Geek Feminism Wiki

This email was sent to Chad Whitacre, the creator of Gittip, on May 21, 2014. He acknowledged receipt of it, and that he read it both in person and via email.

Author's Notes

The context for this email is that Chad had some bad interactions with some activists in the tech community. I was concerned about the impact this would have on Gittip and those activists who were some of the top receivers on Gittip. As someone who knew both Chad and the activists, I felt I was in a unique position to reach out.

My hope was that this email would help Chad understand what went wrong and help adjust some behavior to make things go better in the future. My plan was then to follow up with him and another Gittip team member to work on supporting marginalized groups and activists on Gittip moving forward. I will no longer be doing that and have left the Gittip team.

I think the context of this email is important in understanding my serious disappointment with Chad’s recent behavior which happened after receiving my advice. This includes positively responding to a Hacker News comment that included negative commentary about top receivers on Gittip, and his recent blog post about one of the activists he had a negative interaction with.

I am reproducing my own words here, and I believe doing so is consistent with Chad's insistence and dedication to openness for himself and Gittip.


Hey Chad,

As promised on that github issue, I wanted to reach out to you to discuss my involvement as a team member on gittip and how gittip is handling issues related to underrepresented groups and other demographics.

I think the two of us setting aside some time to chat over coffee or a meal or something would be a great idea. In the past we've tried to discuss some of these issues at busy events after a tech meetup where it was hard to focus because of noise and other people. It'd be nice to have a more focused discussion.

Before we do that, I want to give some feedback about some of your interactions with other people from the demographics we'll be talking about. We can totally continue this discussion when we meet up, but I think it would be good to get it out in email first, so that I express what I'm trying to say clearly and you have some time to really sit and think on it before we chat.

So, uh, prepare yourself for a wall of text when you have time for it.

Before I start, know that I'm giving you this feedback as constructive criticism. I'm taking the time to write up my thoughts because I think you care about improving in this area. I'm spending time on this because I respect you enough to do so. I hope it will be received that way.

Knowing you better than many of the people you've had these interactions with, I get that your behavior is coming from an intent of openness, excitement about gittip and the open company model it uses, and wanting to engage with people about those things. Unfortunately, intent only goes so far. Your interactions with some of these people have ranged from annoying at best to problematic at worst. I doubt you want your interactions with people to be those things as a person or as a representative of gittip.

I think you've managed to get some helpful feedback about gittip on those github issues. What's less clear to me is how much helpful feedback you've gotten about why your specific interactions upset people. Understandably, when someone is upset, they don't always give the best feedback. As an occasional participant and an outside observer, I want to try to give you some of that.

Your first instinct here may be to defend your behavior or explain these interactions. I'd prefer to cut out that part or have it be something you work out on your own or with someone else. I've met you in person, and already know you mean well. If I didn't, well, I wouldn't be writing this email. The problem here is that this pattern of behavior reflects poorly on you, and you can't fix that by trying to explain to each individual person who sees it what you meant or why you did a certain thing. What you can do is start adjusting your behavior, so that it stops being a pattern. That will speak volumes more to people, myself included (actions speak louder than words and all that jazz).

I briefly mentioned this in one of the github issues without calling you out directly, but it bears repeating. You are often too aggressive on twitter when engaging with people who mention gittip or topics that are potentially gittip-related, especially when they don't explicitly @mention you or the gittip account. In some cases, a third party brought the tweet to your attention. In others, you noticed it on your own. This behavior is basically akin to the "brand" twitter accounts that tweet at people any time they mention certain keywords. It's annoying or frustrating more often than not.

Once you are at the point where you're having these conversations with people, you are often quite aggressive about it. Your aggression is especially rough for certain demographics because they read it as aggression while many outsiders will not. You're not yelling or using curse words. However, you are pushing conversations that people often don't want to have and pushing them to have them in venues they don't want to have them in. You get so into pushing these conversations that it seems to take you a while to realize that they've asked you to stop or pushed back, especially if they did so in a less straightforward way instead of a clear, direct "STOP." If they get upset by this polite aggression and respond impolitely, they often come off looking like the "bad guy" in the interaction.

