Why Adria Richards’ Silence Matters

In case you missed it, Adria Richards, was recently fired from her job at SendGrid after tweeting a photo of two white men at a technology industry conference, who were making sexually charged jokes.

Richards is a black technologist whose goal is to make technology accessible. The online backlash to Ms. Richards’ calling out sexism has ranged from racial slurs to rape threats. It also silenced her; she stopped posting on her blog and has not tweeted since March 23, because she’s “staying safe.”

Her silence is important because it is in reaction to the dominant power structure and the people who feel emboldened by the anonymity of the Internet. It’s important because her silence comes in the face of normalized patriarchy and rape culture.

It’s important because it comes from an industry where women struggle for acceptance, as noted in this Tumblr post by Julie Pagano, who recounts being discouraged by teachers, employers, conference speakers and co-workers for pursuing her technological goals.

And it’s important because this is another example of how social media is being used to silence someone. This silencing is a key issue to address with students, who face cyber-bullying, in addition to face-to-face bullying. This month, we’ve had the backlash against Adria Richards and  Steubenville  rape victim “Jane Doe,” but each month—each week, each day—we can find similar stories.

Each of these stories, when I come across them, breaks my heart. The people being victimized in these stories deserve their humanity, their voice, their space.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a group of seventh- through ninth-graders in a writing club I facilitate to write stories in tweets. A couple of students tried to create short fairy tale-like stories. But one person took the challenge as an opportunity to simulate a Twitter fight. One handle made a racist comment, and another handle called it out. The Twitter fight devolved into the first handle threatening to rape and kill the second handle. This didn’t stop in the writer’s story until the second handle made the decision to block the first handle.

This Twitter fight, when I read it, was all too familiar.

“It’s basically what happens on Twitter,” the writer said, “except when people are posting things like how much they hate their teacher or where they’re going out for food.”

I took the last few minutes of our weekly hour-long workshop to talk about responsible use of social media. I reminded these youth, as I’m sure they’ve heard before, that what they post online never really goes away. I asked if they’d ever been harassed online. Only one, who isn’t on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Tumblr, or other social networking sites, said no.

Editor’s Note: Adria Richards has broken her silence since this blog was written. Here are her thoughts.

Clift is a writer and works as a substitute teacher with a focus on youth labeled with behavioral issues. She also develops and delivers programs focused on seventh- to 12th-graders in nontraditional educational settings.


I agree that the situation

Submitted by Austin on 7 September 2013 - 5:21pm.

I agree that the situation got out of hand, and the backlash against Adria has been both extreme and unacceptable. However, you cannot say that she was justified in calling for a mob-justice of two guys who were making stupid jokes in a private conversation. If you truly asked for tolerance, wouldn't the tolerance for the two men's idiocy be required as well? Offending people is and should be allowed, without destructive backlash against them.

Issue apart: It's interesting

Submitted by Berald Connor on 20 August 2013 - 2:19pm.

Issue apart: It's interesting to see the overwhelming unanimity in opinion against this person - from novices to execs, in all venues where I've seen the discussion on the web. (Just scanned for it after bumping into this convo.) I can understand it, in large part - the reflex of an emotionally hurt community. However, the continuing, tacit endorsment of violence against her is what stands out: (paraphrasing) "I don't endorse xxx, but she started it." along with renewed threats of violence. I could understand if she "started it" with a fist. But does she really have so much power to provoke so many powerful people into rabid defense - and not even anonymously? Totally flips the gender stereotypes for sure that one young woman could singlehandedly stir all of Silicon Valley (developers +) to seek her out in this way. I doubt the apology clamored for would count for much with people who want to physically hurt her.

Hi Liz, I appreciate

Submitted by Justin Louie on 26 June 2013 - 12:54am.

Hi Liz,

I appreciate everything that you're doing in tolerance and teaching students in verbal abuse and power.

I would like to ask you to review your article and possibly change your view point.

Many facts are missing as well as the conduct of Richards herself. Previously she had been responsible for alienating women in tech in a few scenarios.

Regardless, I think it is summed up best in a comment left on her blog by Mark Smith:

I would like to address Adria directly, but anyone is more than welcome to add their impressions too.

