Greatest hits

I’ve been “publishing” various things on the Internet for 20 years (!!!) now. Here are some of my favorite pieces:

Ball lightning: the coolest thing you’ve never heard of: Ball lightning – glowing balls of light often associated with regular ol’ lightning – is super cool, real, and no one knows how it works yet! I read an entire textbook on the phenomenon of ball lightning while I was on vacation, and wrote this summary of it.

The ultimate physical limits of computation: Dr. Seth Lloyd, a physicist, estimated when Moore’s Law will end according to our current knowledge of physics (presumably incomplete). He also calculated the maximum possible bit operations per second, IO bandwidth, and other interesting properties of one kilo of matter in one liter of space (the “ultimate laptop”). I thought this was super amazing and interesting, so I wrote a summary of his paper aimed at your average computer programmer.

Suicide and society: Where does responsibility for preventing suicide lie?: When a famous person commits suicide, a lot of people who haven’t experienced major depression give bad advice on how to prevent suicide that ends up harming suicidal people more. I wrote this blog post to explain why it was harmful and what to do instead.

DEFCON: Why conference harassment matters: I saw Twitter recruiting at DEFCON, the world’s largest computer security conference, after I’d stopped attending because of the extensive sexual harassment and assault that goes on at that conference. I also first got interested in computer programming when I attended the third DEFCON conference as a teenager. I wrote this article to explain why harassment at conferences severely harms women.

The “rainbow chart” of cryptographic hash function lifetimes: Back around 2004, a cool trend in computer software was writing software that depended on cryptographic hash functions never being broken (specifically, SHA-1). In particular, an easy way to get a PhD was to take some existing piece of software and replace the addressing technique with an address generated by taking a cryptographic hash of the data being addressed. To demonstrate that cryptographic hash functions are human-made creations which will inevitably be broken with enough effort, I created a chart showing the lifetimes of cryptographic hash functions. Today with SHA-1-signed SSL certificates being actively deprecated, this seems obvious, but the chart is a fun snapshot of a particular time in computer science.

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How to have more fun while online dating

Online dating is hard and scary, am I right? Most of the advice for online dating focuses on how to find and get a partner, which seems like the right focus – get it over and done with ASAP, right? But as I followed that advice and started working on my profile and contacting people, I realized that for me, the bigger problem was preventing myself from getting so discouraged that I gave up dating entirely. Looking at the bitter, angry comments on many other profiles, it looks like I’m not alone in feeling that way. Most people will have to go on a lot of not-right dates to find someone who is a good match for them, and if you’re a straight woman, you’re even more likely to get a lot of insults and threats along the way as well.

So I decided to spend some time trying to make the process of dating itself more fun. Here’s what I learned.

TL;DR for the impatient: Pay for professional photos, put a lot of effort into your profile, pay for extra features, only go on dates you will enjoy even if it turns out you’re not attracted to the other person, be picky, reject people quickly, never give reasons for rejections, don’t think about people who reject you, reframe bad experiences as great stories to tell your friends, pay attention to red flags, use helpful tools, try the new dating app Bumble if you are a straight feminist man or woman.

The full-length version is pretty long, so I split the tips into the following categories:

Disclaimers: This isn’t a “10 tips for getting a great partner, like I did!” kind of post – the only claim to success I’ll make is that I’m having a good time dating right now. I didn’t do any research on what dating is like for people who aren’t similar to me, so you should know up front that I’m a 37-year-old straight white feminist cis woman who doesn’t have or want kids and is looking for a long-term monogamous relationship in the San Francisco Bay Area. The platforms I used were OkCupid and Bumble, so you will have to translate to your favorite online dating platform. I’m not including any safety-related tips because more than enough of that kind of advice already exists for straight women.

With those caveats in place, I hope this post helps a few more people enjoy themselves while online dating a little more!

Preparing to date online

Don’t date until you are ready to date

Plenty of people join an online dating service for some reason other than wanting to find partner(s): fear of being alone, wanting to conform to expectations, plain old boredom, whatever. I get it – I once started online dating because I had a serious crush on an unavailable coworker. I should have joined a sports club or adopted a dog or poked myself in the eye with a stick repeatedly instead.

Here’s the thing: if you aren’t actually ready and willing to date, you are not going to have fun with online dating. Online dating is hard work, emotionally, and takes a lot of time. If you’re not really into it, you’ll resent the time and emotional energy you put into it, and that will put you in a bad mood. (You’ll also waste the time and effort of the people who respond to you, but I encourage you to think about being kind to yourself first.)

How do you tell if you are ready to date? Often the same way you know you are ready for other big life changes: you spend a lot of time both thinking about and taking actions that prepare you for it. For me, I knew I was ready when for several months I consistently spent several hours a week reading about or researching dating and relationships, and consciously reduced my commitments so that I would have time to put into a relationship. Another way to figure this out is to go to a therapist. (My advice on finding a therapist: search on Psychology Today’s therapist directory, make appointments with three therapists who mention CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and go with the one that seems pleasant but professionally distant.)

Work consciously and intentionally on your profile

Most online dating starts out with looking at each other’s profiles. This should be a self-evident truth: When you put effort into having an attractive, well-designed profile that accurately reflects who you are, you get more contacts from people that you are attracted to – and this increases your enjoyment of online dating as well as your chances of finding your partner(s). But even if this is as obvious as it seems to me, many people feel self-conscious or deceptive about putting effort into creating a good profile (and heaven forbid that you spend ACTUAL MONEY to do so).

For straight women, this ties into the common trope that women should be effortlessly! feminine! and attractive! We woke up looking this way! And definitely never intentional or calculating about anything to do with your love life. For straight men, I think it’s more related to the constant pressure from other men to not try too hard to be attractive to women in ways that require significant work, thereby lowering the standards for all straight men (think of this as “dating on the curve” for straight men). You can thank toxic masculinity for that one!

I’m here to give you permission to create the best profile you can, and damn the self-consciousness! If not for yourself, then do it out of compassion for all the poor people who will otherwise have to read your lackluster, lackadaisical, borderline-offensive profile.

