Tuesday, November 24, 2009

can we defend danah boyd while also wondering if there could have been a better response?

file under: just about the hardest blogpost I've written to date

I just spent a good few hours catching up on the Web 2.0 Expo / danah boyd debacle. You know the one I'm talking about (and if you don't, you can read about it here, here, and here).

As a quick reminder, boyd gave a keynote at the event last week and by all accounts failed fairly resoundingly, especially given her renown for fantastic presentation style. According to all in attendance (including boyd herself), she spoke too quickly, read from her notes, and struggled to get her points across. If you weren't in attendance, a video of her presentation is below.

Issues of ethics, good behavior, and bullying aside, I'm most interested in boyd's response to the event. On her blog, she published a reflection on the event, which alternated between clear-headed analysis of her mistakes and a resentful self-defense.

Now bear with me for a second, because I stand here in absolute defense of boyd against her critics. But I also, because as a young female academic myself I cannot afford not to, want to offer a reflection on boyd's reflection, which to me felt somewhat overly defensive.

boyd admits that her delivery was fairly bad, but she defends herself with a host of excuses, including the following (all emphases, to highlight points of self-defense, are mine):
Because of the high profile nature of Web2.0 Expo, I decided to write a brand new talk. Personally, I love the challenge and I get bored of giving the same talk over and over and over again. Of course, the stump speech is much more fluid, much more guaranteed. But new talks force folks to think differently and guarantee that I target those who hear me talk often and those who have never seen me talk before.

A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn't actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn't look like I'm reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn't going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I've learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn't know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn't get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn't know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the "audience" was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough.

Now, normally, I get into a flow with my talks after about 2 minutes. The first two minutes are usually painfully rushed and have no rhythm as I work out my nerves, but then I start to flow. I've adjusted to this over the years by giving myself 2 minutes of fluff text to begin with, content that sets the stage but can be ignored. And then once I'm into a talk, I gel with the audience. But this assumes one critical thing: that I can see the audience. I'm used to audiences who are staring at their laptops, but I'm not used to being completely blinded.

All of the above points are undoubtedly true but obscure a crucial point: that even the most stellar academics just sometimes have bad days. This was a bad presentation from a stellar academic, and it should be enough to leave it at that.

The audience should have left it at that, but did not. They treated boyd's struggle with glee, with an evil, hysterical schadenfreude. So instead of defending herself by explaining how the cards were stacked against her, boyd should have spent her time reviling the spectacularly bad behavior of the keynote audience. This behavior is exemplified through the following tweets, which were broadcast on a screen behind the podium, out of boyd's range of vision:

This guy, whose profile names him as Doug V, was one of boyd's most active hecklers. Other chunks of the twitter stream, in which @dugwork was a regular and active participant, included this:

and this:

Then, when the twitter feed was apparently taken off the screen by conference moderators, this:

In her blog reflection, boyd expressed anger and frustration, and rightfully so: this was bullying at its most despicable.

There's also, as boyd herself points out, a gender dynamic to this kind of bullying. She refers to the hecklers as the tech version of 12-year-old boys with whiteboards. She asks:
what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

I parsed the archived twitter stream, tweet by tweet, and didn't find anything in there that suggested the audience saw or was trying to treat her as a sex object, though I don't doubt she felt completely objectified. Let me reiterate: I do not doubt that she experienced this bullying as objectifying, possibly terrifying, definitely absolutely demoralizing. I don't doubt that I would feel exactly the same way. In fact, isn't that the point? It didn't even take an outright sexual comment for boyd to feel objectified, sexualized, and treated like a "fuckable object." That's what the best hecklers can do to even the most capable female speakers. 

And here's the part where I start to feel incredibly torn, because a huge piece of me wants to leave it at that, to stand up and start swinging at boyd's bullies. They rose up en masse against her, in a public, cruel, and mean-spirited way. I have deep suspicions, just as boyd does, that gender played a significant role in helping the steam to build: We (us smartypantses in audiences filled with other smartypantses) are more likely to want to undermine women, especially when they dare to speak with authority, especially when they dare to present themselves as confident, competent, and infallible, especially when they dare to also seem in any way vulnerable. Seriously, you guys, stop being such enormous assholes. Stop using your misogyny as an excuse to be cruel. I'm so effing tired of you effers.

I also struggle with boyd's blogged response to the heckling, because I worry that it plays into the very weaknesses that so many of the hecklers (and techies and academics and so on) suspect smart, confident, brash women harbor. Women are overly emotional. We whine when things don't go our way. If people don't play by our rules, we pick up our toys and go home.