Adria,I think the comments they were making were not intended to hurt feelings or anything like that, but were still inappropriate. I applaud you for not allowing something like this to slide: it bothered you, and was at the very least encroaching on the Code of Conduct at PyCon. That said, you missed an important line in the CoC:

Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.

Now, if you had asked them to stop, and they had not, this would be a whole different story. But you did not ask them to stop. You didn't address them directly because, in your own words, you "didn't want to be heckled or have [your] experience denied." Instead, you took their photograph without their permission and posted it to twitter and your 9000+ followers.

You didn't give them the chance to do the right thing. Instead, you publicly humiliated them, in front of all of the conference attendees, all of your twitter followers, and now all of the people who have read about the incident.

I know there will be another time when someone says something offensive within earshot of you (or me, or everyone else). When that happens, before you take someone's photo, affix a badge of shame, and splash it across the internet, take a minute to think. Think about all of the things you've said that might've been offensive, and what you wish the people who were offended had done to express their concerns to you.



What I see over and over and

Submitted by Ann Burlingham on 1 August 2013 - 10:27pm.

What I see over and over and over again is this fear than men keep expressing that business as usual is going get them in trouble. it is very, very like what racists complain about when they complain that they can't say what's on their minds, or that they're misunderstood, or that they don't mean any harm by what they do and say, and people just need to be more tolerant of poor li'l ol' them. or, more belligerently, that everything they do was good enough in times past, by golly! and Those People ought not to be so touchy/PC/think-skinned.

sorry, guys. you are actually going to have to cut out the sexism. the first step is recognising. practice on all the comments threads for any topic like this, then glance over your own. maybe it will start to look familiar. it sure looks familiar to most women.

WOW that was an extremely

Submitted by Sunny Day on 11 June 2013 - 5:36pm.

WOW that was an extremely superficial review of what happened.

Liz, Being a technologist, I

Submitted by Jason on 7 June 2013 - 12:42pm.


Being a technologist, I fully agree with you that the industry is male dominated. As a result, at conferences, men often time revert to less professional behavior. I have not personally seen sexism at the many conferences that I've attended, but do appreciate that the female attendance has increased in the past few years. When women participate in tech events, it improves the quality, diversity, and maturity of the conferences. As for myself and my peers, we treat the women that attend with a heightened respect, knowing that a male dominated environment must not be easy.

With that being said, I am disappointed in your article's use of Adria's race. I've read a majority of the news articles and posts from those involved, and until you mentioned it, race was not brought up. Your choice to make it an issue when it is about what two juvenile men said, her tweet, and the aftermath. To bring race into it is frankly sensationalizing. There are lessons to be learned on both sides of this issue. It's a shame that we now have to assess the color of someone's skin to do so.

By the way, I'm white. Are my thoughts invalid now?

I hadn't noticed the part the

Submitted by Insertnamehere on 11 June 2013 - 3:12pm.

I hadn't noticed the part the article that mentioned race thanks for pointing it out. Women in male dominated fields should be allowed a certain amount of respect the same way men in female dominated fields should. Adria was in the wrong when she reported these men on the internet, no matter how inappropriate the joke the public shaming she employed was uncalled for. As for the extreme push back from the internet Adria faced my thoughts are as follows while she didn't deserve death threats and rape threats one must keep in mind this IS the internet and while I don't support internet bullying I would like for people to grow a thicker skin, this doesn't apply to real life bullying of course but on the internet people are going to say thing they don't mean purely for shock value. In short, don't feed the trolls.

Y'all are stretching a little

Submitted by Nunya on 14 May 2013 - 5:45am.

Y'all are stretching a little hard to make this race based and, failing that, sexual orientation based. She shouldn't have done what she did, and they shouldn't have said what they did. The fact that she now has to deal with consequences of her actions come as a surprised to only her and yourselves.

"It also silenced her; she

Submitted by Alex Reynard on 14 May 2013 - 12:19am.

"It also silenced her; she stopped posting on her blog and has not tweeted since March 23, because she’s “staying safe.”"

No, "it" did not silence her. She _chose_ to be silent. If you discount the possibility of a woman having agency over her decisions, you're complicit with the patriarchy you blame.

Your attempt to shine a

Submitted by Chris on 13 May 2013 - 11:15pm.