Some useful tips for improving your profile from other folks:

I have a story about the last point, which describes how if you live in an extremely left-leaning area and are left-leaning yourself, you want to lower the importance of OkCupid match questions that have to do with abortion, gay rights, gun control, flag-burning, etc. When I did my first search on OkCupid after answering questions the obvious way, one of my top 5 matches was a guy I already knew. He was a 93% match – and he was a total jerk in a way I used to find attractive but had spent several thousand dollars on therapy to stop finding attractive. I was devastated: Had my match questions somehow revealed my true soul? Was I doomed to date jerks forever? Or maybe he had changed as much as I had? (I looked for recent social media posts and the answer was: no, he was still a jerk.) After using the advice in these articles to change the importance of the questions related to those areas, our match percentage dropped dramatically and he sank into the noise. PHEW!!

Eventually I realized that, in a place like the Bay Area, it is socially shameful to be anti-abortion or anti-gay rights, so a man who lacks compassion or kindness and would anywhere else be anti-abortion or anti-gay rights would be in favor of those things in this culture. You have to use smaller, less socially fraught signals to figure out what people’s personalities are like in places like the Bay Area.

Pay for professional photos

I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting professional high-quality photos. Most people need professional photos to look as good in their photos as they do in person. If you are one of those people, you are presenting an unfair and inaccurate version of yourself with non-professional photos. So stop misleading your potential dates and go get professional photos that accurately represent your looks, your style, and your personality!

For me, the difference between a dating with amateur photos and dating with photos taken by a professional portrait photographer was like day and night. Before, I was going on dates mostly with people I was not attracted to. After professional photos, I suddenly started going on lots of dates with people I was very attracted to – and who were attracted to me! I know my better photos weren’t misleading because my dates also gave me a lot of compliments about how much I looked like my photos, and I started getting asked on second dates.

If you are thinking, “But I want someone who is attracted to me for my personality and mind,” I hear you. If it helps, you can view the photos as an unfair, unnecessary filter which you want to get as many prospects through as possible so that they can find out more about your personality and mind. For me, I realized how important photos were (for straight men at least) when I found a straight guy’s profile whose text consisted only of, “Does anyone even read this? I know you are just looking at my photos.” So, for straight men, let me add: yes, I am reading your profile, and it is important too.

How to find a photographer: I searched Yelp. Almost all reviews on Yelp for photographers are about wedding photos (same problem for flowers and cakes) so I looked at the photographer’s web sites to see if they did online dating portraits. In San Francisco, the going rate was about $400 for an online dating profile package with a 90 minute session. This seems expensive, but think about how much money you’ll spend on bad dates instead – and you can often use some of the photos for business, too. (The number of straight men on OkCupid who use their business headshot as their main profile photo still astonishes me.) Obviously, if you have professional photographers in your personal network, asking them for recommendations is a good way to go.

The Heartographer has some great tips on preparing for photos and finding a professional photographer. She also has an idea for getting good pics for cheap that would work with or without a professional photographer: get a bunch of folks who need dating profile pics to go to a nice restaurant with good light, and take photos of each other laughing and talking to each other.

Don’t hide your “worst” features in photos

Both OkCupid’s dating blog and Captain Awkward agree: whatever it is about you that makes you stand out physically, it should be evident in your photos, whether you view it as a positive or a negative. OkCupid says that the straight women who get the most messages are ones whose photos are polarizing – a significant number of straight men think the photos are very unattractive, and an equally sizable number think they are very attractive, with very little “meh” in between. I know I’ve had this thought before I contacted someone: “Hey, they are super good looking to me but I bet lots of other people think they are weird-looking and won’t contact them – maybe I have a chance!” Captain Awkward gives the same advice for a different reason: it’s demoralizing and no fun to present an edited version of yourself on the Internet and get rejected in person. And you are missing out on all the people who are attracted to the thing you think of as your least attractive feature. (People are different, okay?)

Have fun with your profile

At the same time that you are doing the research on how to write a good profile and getting professional photos, your profile should also be fun for you to write and read. I see a lot of deadly serious profiles out there, which is fine if you yourself are deadly serious all of the time. But most of us are at least a little playful, and are just writing Serious Profiles because finding a partner is Serious Business. The idea is that the more important something is to us, the more serious our writing about it should be.

I disagree. First, your profile is supposed to give people a representative idea of what you are like as a person. If you are funny and quirky and make jokes, you should do that in your profile too. But more importantly for the purposes of this blog post, filling your profile with in-jokes and Easter eggs will help you have more fun while dating. When someone finally got my obscure reference to Jem and the Holograms, we had a great time talking about the Rio/Jem/Jerrica love triangle, and I was also pretty sure that person would be more positive about women. And when you reread your profile (which you will be doing a LOT), you will smile every time you come across one of your jokes.

Avoid obvious harassment triggers in your profile

Any woman has put the word “feminist” in the first sentence of an online dating profile knows what I’m talking about here: you want to get across the important parts of who you are, but you also don’t want to field a bunch of nasty messages from resentful entitled dudes who have nothing better to do than neg women on online dating sites. How do you filter out the guys who won’t like the real you without also getting a bunch of garbage messages?

I recommend having a profile that at first glance and on the surface level is very upbeat! and! shiny! But it is filled with subtle references and hints that stand out to the kind of person you are actually looking for (which ties in with the “have fun with your profile” advice above). My favorite example is from one of the iterations of my OkCupid profile: I quote the tag line from Jem and the Holograms, and down near the end of my profile, at the end of a long list, I mention that I’m looking for smart, artistic, feminist men. If some bored troll is skimming it, he won’t get the Jem reference and he’ll skip right over the long boring list in the middle of my profile. But the people I do want to meet take the time to read my whole profile and get my references, and then I know that they put some effort into learning about me when they mention them.

The same thing goes for profile photos and hot button questions: if some part of your profile triggers harassment, don’t hide who you are but find a way to say it in a more subtle way, one that will take too much knowledge and brainpower for the average harasser to notice.

Focus on two services

A lot of dating advice says to use two online dating services. This was true for me: More than two is overwhelming, but only one is too limiting. Pick the two that seem to be best marketed at the kind of person you want to date, and focus on them.