Now, I don't mind being critiqued," boyd writes;
I think that being a public figure automatically involves that. I've developed a pretty thick skin over the years, but there are still things that get to me. And the situation at Web2.0 Expo was one of those. Part of the problem for me is that, as a speaker, I work hard to try to create a conversation with the audience. When it's not possible or when I do a poor job, it sucks. But it also really sucks to just be the talking head as everyone else is having a conversation literally behind your back. It makes you feel like a marionette. And frankly, if that's what public speaking is going to be like, I'm out.
So I have a favor to ask... I am going to be giving a bunch of public speaking performances at web conferences in the next couple of months: Supernova and Le Web in December, SXSW in March, WWW in April. I will do my darndest to give new, thought-provoking talks that will leave your brain buzzing. I will try really really hard to speak slowly. But in return, please come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I'm ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well. And if you don't want to listen, fine, don't. But please don't distract your neighbors with crude remarks. Let's make public speaking and public listening an art form. Maybe that's too much to ask for, but really, I need to feel like it's worth it again.

It's not fair, it's not right, and it's not defensible that female intellectuals are held to a different standard than male intellectuals are. It's abominable how the audience treated boyd during her keynote. And not having ever been subjected to the kind of public bullying boyd was subjected to, I don't know how I would react given the same situation: probably with the same rage, resentment, and abject pain that boyd expresses in her post.

But the solution is not to plead to the audience to be nicer next time. The solution is to come out swinging, to come out with both barrels smoking, to storm the audience with righteous indignation, to stand up and say yes, I screwed up, and fuck you all because I'll be back up here next year (or next month, or next week) and you'll still be sitting down there in the audience watching me shine. Good luck with your puny little attempt at twitter fame.

boyd and I are approximately the same age, and I look to her as one model of female academic. I believe that those of us who are strong enough to take it (and early evidence suggests that boyd is indeed strong enough) have a responsibility--an ethical duty--to stand in scrappy, defiant, unapologetic opposition to the stupid, ignorant, misogynistic, did I mention ignorant?--ignorant theories about how women should act and how to take them down if they get too presumptuous, too arrogant, too cocky to fit their preconceptions.

Here's what you say in response: not Can you please be nicer next time? but Fuck you. 

Here's what you say: Fuck you. I'll see you next year.


Kevin Makice said...

I wasn't at Web 2.0, didn't follow the stream, and haven't gone over the online response in detail. In fact, my first awareness of it all was reading danah's blog this evening after a few tweets about it. What I admired most about her post was making transparent, albeit after the fact, her process and perspective. While it wasn't the centerpiece of the post, she also contributed to the ongoing contribution about the different functions familiar channels feed in unfamiliar contexts.

I'll never know what it's like to be a female academic, but the fears and anxieties about public speaking—including how jarring it is to be thrown off your game when your expectations don't match reality—do resonate. That was the take-home for me: the juxtaposition of perspectives on an uncomfortable event.

I don't think Fuck You is the most constructive response (even if it might be an effective internal frame to have), but I would agree that there is some middle ground between that and relying on group behavior to change when the circumstance of the speaking environment is what it is. danah hints at her own contribution to the Next Time by implying better preparation and communication with organizers. However, what this perhaps teaches any potential public speaker is the importance of adaptability. Maybe in that Next Time experience, one important tool in the box is to pause and ask (not an easy thing, under the circumstances).

What I find interesting about the sample from the stream that you included in your post is:

* There is evidence of community trying to self-regulate

* There are people participating who were not at the event

* There are attribution ambiguity from those sharing tidbits from the content of the talk

This is all appropriate behavior for a true backchannel, especially one also doubling as real-time search and co-location. In the configuration where this important chatter—and it is important—is literally bigger than the speaker, it becomes a design issue that demands iteration. Change the number of speakers, to give time for processing content from the stream. Mediate or moderate, to control the pace and constructive nature of what is shared on the screen. Remove the screen entirely. Apply the new geotagging meta data on Twitter to make sure the contributors are sitting in the room. Practice. Any of these things could help mitigate the bad experiences for all involved.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I agree that Fuck You is probably not the most, er, constructive response. It also seems that the attitudes the organizers brought to the backchannel--Hey Let's Be All Transparent By Posting The Twitterfeed Behind The Speaker! leading to Hey That Didn't Work Let's Take It Down--...probably also not super constructive. We smartypantses sure do spend a lot of time revelling without doing all that much reckoning.

Rafi said...

I was busy responding via twitter, so figured it might be good to get some thoughts out here, as sending seven 140 character posts tends to mean I probably have more to say...

First off, I would just express disappointment that the response to her talk has mostly been about the delivery, as opposed to the ideas within it, which I thought were certainly interesting and thought provoking. That they've gotten sidelined is a real shame, and hopefully we'll have opportunity to engage with them at another point.

At the same time, I'm kind of happy that we now have the opportunity to talk about other things that were brought up here, namely, issues of humanity and relationship. To me, this is about perception (of self, others, and situations), about failure and how we define and relate to that concept, about judging others and judging oneself.

