Crosspost: No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech communities

This post originally appeared on Leigh Honeywell’s blog on June 21, 2016. I’m cross-posting here it because I am a co-author and I think my readers will enjoy it.

Content note for discussion of abuse and sexual violence.

In the last couple of weeks, three respected members of the computer security and privacy tech communities have come forward under their own names to tell their harrowing stories of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse committed by Jacob Appelbaum. They acted in solidarity with the first anonymous reporters of Jacob’s abuse. Several organizations have taken steps to protect their members from Appelbaum, including the Tor Project, Debian, and the Noisebridge hackerspace, with other responses in progress.

But Appelbaum isn’t the last – or the only – abuser in any of these communities. Many people are calling for long-term solutions to stop and prevent similar abuse. The authors of this post have recommendations, based on our combined 40+ years of community management experience in the fields of computer security, hackerspaces, free and open source software, and non-profits. In four words, our recommendation is:

No more rock stars.

What do we mean when we say “rock stars?” We like this tweet by Molly Sauter:

Seriously, “rock stars” are arrogant narcissists. Plumbers keep us all from getting cholera. Build functional infrastructure. Be a plumber.

You can take concrete actions to stop rock stars from abusing and destroying your community. But first, here are a few signs that help you identify when you have a rock star instead of a plumber:

A rock star likes to be the center of attention. A rock star spends more time speaking at conferences than on their nominal work. A rock star appears in dozens of magazine profiles – and never, ever tells the journalist to talk to the people actually doing the practical everyday work. A rock star provokes a powerful organization over minor issues until they crack down on the rock star, giving them underdog status. A rock star never says, “I don’t deserve the credit for that, it was all the work of…” A rock star humble-brags about the starry-eyed groupies who want to fuck them. A rock star actually fucks their groupies, and brags about that too. A rock star throws temper tantrums until they get what they want. A rock star demands perfect loyalty from everyone around them, but will throw any “friend” under the bus for the slightest personal advantage. A rock star knows when to turn on the charm and vulnerability and share their deeply personal stories of trauma… and when it’s safe to threaten and intimidate. A rock star wrecks hotel rooms, social movements, and lives.

Why are rock stars so common and successful? There’s something deep inside the human psyche that loves rock stars and narcissists. We easily fall under their spell unless we carefully train ourselves to detect them. Narcissists are skilled at making good first impressions, at masking abusive behavior as merely eccentric or entertaining, at taking credit for others’ work, at fitting our (often inaccurate) stereotypes of leaders as self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and overly confident. We tend to confuse confidence with competence, and narcissists are skilled at acting confident.

Sometimes rock stars get confused with leaders, who are necessary and good. What’s the difference between a rock star and a leader? We like the term “servant-leader” as a reminder that the ultimate purpose of a good leader is to serve the mission of their organization (though this feminist critique of the language around servant-leadership is worth reading). Having personal name recognition and the trust and support of many people is part of being an effective leader. This is different from the kind of uncritical worship that a rock star seeks out and encourages. Leaders push back when the adoration gets too strong and disconnected from achieving the mission (here is a great example from Anil Dash, pushing back after being held up as an example of positive ally for women in tech). Rock stars aren’t happy unless they are surrounded by unthinking adoration.

How do we as a community prevent rock stars?

If rock stars are the problem, and humans are susceptible to rock stars, how do we prevent rock stars from taking over and hijacking our organizations and movements? It turns out that some fairly simple and basic community hygiene is poisonous to rock stars – and makes a more enjoyable, inclusive, and welcoming environment for plumbers.

Our recommendations can be summarized as: decentralizing points of failure, increasing transparency, improving accountability, supporting private and anonymous communication, reducing power differentials, and avoiding situations that make violating boundaries more likely. This is a long blog post, so here is a table of contents for the rest of this post:

Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone

Create a strong, specific, enforceable code of conduct for your organization – and enforce it, swiftly and without regard for the status of the accused violator. Rock stars get a kick out of breaking the rules, but leaders know they are also role models, and scrupulously adhere to rules except when there’s no alternative way to achieve the right thing. Rock stars also know that when they publicly break the little rules and no one calls them out on it, they are sending a message that they can also break the big rules and get away with it.

One of the authors of this post believed every first-person allegation of abuse and assault by Jacob Appelbaum – including the anonymous ones – immediately. Why? Among many other signs, she saw him break different, smaller rules in a way that showed his complete and total disregard for other people’s time, work, and feelings – and everyone supported him doing so. For example, she once attended a series of five minute lightning talks at the Noisebridge hackerspace, where speakers sign up in advance. Jacob arrived unannounced and jumped in after the first couple of talks with a forty-five minute long boring rambling slideshow about a recent trip he took. The person running the talks – someone with considerable power and influence in the same community – rolled his eyes but let Jacob talk for nine times the length of other speakers. The message was clear: rules don’t apply to Jacob, and even powerful people were afraid to cross him.