This can be especially worrisome when there's a power dynamic involved. For example, you essentially control one of the primary forms of income for several people. There's a huge power dynamic there. I'm fairly certain you'd never mess with their income, but they don't necessarily know that. The power dynamic doesn't come so much from what you would do, but from what you *could* do.

I think you can avoid a lot of these issues by taking a breather and slowing down before you dive headfirst into these conversations. Really think about if the person wanted to start a conversation with you or not. Should you still decide to jump into a conversation, slowing down and carefully listening to responses would help a lot. You'd be more likely to catch warning signs that indicate someone doesn't really want to continue the conversation.

Another thing to consider is getting a better background on the people you're engaging with instead of making assumptions. For example, in your conversation with Shanley, my impression was that you assumed she was speaking as a representative of Model View Culture. I can see how you would come to this conclusion - you seem to be on as "the gittip guy" a lot of the time. Shanley and Amelia don't really operate that way. MVC also does a lot of their work quietly and in private. It's critical to some of the stories they're telling (note the number of anonymous stories in their online issues). A little bit of background and understanding of how Shanley operates could have made that entire interaction much less painful for both of you.

In your push for openness, you often make these conversations a lot more "open" that the other people involved may like. In theory, twitter is public. You can RT to your heart's content. However, RTing or publishing in a blog post everything someone says to you or about gittip comes off as kinda weird and creepy. Many other people who follow this pattern online do this because they're trying to harass or shame the person. That's clearly (to me) not your intent, but even as someone who knows that, I cringe when you do it because it reminds me of those patterns. Even when you ask permission to do it, it can come off badly.

On the flip side, I've also seen you RT or post comments from people saying nasty or harassing things about gittip users (e.g. the "panhandling" accusations I've seen directed at Ashe, Shanley, and others). My impression is that your intent is just to let people see what people are saying about gittip. To others, it can be seen as promotion or support. It might be useful to be a little more careful with how you address these cases.

Ultimately, I think a lot of this comes from the fact that gittip is your baby. You are very invested in it (which is admirable), but it seems like sometimes that investment blinds you in your interactions with others. You are so excited to have open conversations or to convince people about how awesome what you're doing is that you push too hard. I think a *lot* of these situations could be avoided by having someone who better understands these demographics having these interactions, summarizing their findings, and bringing them back to the team.

The danger in having you ultimately solve this problem by being more hands-off with certain demographics is that you focus a lot of the company's attention on other people and leave the activists and the underrepresented groups to a quiet little "diversity ghetto". That's no good either. I'm much more excited about you having a closed discussion with someone like LynnMagic (one of the top gittip receivers who is a trans woman of color developer and activist - she's really awesome) than an open discussion with someone like Jason Calacanis (a few weeks back he was offering money for video of that RadiumOne dude beating his wife - not really high on my list of awesome people even if he has money).

A lot of this is just me thinking out loud, so I don't have a clear plan. I think what I'd like to see from you in the short term is really thinking about and trying to avoid some of the problematic behavior I've mentioned here (and that others have pointed out to you). I think that may mean pulling back a bit in some discussions to avoid doing more harm while working on this. This is a good place where the user advocates (or whatever name you decide to use for them) can step in and fill that gap, so you're not leaving a vacuum.

I think you also need to figure out plans for engaging with these demographics beyond the user advocate idea to really make them an important part of the gittip community that you care about. They're some of the top receivers on and promoters of gittip, so this is a wise way to invest some of your time. This is something I'd really love to brainstorm and talk with you about more. However, I don't think this will work until you make some of the previously mentioned changes to gain back some of the good will you've lost.

Ultimately, this is why I'd rather you don't do much promotion about me being on the gittip team. It can be read as "I had a fight with Shanley, but look, Julie is here to fix that diversity problem we're having." I'm not interested in being the "diversity" tick on the project, and I'm definitely not interested in being pitted against my friends who you had a bad interaction with. I don't think that's you intent here, but I'd rather avoid the possibility of it being read that way by others. If we work together to make some good progress, I will happily shout to the rooftops that I'm a member of the team and involved in the project.

I put together a "So You Want to Be an Ally" post recently with a lot of good resources and links to materials. I think I cover a lot of things that would help you in there. I strongly encourage you to give it a read.

When you're done digesting my ridiculous wall of text and want to chat more, let me know when you're available, and we can organize a time to meet up.

- Julie