Your attempt to shine a spotlight on cyber bullying is admirable, but your choice of example is confusing.

I know that you don't want what Adria did to come up because it isn't your intent to discuss it, but when you leave it out, it leaves out the oddest part of the story.

Adria is a cyber bully. It is so odd to me that you hold her up as a victim when her bullying had actual consequences for her victim. By tweeting their picture, she wanted the internet to shame these two men all based on what she said. Outside of the fact that it is silly that she should get a offended by a mild sexual joke made between two people whom she was not in conversation with out about their OWN genitalia, she made no attempt to rectify the situation.

Instead, she violated the conference's rules and took their picture without their permission and put it on the internet. What's the point of that if it isn't to bully them?

Physical threats are awful, it is awful that she got them. But as long as you can be anonymous, they will exist. One person can create account after account and make as many threats as they feel like. These threats never manifest in real life. Adria's bullying did however manifest in real life consequences for her victim.

She didn't keep quiet because she is afraid. She kept quiet because she realized how bad she messed up. When your job is to work with coders, and you do something like this, it makes no one want to work with you.

While Adria Richards' tweet

Submitted by MB on 9 May 2013 - 10:05am.

While Adria Richards' tweet was probably ill-advised, the backlash (both to the tweet itself and apparent in the comments here) is both disproportionate and demonstrative of a much larger issue. Physical threats, including rape and murder, are not an acceptable response in any situation. Our collective acceptance of rape culture and victim-blaming is, I believe, far more important to address and discuss.

Liz, bias much? Have you

Submitted by Jesse Gomez on 7 May 2013 - 1:51am.

Liz, bias much? Have you seen Adria's tweets? Have you actually investigated on what happened?

Thank you all for your input.

Submitted by Elizabeth N. Clift on 6 May 2013 - 11:15am.

Thank you all for your input. There are definitely issues in this that you've raised that were not on the forefront of my mind when I wrote this post.

I was using Richards' case to highlight, however, the very real bullying that does occur (death and rape threats to Richards, for instance) and how that translated to the youth I work with and the cyber-bullying they have experienced.

I want the youth, and the culture of cyber-bullying at large, to be the focus of this and these comments so far, are mostly trying to misdirect the conversation. Richards' silence matters, as I say in the article, because it is another instance of a woman, in a male-dominated subset of a male-dominated society, being threatened and scared into silence, with the assistance of the anonymity of the internet.

I completely disagree with

Submitted by teemu on 14 May 2013 - 2:53am.

I completely disagree with you. Painting this as a woman threatened and scared into silence completely disregards the truth of the matter - that this is a person who acted out of line, and society stepped up to correct her behavior. The gender of the person, and that person's status as a minority or majority do not play into it at all. If anything, she abused her status as a minority, for what end I do not understand. Any attempt to portray Ms Richards as anything but a bully is a gross distortion of the facts.

Hi Elizabeth, I didn't have

Submitted by ClearHeadsPrevail on 8 May 2013 - 10:34am.

Hi Elizabeth,

I didn't have any intentions of detracting from your original message. There is certainly much here that students can learn, as you have pointed out. Your work in guiding children in this area should be applauded.

In a round-about way, my point is that Adria has made a living off of pushing people's buttons, making drama when there was no need, and doing self-serving things for attention. She too used social media inappropriately and ultimately gained negative attention in the worst way. I think this is a perfect example of how things you say online can come back very quickly to haunt you - unfortunately in the most disproportionate ways possible. The Internet can be a pretty awful place. Students should be aware of this as well, and tread carefully.

But look towards the tragedies of Steubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons, etc. for examples - these girls were truly victims. Adria isn't the best example to turn into a "tragic figure".

In case you missed it, Adria

Submitted by Horselover Fat on 3 May 2013 - 9:25pm.

In case you missed it, Adria was almost universally considered to be an inflammatory reactionary. There are other documented cases of her overreacting to non issues and using her internet influence to help make her case. *(I should note that there is a clear divide between the tech people male and female who do not support Adria and the rest of the community who don't seem to have a clear grasp of the issue at hand).

