Dongles, Forks and the Community Evangelist Responsibility


Recently, controversy arose among the tech community when Adria Richards, a developer evangelist, overheard a conversation at a tech conference where the two men behind her were joking to each other about “dongles” and “forks.” The jokes weren’t overtly sexual but it’s easy to see where some might feel they bordered on innuendo.

Richards took a photo of the men and complained to the conference via Twitter and her 10,000+ followers that their banter was inappropriate and violated the conference’s policies. What happened next divided the tech community, caused arguments amid the blogosphere, and resulted in Adria and one of the two jokesters losing their jobs.

Before being fired amid all the controversy, Adria Richards was an evangelist for her company. As someone in an evangelist role, Richards’ duties were to act as a spokesperson for her brand, and to act as a mediator, mentor, translator, and, yes, even a type of community manager for developers who used her brand. Here’s where the things gets dicey for me. If Richards was attending the conference on behalf of her brand, I’m wondering if she was acting in the best interests of said brand, or if she was simply donning a crusader cape and acting in the best interests of Wronged Women Everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with crusaders, but there’s a time and place for everything. You can’t put on a cape and play superhero if you’re acting as a brand or community evangelist. Capes and egos have to be checked out the door.

My community has to be able to trust me. Even people who aren’t (yet) part of my community have to trust me. They have to know that I won’t look to call out individuals online or breach that trust in exchange for a little online drama.  I’m not so sure a first course of action for any brand evangelist or community professional should be to post a photo on Twitter. A better course of action would be to use some of the more important tools in the evangelist arsenal: analytics, reason and discretion.

Step 1: Analyze

When overhearing two men in conversation joking about technical terms that can also be steeped in innuendo, the situation calls for one to truly think about what is being said. Are the men generally being misogynistic? Were they deliberately setting out to harass, belittle, or insult women? Was the conversation a private, whispered conversation between two co-workers or was it something everyone was meant to hear?

Stopping to analyze the situation means no rush to judgment.

Step 2: Reason

Let’s be honest, everyone whispers jokes at conferences. We all have had moments where we remarked or commented on something a speaker said. We don’t mean for others to overhear, but sometimes it happens. If someone behind me is being unruly or offensive, they may not even realize they’re doing so. In this case, reason may have worked better than snapping a photo. This situation calls for a reasonable response (if a response is needed at all). “Hey guys, can we ease up on the dongle jokes? I know it’s a funny word and we can twist it in so many inappropriate ways, but you’re really making me uncomfortable. You may not even realize it but you’re also violating conference policy. Thanks for understanding.” If the guys were truly being hurtful they probably would have told me to shut up or mind my own business, but I like to believe there’s good in everyone and am more inclined to believe they would have stopped and even apologized for making me feel that way.

Be Discreet

Calling people out online should always be a last resort, something one should never take likely or do off the cuff. With social media influence comes responsibility; the responsibility to not use that influence to shame people or bully a person or brand into compliance.

Someone who is an evangelist for a brand wouldn’t have gone for public embarrassment. Instead, she would have tried reason. If reason didn’t work, she should work with the conference privately to ensure everyone in attendance feels comfortable.

By using Twitter as a platform to make the two men sitting behind her feel uncomfortable, the evangelist doesn’t have the best interests of her brand or her community in mind. When we bring our personal feelings into it, the worst can happen – in this case it’s controversy, negativity, backlash and the loss of jobs.

How would any community be able to trust me to have their back after that?

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  1. geekazine says:

    Interesting take on this article, Deb. Adria is a good friend of mine and I know she is vocal most of the time when something bothers her. It might have been “Conference Fatigue” (four shows in a month) or whatnot, but we all make mistakes – it’s just a question of how the public reacts.

    I am on the fence with the “Discreet” part. I think there are times to be discreet and others to make an all-out statement. In hindsight I think there should have been more discreet measures taken.

    It was also about the “Harrassment free” policy that pycon made available. It should have come with an email address and a mention “Please do not Tweet issues”. Maybe for next year’s PP…

    • Deb Ng says:

      I know Adria as well, Jeff and I like her. This post really doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not Adria felt harassed as much as it discusses how a community/brand evangelist should react during such times. One of the hardest things for anyone in a community role is to keep personal feelings out of it and act in the best interest of the people she’s representing.

  2. OBVAVirtualAssistant says:

    Thanks Deb I was
    reading the similar article “tweet-firings-ddos-attack.” I too think
    people should not mix personal and professional stuff and they should keep
    their personal feelings discreet.