Use Bumble not Tinder

Bumble is a new dating app fairly described as “the feminist Tinder.” Bumble was started by Whitney Wolfe, the Tinder co-founder who was run out of the company by sexism and settled for an undisclosed amount. It is very Tinder-like – location-based, photo-based, swipe left/swipe right. The cool thing about Bumble is that in male-female matches, only women can initiate conversations (and they have to do so within 24 hours of a match). With other gender combinations, either person can initiate. The great thing about this for women is that you are much less likely to get harassed by a match, so you have a better experience overall.

I was aiming for a long-term relationship, but I also kept hearing stories about people who met on Tinder and then ended up dating long-term. I was also getting a little annoyed with how incredibly serious many of the people on OkCupid were. At the same time, I heard lots of awful stories about harassment of women on Tinder and of course I didn’t want to support a product run by sexist jerks. So Bumble seemed ideal, especially when a friend reported that the men on Bumble were way hotter than Tinder.

My experience: Bumble is GREAT! Highly recommended! So far the straight men I’ve asked about it seem to enjoy the experience of being contacted by women, so the rules seem to work well for straight men and straight women.

Screening dates

Use power tools

Dating sites are more enjoyable if you sign up for some of the extra features – which often cost a little (but not too much) money. For women, I especially recommend anything that lets you filter your incoming messages. I check my filtered messages on OkCupid once a week – all the messages from people who are outside my age range or immediate location, almost all poorly written or clear copy-and-paste – and then I think about how happy I am that they weren’t mixed in with the mostly great messages I got the rest of the week. The ratio of filtered to good messages is about 10 to 1, and I think I would be far more demoralized if more than 90% of my “You have a new message!” notifications were junk.

Some power tools are free: The OkCupid for the Non-Mainstream Chrome extension lets you surface useful information from a person’s questions right up front.

Figure out your “league” and mostly contact people in it

You don’t want to waste your time only messaging people who won’t go on dates with you, but you also don’t want to miss out on a potential mutual attraction to someone you think is too attractive to be interested in you! For me, it took a while to figure out what my new “league” was – that is, the general ballpark of overall attractiveness in a potential date that would likely result in mutual attraction. I hadn’t dated for 5 years and I’d changed a lot since the last time I dated – A LOT. It didn’t help that I had a terrible profile initially; at one point I pretty unhappy with my apparent pool of prospects.

But once I’d fixed the major problems with my profile, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people I thought were too attractive to be interested in me actually returned my messages and went on dates with me. The lesson here is: keep improving how well your profile represents you, and keep messaging a range of people, including the people you think are out of your reach, until you get a good sense of what sorts of folks to concentrate your effort on. Then keep messaging a few of the ones who seem out of reach anyway.

An important consideration here: Researchers recently showed that couples who knew each other only a short time before beginning to date are more likely to be similarly physically attractive (as rated by third parties) and couples who knew each other longer were more likely to be different in physical attractiveness, presumably because you got to have more information about their other qualities. So your “league” will vary depending on your physical attractiveness, your other kinds of attractiveness, and how much you know about each other beyond your photos. On one of those pictures-mostly apps, being similar levels of physical attractiveness will matter more. On services with more context, or when you have been friends for a while, bigger differences in physical attractiveness within couples are more common.

But what I really want to say is: if you are a woman raised in our culture of brutal, constant attacks on women’s appearance and worth, don’t immediately rule someone out because you assume they are too attractive to be interested in you.

Switch up your search parameters

After a couple of months, I had contacted most of the people who came up in my very specific and detailed search on OkCupid. Faced with the option of waiting for new people to sign up or changing my search, I changed my search. It was interesting to find out how many people had never, for example, filled out the “Relationship type” field but were monogamous. (When I asked, they said they didn’t realize there were so many polyamorous straight men on OkCupid that monogamous straight women would desperately want to filter them out.) I also tried searching for people solely on one characteristic I knew I found attractive (which is how I ended up scheduling three dates with 6’4″+ surfers in one week – fun!). Since I paid for extra features, I could use more advanced search parameters, which also led to more fun.

Invent your own CRM

Online dating services have terrible CRM – customer relationship management. That is, it is hard to keep track of people you have already looked at, people you have messaged, people you have rejected, etc. This is on purpose because the goal of an online dating service is to make you spend more time on it, not efficiently search through the likely prospects.

Make up a system that will help you keep track of these things, even if it isn’t how the service wants you to use the features. My system for OkCupid is:

  1. If I think someone is attractive, I “like” them and bookmark them.
  2. When I have more time, I review my list of bookmarks. If I decide I shouldn’t message them after all, I remove the bookmark (but leave the “like”).
  3. When I am feeling up to it, I send messages to people I have bookmarked and then remove the bookmark (but leave the “like”).
  4. I “hide” people who are no-gos.

This way, when I am scrolling through matches, the “like” serves as a marker that I’ve already contacted this person or added them to my to-contact list or decided not to contact them at all.

You can also use the features of the Chrome extension “OkCupid for the Non-Mainstream” to do CRM.

Avoid the haters

After my experience with being a 93% match with someone I already knew and thought was super mean, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to detect mean people through their dating profiles. What I found was surprising.

The obvious ones are people who are critical or judgmental of others in their profile. If someone has a list of things a prospective partner must not be, or complains about other people’s profiles, give them a miss (unless you are into mean people). What was less obvious is that people who were bitingly sarcastic about themselves in their profiles were also mean to other people. It’s a popular idea in psychology that the way that you treat yourself is the way you treat others, and vice versa; as far as I can tell from online dating, that’s true.

