When is a dongle just a dongle?

There are a lot of things I don’t get about Twitter and/or Facebook: hashtags (seriously, who uses them?), profile photos, how righteous a tweet can make us feel even as it fills us with self-doubt. There’s no tone and little room for nuance or context in these spaces, no grace for momentary lapses or mistakes, and outrages frequently ensue. Maybe we are living in a new age of media, like all those entrepreneurial internet gurus claim. We still can’t control representation – who reads what and how – but we feel that we can, largely because we have more influence than we did during an earlier age when we so rarely controlled the means of production or the published matter.

My wonderings about social media were spurred by the PyCon scandal a couple of weeks back, when Adria Richards was offended by a conversation in the row behind her, in which three guys talked about ‘forking somebody’s repo’ (programmer vernacular for admiring somebody else’s code) and ‘big dongles’ (big usbs). She tweeted to the conference convenors, and internet crazee ensued: she and one of the guys in the photo lost their jobs, critics wished her ruination (often involving rape and death), feminists declared sexism rife in the tech industry so the public shaming justified, and MRAs started a Feminist Victims’ Fund.

The incident could have spurred an examination of whether dick jokes can be comedic, or if they’re always macho lording, and whether such humour is ineluctably sexist because women don’t have penises but know the world is crafted for the phallic gaze. Maybe it is sexist to assume that usbs are substitute penises – that penises rule the world, that every object can be recast in their shadow, and that various work scenarios may end in sexual (even if masturbatory) acts. Maybe. But if the sexist nature of a comment is so hard to determine, surely an intervention that might actually lead to changes in behaviour would have been warranted, rather than, say, a social media shaming.

Last week there was the Femen story and before that the Steubenville case –but I’ve also been thinking about how the edges of this debate have already been explored on Overland: Stephanie’s piece last week on the way we tell these stories on social media, the desire for vigilantism that Lizzie described, and Giovanni’s piece on the possible consequences of politics via social media.

Social media – in its immediacy and brevity and dependence on news – narrows our focus, and we find ourselves holding individuals responsible, rather than seeing societal fissures. The Steubenville case is a prime example. Exposing sexual violence is important but we need also look at the social reasons why two 16-year-olds don’t see rape as rape. We’d have to start with football culture and small-town masculinity, the way women’s bodies are imagined across media, how there is still an assumed sexual compliance that comes with gender, and beyond.

We all know the harassment of women is not going to lessen because we tweet some photos or a programmer loses his job or two teenagers go to jail, but on Twitter we can sometimes deceive ourselves into believing we live in a world where we can eliminate fear by naming and shaming. Those 140 characters can seem to reduce ambiguity and nail the essence of genuine grievances, but the empowerment it offers is fleeting, soon to be replaced by the next news cycle.

But there is more than one purpose for social media. And even though we sometimes complain about the ads, or the new changes in privacy policies, we don’t really notice the hand of the market in our time spent there. In ‘A history of like’, his essay on Facebook as (largely) a contemporary marketing exercise, Robert A Gehl writes, ‘We like, they know. The science of marketing has always been the science of placing us in taxonomies based on what we like.’ These innovations like Facebook and Twitter and other technological start-ups were usually driven by dreams of riches, to be supplied by wealthier corporations.

Tellingly, in the PyCon story, the CEOs of the start-ups involved wrote blog posts justifying their actions, signed with their personal email contact details. The implication was clear: the CEO is your friend, he’s on your side. The reality is that they feared potential market backlashes. The dismissals were about corporate impression management, rather than any attempt to address sexism in the tech industry.

When musing on sexual politics and senior management, I can’t help but think of that scene in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and switch when, trying to infiltrate the white-collar working world, she attends a professional development day for crisis communications management – most of which is focussed on what to do when activists attack. During the group activity, Ehrenreich’s table has to deal with a series of sexual harassment allegations. Someone suggests they handle it by offering medical care and psychiatric counselling to the victims.

These are the solutions these platforms mostly provide: absurd or cosmetic changes, because status updates and tweets have disproportionate influence over corporations, or the end of one crusade, soon to be traded for another.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by


  1. The implication was clear: the CEO is your friend, he’s on your side. The reality is that they feared potential market backlashes. The dismissals were about corporate impression management, rather than any attempt to address sexism in the tech industry.


    SendGrid is in a “enterprise infrastructure” niche of IT where the technical alternatives and prices are quite similar (and competing against already existing in-house incumbents).

    Like most commoditised IT infrastructure solutions (down to cloud computing, though SendGrid operates at a higher level) market share is influenced as much by image, and less tangible factors like quality of documentation, tools and outreach (which is why they employ “evangelists” like Richards in the first place), as it is by actual technology.

    Given that tech staff mediate these big software service purchasing decisions for their employers it’s not surprising companies like SendGrid are terrified of becoming uncool in male-dominated tech circles.

    That hands a disturbing amount of power to the nebulous, anonymous groups of dudes who ran these DDoS attacks alongside all of the hate speech. It’s practically impossible to determine who they are and what proportion of the IT worker community they represent, but it was the idea that they’re representative that scared SendGrid.

    • Thanks Tom, appreciate the comment. Your description of the intangible nature of the worth and influence of startups is really interesting. Almost how we’d describe marketing/advertising.

      Re the DDoS – I can’t remember where I read it, but there was a suggestion that attack was because Richards was fired (for calling out sexism). Maybe I’m mistaken?

