Someone launched a DDoS attack, which overwhelms a site’s servers with repeated requests. SendGrid, her employer, was told the attacks would stop if Adria was fired. Hours later, she was publicly let go.

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“I cried a lot, journaled and escaped by watching movies,’’ she later said to me in an email. ‘‘I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.’’

***

The death threats and rape threats against Adria continued even after she was fired. “Things got very bad for her,” Hank told me. “She had to disappear for six months. Her entire life was being evaluated by the Internet. It was not a good situation for her at all.”

“Have you ever met her?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied. “There’s never been any contact between us. Since she turned around and took my photograph.”

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Ten months had passed since that day. Hank had had 10 months to allow his feelings about her to settle into something coherent, so I asked him what he thought of her now?

“I think that nobody deserves what she went through,” he replied.

***

““Maybe it was [Hank] who started all of this,” Adria told me in the cafe at San Francisco Airport. “No one would have known he got fired until he complained. Maybe he’s to blame for complaining that he got fired. Maybe he secretly seeded the hate groups. Right?”

I was so taken aback by this suggestion I didn’t say anything in defence of Hank at the time. But later I felt bad that I hadn’t stuck up for him. So I emailed her. I told her what he had told me – how he’d refused to engage with any of the bloggers or trolls who sent him messages of support. I added that I felt Hank was within his rights to post the message on Hacker News revealing he’d been fired.

Adria replied that she was happy to hear that Hank “wasn’t active in driving their interests to mount the raid attack”, but she held him responsible for it anyway. It was “his own actions that resulted in his own firing, yet he framed it in a way to blame me… If I had a spouse and two kids to support I certainly would not be telling ‘jokes’ like he was doing at a conference. Oh but wait, I have compassion, empathy, morals and ethics to guide my daily life choices. I often wonder how people like Hank make it through life seemingly unaware of how ‘the other’ lives in the same world he does but with countless less opportunities.”

***

I asked Hank if he found himself behaving differently since the incident. Had it altered how he lived his life?

“I distance myself from female developers a little bit now,” he replied. “I’m not as friendly. There’s humour, but it’s very mundane. You just don’t know. I can’t afford another Donglegate.”

“Give me an example,” I said. “So you’re in your new workplace…” (Hank was offered another job right away) “…and you’re talking to a female developer. In what way do you act differently towards her?”

“Well,” Hank said. “We don’t have any female developers at the place I’m working at now. So.”

***

“You’ve got a new job now, right?” I said to Adria.

“No,” she said.

***

Adria’s father was an alcoholic. He used to beat Adria’s mother. He hit her with a hammer. He knocked all her teeth out. After he left them Adria’s mother fell apart. She didn’t feed or wash Adria. “Going to school was hard,” Adria wrote in her blog in February 2013. “The kids would tease me because my clothes were dirty and my shoes had holes. My hair was a complete mess. I felt ashamed. I was hungry all the time.” Adria ended up in foster care.

She sent me a letter she’d written to her father. “It’s Adria! How are you doing? I know it’s been a very, very long time. I want to see you. I love you daddy. I’m 26 years old now. If you get this, please contact me as I really would love to see you.”

Her father didn’t write back. She hasn’t heard from him in decades. She thinks he’s probably dead.

When I asked Adria if her childhood trauma might have influenced the way she’d regarded Hank and Alex, she said no. “They say the same thing for rape victims. If you’ve been raped you think all men are rapists.” She paused. “No. These dudes were straight up being not cool.” 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador) is out on 12 March

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