What's happening here is enormously complicated. danah clearly knew that her delivery was off, for all the reasons she shared, all valid in my opinion. At the same time, if you watch closely, at moments she really connects with what she's saying, and you can see the passion and sincerity behind the words. These are the moments when she's able to connect with her true intention, as opposed to being engulfed by self-judgment brought on by the perceived judgment of others. I know that it's very hard to stay connected to the ideas and the intentions behind them in that kind of context. I've bombed a keynote to 350+ people, it definitely throws you off your game and perpetuates the problem while you're in the midst of trying to salvage your dignity. But that's also the problem in and of itself. When we worry about being judged we're essentially worrying about the future at the expense of the present. Perhaps in this case danah was concerned that her delivery would reflect badly on her and prevent her from doing what she cares about down the road. This is a valid concern, but ultimately one that is preventing her from presumably doing well what she loves in that moment, which is sharing the ideas she cares about. The fear itself is a core part of the problem.

That then invites the next question, which is really what basis that fear has in reality. As danah couldn't see the twitter stream, we know it (the fear, not the twitter) was a projection of what she thought the audience thought in that moment. In response, one might say "But look! The twitter stream! People were responding badly!". It's true, in the twitter stream there were definitely people being bullies, jerks and assholes. But as Kevin rightly points out, there were also people aiming to moderate, people tweeting out bits of her talk, people showing support. And if that was in the twitter stream, that was also likely found in the internal responses of many people who didn't say anything or maybe were actually listening and not tweeting (she was speaking sorta fast...). And so the perception that everyone is objectifying her was not true, but our minds have a way of just focusing on that thought, regardless of its veracity.

Rafi said...

On the other side of things, a situation like this makes me ask questions about our culture. If we were really a culture driven by ideas as so often we're purported to be, why were there so many people focusing on the delivery? Why wasn't an earnest desire to understand the ideas better represented in the backchannel? To me, it has to do with a culture of individualism, as opposed to a culture of interdependence and community. People attacked danah because they were and are terribly fearful about their own selves and associated self images. When we feel confident, genuinely confident, not an arrogance but a quiet calm of knowing you have something true and meaningful to share that isn't about puffing oneself up or putting others down but rather about benefiting all, then there is no fear and there is no judgment. It was that kind of confidence that danah connected to at various points in the talk, and, amazingly, those were the moments when she really delivered.

note: just to clarify, what I'm saying shouldn't be taken as a "oh, if danah was just stronger she wouldn't been able to ignore her fear and do her thing". My intention is rather to point out that we *all* would likely have the same response and that it's a larger socio-cultural problem with cognitive repercussions.

Jenna McWilliams said...

as usual, I agree with you completely. as usual, you've introduced ideas I hadn't considered before. The notion of the future subsuming the present--the fear of how one will be judged overtaking the passion for the ideas of the moment--is a crystalline moment of brilliance.

Rafi said...

Thanks. :)

Mostly just re-purposing old ideas into a new context.

ithiliana said...

I will have to make more time to read more and think about this complex of events and commentary, but just off the top of my head:

I first taught in a computer assisted classroom in 1986. The students could not go online (internet not invented yet) but the classroom was set up so that they sat looking at their computer screens. They did not and could not pay attention to anything I was saying.

I saw in on a new media course taught by a colleague last spring (I made a fan vid!). We met in a computer lab (much better set up than my 1986 one which had tables set up so that students faced their computers/the sides of the room, not the front). And during that class, I found myself sneaking online to read my LJ and email instead of listening (a lot of the classtime was spent hands on and in group work, but there was some discussion at the start). I suggested to her that she schedule times in NON computer spaces for discussion next time.

Maybe my classroom experience has nothing to do with this sort of professional situation--but I guess I don't believe anybody who was actively twittering whether hostilely or not was listening (everybody thinks they can multitask, but yeah, not so much).

What is the value added? Will the audience fall apart if they spent time without their laptops?

If they want that virtual an experience, why was she speaking in person (as opposed to it being all online?).

And finally: I am tempted to do some straight out comparison between the Twitter comments on Boyd's presentation, her response, other bloggers' responses, and the 'defenders' of the attacks on her AND the reporting of commentary on the Tech Men showing pornography at professional conferences (for example, the guys 'defending' themselves probably are never cast as 'whining' about being attacked). I'm working with corpus stylistics and text marking, and it would be fascinating to download batches of text relating to this event AND to the Porn Guys Complaining About Women Not Wanting Porn in Professional Conferences (and hey, why didn't the audiences at those get to twitter???) to see just what discursive patterns show up.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I know, i know, I know--it's such a hard issue to talk about. How do we resist these lame games while also playing these lame games (since they're in many respects the only games in town)?

Gah, it's. so. hard.

Max said...

Was this twitter stream captured in realtime or after the fact? It appears to be after the fact, as there is nothing there offensive enough to actually warrant the organizers pulling the twitterwall.

My understanding is that the most egregiously offensive comments/remarks were removed by the tweeters from their own accounts (this was, after all, a professional event) and do not show up in twitter archives.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Yes, that makes sense--though I would argue that even given self-censorship there's enough here to justify organizers' decision to pull the feed. I wonder if anybody captured the non-censored version of the stream.

Andres Guadamuz said...

Unfortunately, Twitter has become a bullying and bitching mechanism in conferences. Everyone has an off day, people seem to want 100% good delivery all the time.


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