Some specific warnings for meanness from profiles of straight men:

  • Hates selfies. Anyone who makes a snide remark about selfies – his or yours – gets put on my ignore list right away because selfie-hating is a sign that he hates things associated with women or women loving themselves (conscious or not). Ironic selfies of himself are not great but okay, as most men have to go through an ironic selfie stage on the way to becoming a selfie-lover.
  • Mocks either you or himself for being on a dating service. Anyone with the joke, “We can tell your family we met at [other place]” on their profile is negging both you and himself – but mostly you.
  • Getting specific about his partner’s personal grooming in his profile. One guy seemed perfect for me – funny, good-looking, social justice activist, great writer – but then the third paragraph was a long diatribe about women’s personal grooming that ended with how much he hates picking hairs out of his teeth, KNOW WHAT I MEAN NUDGE NUDGE. Yuck.
  • “Message me if: You have a job” or similar “you must be this awesome to date me” list. It’s okay to only want to date women with jobs, but this form of it is rude and judgmental. He is taking out his anger about feeling insulted by being approached by someone not worthy of him by being mean or sarcastic to EVERY WOMAN who reads his profile – bad sign.
  • Any kind of rant or rule about responding to everyone who contacts him, or complaining about women who click “like” but don’t reply to a message. This screams entitlement and inability to deal with rejection well.
  • Says a bunch of people gave them advice on how to improve their profile and they didn’t take it – or actively made their profile worse. Or any other form of proudly ignoring kind and helpful advice on how to be more pleasant to potential partners (because he’ll be that way when you give him tips on what you like).
  • Carelessness in their profile. It’s okay to have misspellings or grammatical errors or use odd slang or whatever else represents who that person really is. But it’s not okay if it comes across as “I couldn’t be bothered to present my best self to my potential future partners.” Either they have self-esteem problems or they are genuinely contemptuous of people they want to date or they are so incompetent they can’t put together a profile that doesn’t seem that way.
  • Uses the word “sapiosexual.” This is a person who thinks being “intelligent” (according to very narrow standards having to do with mathematics, science, knowledge of Western literature, etc.) is sooooo damned important and special that it is of equal importance with gender in choosing a sexual partner. This person is almost always heterosexual and always totally full of themselves.
  • No women creators listed in the music/books/movies section (or only white people). They may not be a hater, but at minimum, you will have a loooooot of educating to do on the basics of things like Women are People Too and Europeans Do Not Have a Monopoly on High Culture.
  • Any positive mention of any of Ayn Rand’s books, NO EXCEPTIONS. Even if they just mention that they liked “The Fountainhead” but didn’t identify as an actual libertarian or objectivist by the name itself. I have tested this for you and gone on dates with more than one person like this and no matter how they try to couch it, these people are fundamentally attracted to the idea of a world in which only the strong survive and the weak are left to shrivel and die – and they believe they are the strong people due to their inherent good qualities. (Of course, it is racism and patriarchy that define the “strong” and the “weak” – but shhhh, don’t tell them.) Other red flags in literature: Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club”), Albert Camus (“The Stranger”), and maybe Orson Scott Card (“Ender’s Game”) and Heinlein – depends on how long ago they read them.
  • Insulting women in any way. This often takes the form of slut-shaming or shaming femininity – wearing makeup, having emotions, mocking things teen girls like, etc. – so it takes a while to learn to detect all the forms.

Satisfy your curiosity

If you’re the sort of person who is curious about lots of things, go ahead and learn more about some topic related to the other person without feeling bad if you don’t end up dating them. As a result of online dating, I have read a book of Turkish folktales, a dissertation on chord progressions, the results of googling for “danish men“, the history of Twitter’s founding, and much more. It was fun and I have no regrets!

Tell stories to sympathetic friends

Even with the best preparation, a lot of bullshit is going to happen to you with online dating. I once messaged someone who recognized me because… his ex-girlfriend had led an online harassment campaign against me. While they were dating. No shit. It was incredibly demoralizing – but then I realized I now had the BEST ONLINE DATING STORY and ended up laughing for five minutes straight instead. The prospect of telling a story really helped when I ended up messaging two guys without realizing they were identical triplets (fortunately the third was already engaged so I was spared that embarrassment).

Make sure your chosen friends are interested in hearing your stories, and try to lighten them up – but don’t try to cope with all the weirdness and awfulness alone. I found that often my friends who were in the longest and most stable partnerships were the most interested in hearing my stories, so don’t make assumptions about who would be interested!

Some of my all-time favorite tweets about my experiences with online dating:

Going on dates

Only go on dates that will be fun even if there isn’t mutual attraction

I made it a rule to only go on dates that I would enjoy even if there was no connection with the other person. I had tea at the only coffee shop in San Francisco with a Bay view, I ate dinner at The Grove, I took walks in Aquatic Park, I finally went to the Cable Car Museum, I took a ferry to Sausalito, and I climbed the Coit Tower stairs. Next on the list: visiting the new cat cafe in SF. Sometimes the fun was just in looking at a very attractive person while he said (possibly hilarious) words.

Very few of those dates led to second dates, but I enjoyed myself on all of them, so I’m happy! Do you have a list of tourist-y things you always meant to do, but never got around to? Or things that are only fun with two people but none of your friends are interested in doing? Make a list and start checking it off. (Keep in mind all the other advice about picking first date activities: in a public place, easy to leave, not a big commitment of time or money, easy to talk to each other, etc.)

Try video calls

It sucks to show up to a date and know within seconds that this person is not attractive to you. I found that video calls were a good way to screen potential dates for two things: whether you would be attracted in person, and how they act when they are outside their comfort zone. Lots of people won’t do a video chat (and you could be one of them), but if it works for both of you, it can be really fun and help you avoid trekking across town only to have your hopes instantly dashed.

If it’s right for you, go ahead and have casual sex

Hey, lots of us enjoy sex. And if you wait to have sex until you’re sure someone is a good long-term candidate… you’re not likely to have much sex. If lack of sex is getting you down, I encourage you to feel comfortable with (safely! thoughtfully!) having casual sex with people who are a good match for you in terms of physical attraction but maybe not so good as long-term relationship prospects (different opinions on kids, where to live, how to spend money, etc.). Many times, you’ll be happier, in a better mood, and more attractive when you do meet the person who is a good long-term match.

After dates

Know what you want and don’t waste time on people who aren’t it

Probably the most influential book I read while procrastinating on actually, you know, dating, was the embarrassingly named “Is He Mr. Right?” by Mira Kirshenbaum. In this unabashedly heterocentric book aimed at monogamous straight women, Mira lays out 5 criteria for a relationship that will last, calling these qualities by the term “chemistry.” Then she gives this advice: as soon as you figure out that your relationship doesn’t have all 5 qualities, dump them immediately and start dating again. Here is her list:

  1. You feel comfortable with each other and it’s easy to get close.
  2. You feel safe being in a relationship with them.
  3. You feel it’s fun to be together.
  4. You have real affection and passion for each other.
  5. You feel there’s real mutual respect.

