Sunday afternoon, Adria Richards was sitting in a lecture hall at Python's PyCon conference when she heard something that didn't feel right. In the row behind her, a pair of attendees were telling jokes about "forking a repo," and the benefits of a large dongle. They were childish jokes and, given the male-dominated setting, she didn't like them. Onstage, she saw a photo of a young girl, part of PyCon's Young Coders program, and she thought about the kind of life that girl would face in the industry.
Then she did something that's drawn an almost unbelievable amount of controversy in the past few days: she tweeted a picture of the attendees and wrote about it. Within minutes, conference organizers saw the tweet and pulled the two men from the event for a private talk. One was revealed as Alex Reid, a core engineer at Playhaven. The other, still unnamed, was fired a few days later.
"An explosion of lulz and collateral damage."
After that, the flamewar started. Yesterday, an anonymous statement on Pastebin started climbing Hacker News. A user named "mr-hank" came forward claiming to be the fired Playhaven dev, a father of three now unemployed. "The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us," he said in the comment. "Her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility."
Playhaven has since backed off on the story, claiming the firing happened for a number of reasons — but by then, the torches had been lit. A Pastebin post this morning promised an Anonymous-affiliated attack — "an explosion of lulz and collateral damage." The only way to forestall the damage, the message said, was to fire Richards. 4chan's /pol/ board also promised an attack. Shortly after, a massive DDoS attack brought down Sendgrid.com, and forced Richards to shield her personal site behind Cloudflare's anti-DDoS service.
A few hours later, Sendgrid announced it had fired Richards, effective immediately. With no site to post on, they had to make the announcement on Facebook, saying "we have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid." A little after 3:30 EST, the site came back online.
Any legitimate questions have already been lost in the flood of vitriol
What's left is a lot of questions and no clear answers: the biggest one being whether Richards was fired in response to the DDoS attack. Sendgrid declined to comment, despite repeated attempts to contact the company. [UPDATE: A company representative referred us to this post by the CEO.] Many have asked if taking a picture of the men crossed a line. One commenter even compared the act to Reddit's infamous "creepshots." Many wondered why she didn't just tell the Playhaven duo they were bothering her.
the conversation has become an echo chamber of horrible
But any legitimate questions have already been lost in the flood of vitriol against Richards, including outright death threats. Nearly 200 comments have been left on Sendgrid's Facebook post, including a number of racial epithets. (Richards is African-American.) Hacker News has been aggressively moderating the discussion, and has deleted a number of threads on the topic. Seeking to repair the damage, a number of figures have already come forward to offer Richards a job.
It has all the hallmarks of a flamewar, a conversation dominated by the loudest and most offensive voices. The conversation has become an echo chamber of horrible, with the worst offenses of each side trotted out in place of anything resembling equanimity. Defending Richards — a woman who, it bears repeating, is still receiving racially motivated death threats — is seen as equivalent to casting a father of three into the poorhouse. She "got him fired," as a thousand comments will remind you. Playhaven, the company which did the actual firing, seems to have gotten off scot-free, in both the comments sections and the Anon-affiliated chat rooms of the world. As it turns out, sometimes the internet is a terrible place.
What we most want, across the board, is for this not to have happened. It was such a simple joke, in the beginning — the kind of thing high school boys tell, before enough women call them out on it and they stop. Why couldn't Richards have called them out the same way? Over and over, observers have put forward the same fantasy, in which Richards talks to the developers face-to-face, they fess up, and the whole thing lives and dies as a quiet argument in the tenth row of an otherwise-boring tech conference.
But in a world where thousands of anonymous men can instantly gather to deliver swift retribution against any perceived threat, it's easy to understand why more women don't speak out.