Trust, Fame, and Deceit

On manipulative "anti-sexism," public faces, and social media.

January 10, 2016Filed under blogMarkdown source

I recently noted, in the course of seeing how my New Rustacean podcast was doing, that the subscriber list for its Twitter followers was overwhelmingly, terribly male. So I responded a little: I posted publicly about it on Twitter, making known my intention to find some ways within the podcast to feature female Rust developers, just to help make the Rust community that much friendlier to women. (I’m told that it’s actually very welcoming so far, for which I’m grateful!)

The response was gratifying in some ways: I got a fair bit of response from within the Rust community, and heard back from a number of women who listen to the show. At least one of them linked to the show, recommending it strongly.

I was happy about this. And then I started thinking about the way this cycle played out. Everything in it was genuinely well-intended on my part. I very much want to see the tech world in general and open-source software in particular be friendlier and kinder and more respectful to women. I want it to be a genuinely egalitarian space. I would go so far as to say that I think that is essential for it to be a genuinely good space.

But what if those weren’t my intentions? What if, in point of fact, I was a misogynist pig with a penchant for sexual harassment?

The same social media tactics would still work. People who’d experienced my wickedness first-hand would know better, but many wouldn’t. I’d just be a friendly-sounding voice out there on the internet, giving every impression of being on the side of people whose go of things in the tech community has been pretty rough at times. My stature would go up as a consequence. My podcast would grow in popularity. The likely hood of my being a well-liked and well-respected member of the community would only increase.

And the opportunities I would have to abuse that position of influence would all concomitantly increase as well.

Again: that isn’t me. But unless you know me and see how I live my life, you don’t know that. You don’t know from a tweet, or a blog post, or even a whole public internet history. Sad to say, but people lie, and they do it for many reasons. When, in the midst of any furor over another revelation of sexual predation from a well-regarded person who has said all the right things, remember that words are cheap. “Actions speak louder than words” is a truism for a reason.

That doesn’t mean you should mistrust everything you hear or read. It doesn’t mean that behind every nice-seeming person on the internet is actually a creepy psychopath plotting how to manipulate you. It just means that you shouldn’t be surprised to find that, out of the great mass of people who genuinely are friendly and helpful, there are nonetheless a few for whom their friendliness and helpfulness are a manipulative charade.

A few thoughts:

  • Keep trusting people. You can’t live your life sanely otherwise.
  • But don’t be surprised when some people aren’t what they seem.
  • If someone acts one way in public but is completely different in private, do whatever you can to deal with it. Above all, if you’re their friend, call them on it.
  • Give grace; people make mistakes. But also don’t assume that just because someone who’s lied repeatedly apologizes, they’re going to change. Giving grace and forgiving people doesn’t mean being blind or naïve.
  • Don’t manipulate people. It’s easy to do it, and the temptation toward popularity can get tangled up even with genuine desires to do good in ways that profoundly complicate your actions. Watch out for it.
  • Don’t let that worry keep you from doing good things for other peoples’ good. Keep your eyes on your own motives while you do it, but love others as you love yourself.