Mira has a lot of great advice on how to figure out whether your relationship has these 5 things, but I went a little further and actually created a spreadsheet to help me figure out what I wanted in a partner. It has more than 9 tabs, functions that exceed 200 characters in length, and it took me several months to create. I read two books, watched a TED talk, and started a quantified relationships club to get more feedback on it. I’m still updating my spreadsheet, usually after I meet someone who is closer to what I want than ever before, but still not quite there.

If you’re feeling weird about being intentional and specific about your search for a partner, my friend Leigh Honeywell pointed me at this classic comment from Harriet Lerner, quoted in “All About Love” by bell hooks:

Few of us evaluate a prospective partner with the same objectivity and clarity that we might use to select a household appliance or car.

Who you end up in a committed relationship with is a hugely important part of your life. Treat the process of finding that person with the appropriate level of care and respect.

Get good at dumping people

More advice from Mira Kirshenbaum: the difference between women who find good partners and ones who don’t is often the length of time that they stay involved with a partner after they’ve already figured out they aren’t a good match. Her example math: if on average it takes getting to know 10 men fairly well in order to find the one that’s right for you, and you average three years with each relationship, it will take you on average 30 years to meet the right guy. If instead you average three months with each one (just long enough to find out what you are really like after the initial bloom has worn off), it will take you two and half years to meet the right guy.

So that’s why you should dump people quickly when it’s clear they aren’t right. But how do you do it well? Captain Awkward has some great advice: Don’t give any reasons beyond “it’s not working for me,” and feel free to break up by any communication medium necessary (phone, text message, email, whatever – you don’t have to be afraid they will physically assault you to use this perfectly reasonable method). Usually, waiting to break up – say when you see someone in person, but only if they aren’t having a bad day, and only if you aren’t feeling guilty about them taking the time to meet you, and they didn’t bring flowers or buy you dinner, or fill-in-the-blank – is just a complicated avoidance tactic on your part. It has nothing to do with whether it is the “right way” to break up with the person, it’s all about you wanting to avoid having to break up at all. Ignore all of the self-righteous advice-givers on the Internet with “rules” about whether or not you “can” break up over the phone.

On “ghosting”: WTF, I hate that this has become some kind of meme of a bad thing for people to do in the context of dating. “Ghosting” is when someone ends a relationship by simply not responding to any further communication. It is a perfectly reasonable way to end many kinds of relationships, especially ones that up to that point involved, say, a single date or an exchange of emails. It is an especially good way to end abusive relationships – see Gavin de Becker’s advice in “The Gift of Fear” on cutting off ALL contact with stalkers. It is true, it can be a painful and horrible end to a long-term and apparently committed relationship, but that’s almost never the context in which the term “ghosting” is used.

I actively recommend using ghosting if you have had a very small number of interactions with someone – e.g., their second message contains a rape joke, or something like that. If you have met in person and you don’t have any reason to be fearful or disgusted by them, I do recommend officially ending the relationship via some kind of direct communication for this reason: if you constantly feel guilty about all the people you just stopped messaging, it will make you not enjoy dating. Telling someone explicitly that you’re not interested in pursuing a relationship is hard, but you usually feel better as soon as you do it and it doesn’t stick around and poison your online dating energy. It also gives you practice in the all-important skill of breaking up with someone when you’ve been together a little longer and you have figured out you don’t have quite the right chemistry but some things are good and maybe if you just tried a little harder… If you’re comfortable with breaking up because you’ve had a lot of practice, you won’t try to avoid it as much and you can get on with finding that right person for you before your 30 years are up.

Reminder: if someone seems scary or gross or gives you some kind of the willies, definitely DO “ghost” them – further contact is always a bad idea (see Gavin de Becker and The Gift of Fear again).

Reframe or forget rejections ASAP

Being rejected is HARD. The human psyche is not designed to cope with being romantically rejected 3 times a week. Look at all the angry/sad/petulant online dating profiles this kind of systematic rejection produces! It’s hard not to become bitter even when you aren’t getting turned down several times a week.

I used two techniques to cope with rejection: reframing and forgetting. I tried to reframe rejections from “Nobody likes me!!!” to “Now I’ve learned more about what kind of person is attracted to me!” And I made a rule that once I had messaged a particular person for the first time, I could not think about them or visit their profile again unless they messaged me back. I was less successful at letting go of people who rejected me in less obvious ways (by cancelling in-person meetups, usually), but I’m learning to interpret these “nice” rejections more quickly, so I can start forgetting them sooner.

Whatever you do, don’t start theorizing about why you’ve been rejected, or any other kind of exercise in encouraging bitterness. Bitterness is your enemy in online dating – it makes you less attractive, it shuts down risk-taking, it saps your energy. So don’t feed it by thinking about your rejections beyond the simple and obvious lessons learned (e.g., “guys with fauxhawks NEVER like me in person”).

Okay, that’s all (“all”) the advice I have for enjoying the process of online dating more! I wish you an enjoyable and fun time with online dating, and hope we all have a little more joy in our lives!

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The Ada Initiative is ending, but our work continues on

A little over four years ago, my good friend Mary Gardiner and I co-founded the Ada Initiative to support women in open technology and culture. Today, thousands of conferences have anti-harassment policies, dozens of communities have codes of conduct, over 2000 people have taken the Ally Skills Workshop (and 40 people know how to teach it), and more than 550 people have attended AdaCamps. Awareness of sexism and misogyny in open technology and culture has increased dramatically.

This week we announced publicly that we are shutting the Ada Initiative down in mid-October. I feel really good about what we accomplished in a few short years. Since we made a practice of releasing our work in open source form and training other people to carry it on, the programs we developed are all continuing in some form. As I told Selena Larson at the Daily Dot, “I have not made the tech industry good enough that I’m willing to work in it again,” but Mary and I and all of our supporters made it a little better for a lot of people.