      • Though I also take your point that the DDoS attacks strike fear into the hearts of these startups (and corps), yet we don’t know who the anon-dudes are, or what they’re representative of (if indeed anything).

  2. “These are the solutions these platforms mostly provide: absurd or cosmetic changes, because status updates and tweets have disproportionate influence over corporations, or the end of one crusade, soon to be traded for another.”

    It was around 2000 that the petition about the oppression of women under the Taliban circulated online, mostly via email. It wasn’t a hoax as such – insofar as its claims were quite accurate – but it functioned like a hoax, in that appending your name to it made no difference to anybody. Nobody was collecting those signatures or delivering them anywhere. By 2000 you might have expected most people to be literate enough about the internet to realise this, yet I kept receiving this petition from committed political friends. There was even an Italian version of going around. I guess the sceptics might have thought that it couldn’t hurt, or that at least it would raise awareness. I’m not sure that it did. It seems to me entirely counterproductive to engage in meaningless gestures just because they cost little effort.

    Now we have social media, and social media are shaped in a particular way. So when the dongle thing happened there were grooves or well-oiled tracks you could move along, again with very little effort. You could register one of two or three kinds of templated outrage, and then wait for that real-time textual protest to produce a real-world result – albeit, as you say, absurd and/or cosmetic. I said something was shameful and somebody in another continent lost their job. Swift victory was achieved, and nobody even had to put their pants on.

    I am immensely wary of this. Having somebody’s job terminated whilst sitting at your computer feels too much like being part of a drone strike. I don’t doubt social media’s capacity to help us organise politically, but when the action stays on the network it’s almost always bad news.

    • Thanks GT, some sobering thoughts.

      I guess what this whole post was trying to get out was that there is a kind of consumer logic driving these online interactions and outrages. These interactions are human and social up until a point, but are also all activities regulated through the market – ‘Don’t like the product/comment? Look, here’s someone else’s!’ They’re also mediated through commercial entities such as Twitter and Facebook, making them a kind of transaction performed by a (pants-less) individual at home on their computer.

      In some ways, social media seems the logical result of politics under neoliberalism/late capitalism. That’s why these actions are usually punitive – we don’t, at least not that I know of, see virtual attacks to get somebody’s job back.

      Sure, we can try to channel this outrage into something more useful and politically constructive, but it’s also possible it’s more crippling than we currently recognise.

  3. I fear there is a large phallus scrawled on the wall of the world, a tasteless backdrop to the injustice of things.

    When I think of all the very stupid things I have thought and said in my life, I thank the fates that I have not had to negotiate social media until I had (for better or worse) already fallen out of the ordinary run of things like a *real job*.

    Why we don’t offer help and education to the perpetrators is a mystery – but we much prefer punitive responses to most things. Apparently. Unless it’s happening to us or those we love. The ‘mini knee-jerk’ that can be an ill-fated tweet or blog post: it’s extraordinary that it has such influence, or seeming influence – all part of the closing in on dissent of any kind, I suppose: catching up all sorts of fish in its net while systemically poisoning the ocean.

    Oh dear, I appear to be waxing lyrical. Thanks for the thought-provoke, Jacinda.

    • I think you’re right about the punitiveness – it’s the fast route to empowerment, and sees us turning our rage at the system on to an individual or group that can be easily punished/blamed. It seems more accentuated on social media though, perhaps because it draws out our best and worst needs: the desire to collaborate and share, and the desire to speedily resolve things and move on.

      But can see it in other media too; police procedurals and reality television, for instance.

      Thanks C.

      • The ole punitive approach is everywhere – justice system, education, parenting, relationships, even in medical care … it seems a hard road masquerading as a fast route.

        Bullies need to be called out, they thrive on secrecy … which is the blessing and curse of our revelatory trends of ‘calling’ sexism, racism, classism, ageism through social media (or is this just my wish list?) – on the one hand, we’re *empowered* to speak up because we feel safe in our houses/cafe’s/work-places/someplace-near-electricity-type-stuff and on the other, because we don’t have to look the person we’re confronting in the eye, it’s easier (perhaps) to devolve into a howling pack intent on revenge … erm, no: justice. Mind you, haven’t humans always been pretty handy with mobbing with pitch-forks (or is that just in the movies/America)?

        I think it’s pretty full-on to be firing individuals over one ugly tweet (or even an ugly attitude) without giving them an opportunity to change their ways — while we allow our systems and governors and corporations to go blundering on ineptly, or purposefully committing the most heinous crimes, over and over and over and over and over and over again. It’s disingenuous, as you say in your piece. The powers-that-be in government and business have made it clear they care nothing for ethics, morality or equality.

        • I really meant, ‘appears to be the fast route to empowerment under capitalism’, when we have all these band-aid and staple solutions to patch up the structural wounds underneath. But that’s all a bit blah – it’s an idea I’m still trying to figure out.

          I thought the dismissals very sad too, particularly when it could have been resolved so differently (and as I said above, I’m not even certain it was sexist, though that’s not really your point). It was the idea that these two people were now jobless – in this US economic climate – that initially made me want to write on the subject.

  4. “But if the sexist nature of a comment is so hard to determine, surely an intervention that might actually lead to changes in behaviour would have been warranted, rather than, say, a social media shaming.”

    What would such an intervention look like?? Adria Richards got rape threats from posting a tweet. The look on that middle guy’s face is one of smug, insulated knowing. I don’t blame her for not wanting to get into a prolonged face-to-face engagement with these guys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.