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:
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 sa
me 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.