I’m excited for my next project, founding a consultancy to teach the Ally Skills Workshops and anything else I (we?) end up developing. I’m wondering if perhaps diversity in tech work as a whole has moved past the stage of donation-funded non-profits and into the stage of for-profit consultancies paid directly by those who benefit the most (mostly large corporations). It would make sense: 10 years ago we could only do this work as unpaid volunteers; 5 years ago awareness was high enough that it became possible to do it as non-profit employees; today enough companies think of this work as necessary and skilled labor that they are willing to pay for-profit consultants market rates to do. For me personally, I think I’m done working with non-profits for a while – I just stepped down from the board of directors of Double Union as well. I’ll also be taking a good long break from working before starting my next venture, probably in January 2016.

Mary and I will be teaching a few more Ally Skills Workshops and Impostor Syndrome classes before the Ada Initiative winds down. Spaces are still available in:

We will be announcing a few more workshops before mid-October; keep an eye on our blog and Twitter account to find out how to register for them.

Leading the Ada Initiative for four and a half years is the longest I’ve done anything in my life; it’s also by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I developed a lot of valuable new skills as a result of working closely with Mary Gardiner and the members of the Ada Initiative board of directors and advisory board. I want to especially call out Sue Gardner, Amelia Greenhall, and Caroline Simard as being particularly influential in shaping me as an executive.

On a sadder note, the shutdown of the Ada Initiative coincided with the untimely death of the person whose experiences and passionate advocacy inspired its creation. As I’ve said in numerous interviews, Nóirín Plunkett’s experiences with sexual assault at open source conferences and their public refusal to put up with them were influential in my personal decision to co-found the Ada Initiative. I first met Nóirín about 14 years ago on the LinuxChix IRC channel, and never expected I’d end up riding a giant Ferris wheel with them in Brisbane, or attending their pirate-themed wedding in a Portland donut shop. Nóirín was an active advisor to the Ada Initiative since its founding, and worked with us as a consultant during our executive director search earlier this year. Nóirín was one of the bravest, most brilliant, most competent, most caring, and adventurous people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. I will continue to think of them as a role model and inspiration in everything I do.

Finally, the Ada Initiative’s work was supported in large part by many of my friends and acquaintances and I’m incredibly grateful for your trust and dedication. I’m also grateful for all the new friends and working relationships I developed while working for the Ada Initiative – my life is so much richer and happier now! Thank you everyone who contributed to the important work we did together over the last four years.

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More ways to fight white supremacy

At least three other people have joined me in donating $1000 to fight white supremacy: Leigh Honeywell, Katie Bechtold, and Alicia Gibb. They also suggested:

Baltimore Racial Justice Action is “an action-based organization grounded in collective analysis of structural racism and white privilege.” In addition to a supportive community and educational events, BRJA offers consulting and training to individuals and organizations that seek to become inclusive and equitable. Donate here. Contributions are tax-deductible.

Black Women’s Blueprint works “to develop a culture where women of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race and other disparities are erased” through research, historical documentation, and movement-building. Follow @BlackWomensBP on Twitter, and donate here. Donations are tax-deductible and eligible for employer matching – you’ll need to get the match by looking up JustGive (EIN 94-3331010) in your employer’s matching system and designating the donation towards BWB.

My original suggestions:

Equal Justice Initiative: Working to reform the criminal justice system, challenge poverty and the legacy of racial segregation, educate the public, and create hope in marginalized communities in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

United States Representative John Conyers Jr.: For 25 years, he has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives every year to create a commission to study reparations for slavery in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

We The Protestors: Led by a team including Johnetta Elzie and Deray McKesson, this organization works to “fulfill the democratic promise of our union, establish true and lasting justice, accord dignity and standing to everyone, center the humanity of oppressed people, promote the brightest future for our children, and secure the blessings of freedom for all black lives” through supporting the on-going protest movements in the U.S. I gave $250 (scroll down to the tiny PayPal donate button at the bottom of this page).

The American Civil Liberties Association: Fights for voting rights in the courts across the country. The recent well-funded campaign to prevent Black Americans from voting shows how crucial this issue is. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

[Trigger warning: racist violence and sexual assault]

Finally, I want to speak personally about the link between misogyny and white supremacy that the Charleston killer brought into high relief with his statement, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Many more educated and well-spoken people than me have written about the long history in the United States of justifying the killing of Black men as “protecting” white women from sexual assault. Implicit in this theory is the assumption that access to white women’s sexuality is controlled by white men, a concept that frankly makes me nauseous. It’s also ridiculous at a personal level, since I am an example of the by far most common case of white sexual assault victim: all the people who sexually assaulted me or attempted to do so were – you guessed it – white men.

Destroying the idea that white women’s sexuality is owned and controlled by white men will remove one more prop in the system of racist violence by white people against Black people. White men: I reject your “protection” if it is based on the concept of owning and controlling access to my sexuality. Come back when you can view women as human beings.

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Ban boring mike-based Q&A sessions and use index cards instead

If you’ve ever been to a conference, you know the problem: A brilliant and engaging talk is coming to a close, and already a line of fanatic wild-eyed people (okay, mostly men) is forming at the audience microphone. Just by looking at them you know they will inevitably start their questions with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” Actually, you are grateful for the ones who are that self-aware, because most of them seem to genuinely believe that their barely disguised dominance play or naked self-promotion is an actual question that the rest of the audience would like to hear the answer to. So you scooch down lower in your seat and open your Twitter client so you can complain about how awful Q&A sessions inevitably are.

Fortunately, there is a way to prevent this situation entirely! Here is the formula:

  1. Throw away the audience microphones.
  2. Buy a pack of index cards.
  3. Hand out the cards to the audience before or during your talk.
  4. Ask people to write their questions on the cards and pass them to the end of the row.
  5. Collect the cards at the end of the talk.
  6. Flip through the cards and answer only good (or funny) questions.
  7. Optional: have an accomplice collect and screen the questions for you during the talk.

Better yet, if you are a conference organizer, buy enough index cards for every one of your talks and tell your speakers and volunteers to use them.