In this particular case her overreaction and doxing of the men in question resulted in one of the men losing his job. Even at this juncture if Adria had showed some compassion and realized what her actions had resulted in I don't think the blow back would have been as severe. Instead Adria saw fit to justify her actions and actually compared herself to Joan of Arc.

I should also say that with regard to some of the vile comments and images that she received were also almost universally condemned. There is no reason that this type of behavior should exist but sadly it also a sad result of the anonymity of the internet. I have heard another person say that he received death threats for daring to suggest that Nintendo retire the Mario character. That is to say that while these type of comments shouldn't exist they really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who puts themselves out there on the internet.

Succinctly an internet PC bully has had the tables turned on her for a change. I can't think of a more deserving result.

Sorry I can't package these

Submitted by ClearHeadsPrevail on 1 May 2013 - 10:42am.

Sorry I can't package these events neatly to fit a black and white narrative, but here's another social media tip:

If you're the head PR rep of a company (SendGrid) whose business model is solely based on the PRIVACY of outbound electronic messages, you might want to reconsider taking pictures of potential clients without their permission and use it to publicly shame them via social media.

The men shouldn't have been making a "dongle" joke in a professional forum. I agree. But using that same logic, Adria was also there on the company's time to promote their services in a positive light - not go rogue on some personal self-fulfilling crusade against men.

The social media response to Adria is horrific and completely disproportionate to the events. That's the only thing here that cannot be argued. However, the events that unfolded AFTER the fact don't absolve Adria from wrong-doing. In fact, Adria used similar tactics - hide behind a Twitter account to drum up support against two men who had absolutely no chance to apologize or avenue to defend themselves. How is that fair? You don't think the "shamed" (and now unemployed) guy feels sick/embarrassed/angry over these events? This is ALSO an example of how NOT to exploit social media to ruin another person's life.

It's sophomoric tattletale tactics, completely unprofessional, and doesn't have a place in the industry. When you say that "women struggle for acceptance", do you think Adria's vindictive and hot-headed actions will EVER get her accepted?

It blows my mind that out of all the ADULT characters in this drama, not one single clear head prevailed. Let's not try to make this black and white. Mistakes were made by all parties. There is not a single person in the matter whose hands aren't dirty.

I'd say learn from this and move on, but we're not going to get anywhere if we only tell one side of the story.

While I appreciate any

Submitted by Paige Thomas on 1 May 2013 - 9:04pm.

While I appreciate any thoughtful response to conversations on social media responsibilty, bullying and youth, it's hard for me to empathize with these men at all. The previous commenter seems to be rediricting the point from a woman trying to hold two men accountable for their behavior to the fact that the accusor used the internet to do so. The internets' response was completely inappropriate. Thanks Liz for taking the time to discuss this with youth as the interweb has become such a large venue for thier social world.

There's some serious

Submitted by FAcebookAntiDependa on 1 August 2013 - 11:17pm.

There's some serious cognitive dissonance in calling two men "assclowns" in a public blog post in which you are complaining about how unprofessional their language was.

You can't seriously believe

Submitted by ClearHeadsPrevail on 3 May 2013 - 9:52am.

You can't seriously believe that the two men telling a single "dongle" joke in private had purposely intended to DIRECTLY offend, demean, or belittle Adria.

What they did was childish, but there was clearly no malicious intent.

Now, do you think that taking a picture of these men without permission and posting it to a massive public forum in hopes of publicly humiliating them is an appropriate response?

What Adria did was aimed directly at these men with vindictive intentions. She clearly had no intentions of resolving the issue amicably. In her mind, this was the perfect time to validate her own passive-aggressive rants she made against white males on Twitter and YouTube.

Bottom line: Adria used her social media "clout" in an attempt to publicly humiliate these men. Is this not social media "bullying" that you yourself are decrying? Better yet, what if the roles were reversed, and a male posted a photo of two women in a similar humiliating fashion? Would there be outrage then?

Think about the chain of events here. A single word - "dongle" - was the catalyst to set the entire Internet on fire.

How incredibly ridiculous and infantile is that?

I disagree with you

Submitted by jim hearst on 2 May 2013 - 6:49pm.

I disagree with you completely i mean her actions would be justified if it wasn't for the fact that she was making the same type of joke herself . so she was a hypocrite that means that she did nothing justifiable