Why is the typical line-at-the-mike style of audience question so productive of bad questions? To start with, it gives the advantage to people who aren’t afraid to put themselves forward first and rush to the mike first. This means most or all of the questions are from people with relatively little self-doubt and a high opinion of themselves. Another draw for the self-centered overconfident type is the chance to be the center of attention while asking the question using the audience microphone. Then there is the lack of built-in limit on the time the purported question-asker is speaking. Finally, there is no way to screen the question for quality until the question has been fully asked (sometimes taking minutes). The end result is a system that practically invites self-centered, overconfident, boring, long-winded people to dominate it. (And you wonder why women almost never ask questions at your conference?)

By contrast, writing questions on index cards appeals more to quiet, thoughtful, self-effacing folks who are considerate of those around them. It allows you to screen the questions for quality. It limits the length of the question. It encourages actual genuine requests for clarification on the subject of your talk.

Get rid of line-at-the-mike style Q&A sessions. Replace them with index cards. Your conference attendees will thank you.

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Donating $1,000 to fight white supremacy

“Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations

By midnight tonight, I will donate $1,000 to people and organizations fighting white supremacy.

Why am I doing this? Last night’s racist terrorist mass killing at a church in Charleston brought it home to me in a personal way: I am the poster child for benefiting from white supremacy. I’m the beneficiary of a massive worldwide colonization project spanning multiple centuries. Every day of my life I’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt, an extra pass, a bigger raise, because I was born into the dominant racial group in my country. $1,000 is a comically small amount of the money I’ve made from benefiting from racism in favor of white people. It’s time to give that money back to stop the murder and oppression of people of color, and Black people in the U.S. in particular.

If you have benefited from white supremacy, I invite you to join me in donating to these organizations:

Equal Justice Initiative: Working to reform the criminal justice system, challenge poverty and the legacy of racial segregation, educate the public, and create hope in marginalized communities in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

United States Representative John Conyers Jr.: For 25 years, he has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives every year to create a commission to study reparations for slavery in the United States. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

We The Protestors: Led by a team including Johnetta Elzie and Deray McKesson, this organization works to “fulfill the democratic promise of our union, establish true and lasting justice, accord dignity and standing to everyone, center the humanity of oppressed people, promote the brightest future for our children, and secure the blessings of freedom for all black lives” through supporting the on-going protest movements in the U.S. I gave $250 (scroll down to the tiny PayPal donate button at the bottom of this page).

The American Civil Liberties Association: Fights for voting rights in the courts across the country. The recent well-funded campaign to prevent Black Americans from voting shows how crucial this issue is. I gave $250 (click here to donate).

Thanks everyone for your suggestions, and for everyone who joined me in donating! Keep your work going: speak up when you see racism, continue to educate yourself on your own racism, and continue to support the people and organizations who can most effectively fight racism.

Update: At least three other people have joined me in donating $1000 to fight white supremacy: Leigh Honeywell, Katie Bechtold, and Alicia Gibb. They also suggested:

Baltimore Racial Justice Action is “an action-based organization grounded in collective analysis of structural racism and white privilege.” In addition to a supportive community and educational events, BRJA offers consulting and training to individuals and organizations that seek to become inclusive and equitable. Donate here. Contributions are tax-deductible.

Black Women’s Blueprint works “to develop a culture where women of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race and other disparities are erased” through research, historical documentation, and movement-building. Follow @BlackWomensBP on Twitter, and donate here. Donations are tax-deductible and eligible for employer matching – you’ll need to get the match by looking up JustGive (EIN 94-3331010) in your employer’s matching system and designating the donation towards BWB.

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Starting your own feminist backchannel

If you’re a feminist with an online presence, you know how hard it is to have a public conversation with your friends without some rando sea-lioning in to the middle of your discussion with his very important man-sights. Maybe they are just explaining your joke to you, maybe they are tone policing, maybe they are sliding into your DMs, maybe they are just boring self-entitled narcissists. Whatever the case, you’d like to be able to have conversations with your friends on the regular without the constant background noise of entitled misogyny leaking in.

I have good news for you: you (yes, you!) can start your own personal feminist backchannel! A backchannel is a alternate conversation happening outside of the “mainstream” discussion, often commenting on or related to the main discussion. Backchannels are incredibly useful to marginalized groups who are looking to build community, mutually support each other, and share useful information for their survival and success. That’s one reason why backchannels are often maligned by the privileged group (unless it is a backchannel for the use of the privileged group, in which case it is “just normal, friends talking”).

When women ask for a women-only discussion group in a mixed gender group, sometimes men in the group get very upset, sometimes to the point of angry shouting and turning red. When I ask them why, they say things like, “Well, they will be talking about stuff and I won’t know what it is,” or “Will they be talking about men – will they be talking about ME?” In addition to the normal human desire to be nosy, they realize that if women (or any other marginalized group) are allowed to talk to each without being monitored by the privileged group, the privileged group might be in danger of losing some of its perks. (E.g., the ability to serially abuse women more easily because their previous victims weren’t able to warn their future victims.)

But the main reason to start your own feminist backchannel is: FUN.

Hey, you like making misandry jokes? So do a whole bunch of other women like you, and you can do it without worrying about a poorly timed “Not all men!” ruining your hilarious riff. Are you super interested in energy policy but most of your friends are bored by it? Start your own backchannel with the other 5 people interested in feminism and energy policy and have conversations you’ve never had outside your own head! Love programming AND sewing? So do literally hundreds of thousands of other people, and you probably know at least 10 of them.

Twitter in particular cries out for feminist backchannels, but I have sad news: group DMs lack the features needed to make a good backchannel. I’ve started or been part of many feminist backchannels in years past, and lately I’ve been surprised by being invited to several new feminist backchannels by people I don’t even know. I thought it was time for a step-by-step guide to starting and maintaining your own feminist backchannel, in the style of “Start your own b(r)and: Everything I know about starting collaborative, feminist publications” which I had fun co-writing with Amelia Greenhall.

Keep your feminist backchannel a secret

The first rule of Feminist Backchannel is: don’t talk about Feminist Backchannel.

Because your backchannel is probably not composed of macho egotistical competitive dudes, you really don’t talk about your feminist backchannel except to people you are inviting to join it. A key element of a successful backchannel is that you only invite people who are a good fit for the backchannel’s social style, which is only a small subset of your friends. But your friends will feel left out and rejected if they learn they haven’t been invited to your backchannel. The only way out of this dilemma is to keep your backchannel secret outside of its current members. (That’s part of why I’m writing this how-to guide, because the people who invited me to their backchannels can’t say anything about starting backchannels without making their uninvited friends feel sad.)

Choose your purpose and scope

You need a vision for your group beyond “People I like,” though that’s a good start! What style of social interaction do you want: warm and sincere, joking and absurdist, cutting sarcasm at all times, everyone pretends to be robots, everyone pretends to be cats? And what is in scope for conversation: technology, cats, the weather, RC cars, doing your nails, complaining about work? You have lots of friends with lots of different social styles, and many of them aren’t going to get along long-term in a backchannel. What is important here is that your group’s overall social style is seldom grating to the people who are in the group. That’s why it’s important to have spelled-out social norms (hey, perhaps even a code of conduct!) and clear rules on acceptable topics.

Find some co-founders

Life happens, and while you might think running a feminist backchannel is totally doable on your own, everyone will be happier if you have a co-founder or two. It helps to have someone to talk to about the scope, style, and membership of the channel, especially when you are considering inviting someone you don’t have a lot of experience with in a social context. Sometimes you are oblivious to a specific person’s most irritating personality faults but they are obvious to your co-founders. (It only takes one irritating person to torpedo a backchannel — keep reading for more about what to do when that happens.)

Choose your medium

I’ll be honest, the answer here is probably Slack. It’s the best private group chat solution I’ve ever seen, by a mile, and the user experience is warm and welcoming. You may also consider old-fashioned IRC, a Mailman mailing list, or a Google Group, but they all have major drawbacks around administration overhead and usability. Slack is free unless you want to keep more than 10,000 messages in your user-accessible history or have custom message retention policies (keep reading for why you might want this). Another advantage of Slack is that if you use it for work, you can login to multiple Slack instances at the same time in the app, so it’s hard to tell that you’re not working!

Be incredibly picky about who you invite

You do not have to invite everyone you kind of like or have something in common with. Especially in fields with relatively few women, we get used to not being picky about who we spend time with – the concept of being able to choose WHICH women in open source software I wanted to hang out with, based on compatible personalities or other interests, was an incredible luxury for me! Your feminist backchannel is going to be a little bit like working in a shared open-plan office with everyone you invite, so if there’s someone who rubs you a little the wrong way, or has opinions about activism that you don’t agree with, or tends towards infectious, unconsolable self-pity, feel free not to invite them. They can start their own feminist backchannel with people who have the same quirks and social styles.

Create and enforce rules about conduct

You should have explicit rules about how people act in your space. Since it’s your space, you get to make up arbitrary additional rules in addition to the usual base assumptions. You can make rules that everyone has to pretend to be a cat when they join the backchannel, or you can make a rule that no one can pretend to be a cat ever – whichever you prefer! The Geek Feminism community code of conduct is a good place to start.

Kick people out when necessary

A few people who don’t have a compatible social style with the group will ruin the entire group. It’s up to the backchannel co-founders, or their duly appointed representatives, to ask people to leave when they are negatively impacting the vibe. This is true even if they haven’t violated your formal code of conduct or done something “awful” enough. Just wishing someone wasn’t in the channel at a vague subconscious level is a good enough reason to ask them to leave. It’s tough to ask people to leave, especially when you like them in other contexts, but crucial to the survival of the group. Watch for when your favorite people start to drift away or go silent – it could be that they are too busy to take part at the moment, but they could also have decided to just leave your group instead of tell you that another member is making them unhappy.

Allow people to choose what topics of conversation they participate in

The conversation in your feminist backchannel is going to range over a wide variety of topics, some that bring up a lot of strong emotions, positive or negative, and some that are just plain boring to others. The best practice here is to split conversations into multiple channels of communication that allow people to choose what they want to participate in (this is easy in a Slack or private IRC server). Some suggested channels:

  • general: for everything that doesn’t go elsewhere
  • rants: for complaining
  • cute: for pictures of kittens, happy children, and flowers, and uplifting stories and things
  • news: to talk about current topics
  • advice: where people can ask for and give advice
  • triggers: place where people discuss commonly triggering topics

Any time you aren’t sure if the rest of the people in the general channel want to talk about a thing, describe what you’d like to talk about and ask if you should start a new channel. If everyone wants to talk about the subject in the general channel, you’ll find out, but most likely you’ll find that you have an enthusiastic subgroup that will excitedly join your new topic of conversation.

Accept the fleeting nature of backchannels

Like any other social group, backchannels don’t last forever. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a constant low-level rotation of old people leaving the backchannel and new people joining and it will stay fresh and interesting for many years. But in most cases, the life of a successful, healthy backchannel is measured in the single digits of years. Don’t be afraid to dissolve it if no one is enjoying themselves as much any more. It will probably give birth to several new slightly better backchannels.

Be aware of the potential for subpoenas

One possibility to be aware of is that if anyone who is part of your feminist backchannel is subpoenaed for a court case related to anything they discussed in the backchannel, and they have kept records of it, they may have to turn them over to the opposing side (probably awful people you detest). There are two ways to avoid having a bunch of lawyers poring over your chat records discussing your ex-partner’s annoying sex habits: have an explicit policy of not keeping the records, or don’t talk about things that might become the subject of court cases.

Unfortunately, this is a place where the free version of Slack doesn’t work well: They keep all of your messages but only let you access the most recent 10,000 of them. I am not a lawyer, but presumably this means Slack could be subpoenaed directly to get the messages that you can’t read.

Hey Slack folks! You have a great product. As a way to support women and marginalized folks of all sorts, I’d like to see Slack add an additional option to the free offering that allows people to choose to permanently delete messages that they can’t access themselves. That would be sweet!

How to join an existing feminist backchannel

Sometimes, the feminist backchannel you want to create already exists and is a good fit for you, and the founders just haven’t thought of asking you to join. Your best course of action in this case is the same as if the backchannel doesn’t already exist: Talk wistfully about wanting to start a backchannel with particular qualities with the people you would like to be part of that backchannel. If it already exists and you are compatible, you will probably get invited to join it. Otherwise, you’re already on your way to being the feminist backchannel you want to see in the world!

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