This kind of blatant disregard for the rules and the value of people’s time was so common that people had a name for it: “story time with Jake,” as described in Phoenix’s pseudonymous allegation of sexual harassment. Besides the direct harm, dysfunction, and disrespect this kind of rule-breaking and rudeness causes, when you allow people to get away with it, you’re sending a message that they can get away with outright harassment and assault too.

To solve this, create and adopt a specific, enforceable code of conduct for your community. Select a small expert group of people to enforce it, with provisions for what to do if one of this group is accused of harassment. Set deadlines for responding to complaints. Conduct the majority of discussion about the report in private to avoid re-traumatizing victims. Don’t make exceptions for people who are “too valuable.” If people make the argument that some people are too valuable to censure for violating the code of conduct, remove them from decision-making positions. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are asking yourself if someone’s benefits outweigh their liabilities, recognize that they’ve already cost the community more than they can ever give to it and get to work on ejecting them quickly.

Start with the assumption that harassment reports are true and investigate them thoroughly

Over more than a decade of studying reports of harassment and assault in tech communities, we’ve noticed a trend: if things have gotten to the point where you’ve heard about an incident, it’s almost always just the tip of the iceberg. People argue a lot about whether to take one person’s word (the alleged victim) over another’s (the alleged harasser), but surprisingly often, this was not the first time the harasser did something harmful and it’s more likely a “one person said, a dozen other people said” situation. Think about it: what are the chances that someone had a perfect record of behavior, right up till the instant they stuck their hand in someone else’s underwear without consent – and that person actually complained about it – AND you heard about it? It’s far more likely that this person has been gradually ramping up their bad behavior for years and you just haven’t heard about it till now.

The vast majority of cases we know about fit one of these two patterns:

  1. A clueless person makes a few innocent, low-level mistakes and actually gets called on one of them fairly quickly. Signs that this is the likely case: the actual incident is extremely easy to explain as a mistake, the accused quickly understands what they did wrong, they appear genuinely, intensely embarrassed, they apologize profusely, and they offer a bunch of ways to make up for their mistake: asking the video of their talk to be taken down, writing a public apology explaining why what they did was harmful, or proposing that they stop attending the event for some period of time.
  2. A person who enjoys trampling on the boundaries of others has been behaving badly for a long time in a variety of ways, but everyone has been too afraid to say anything about it or do anything about other reports. Signs that this is the likely case: the reporter is afraid of retaliation and may try to stay anonymous, other people are afraid to talk about the incident for the same reason, the reported incident may be fairly extreme (e.g., physical assault with no question that consent was violated), many people are not surprised when they hear about it, you quickly gather other reports of harassment or assault of varying levels, the accused has plagiarized or stolen credit or falsified expense reports or done other ethically questionable things, the accused has consolidated a lot of power and attacks anyone who seems to be a challenge to their power, the accused tries to change the subject to their own grievances or suffering, the accused admits they did it but minimizes the incident, or the accused personally attacks the reporter using respectability politics or tone-policing.

In either case, your job is to investigate the long-term behavior of the accused, looking for signs of narcissism and cruelty, big and small. Rock stars leave behind a long trail of nasty emails, stolen credit, rude behavior, and unethical acts big and small. Go look for them.

Make it easy for victims to find and coordinate with each other

Rock stars will often make it difficult for people to talk or communicate without being surveilled or tracked by the rock star or their assistants, because private or anonymous communication allows people to compare their experiences and build effective resistance movements. To fight this, encourage and support private affinity groups for marginalized groups (especially people who identify as women in a way that is significant to them), create formal systems that allow for anonymous or pseudonymous reporting such as an ombudsperson or third-party ethics hotline, support and promote people who are trusted contact points and/or advocates for marginalized groups, and reward people for raising difficult but necessary problems.

Watch for smaller signs of boundary pushing and react strongly

Sometimes rock stars don’t outright break the rules, they just push on boundaries repeatedly, trying to figure out exactly how far they can go and get away with it, or make it so exhausting to have boundaries that people stop defending them. For example, they might take a little too much credit for shared work or other people’s work, constantly bring up the most disturbing but socially acceptable topic of conversation, resist de-escalation of verbal conflict, subtly criticize people, make passive-aggressive comments on the mailing list, leave comments that are almost but not quite against the rules, stand just a little too close to people on purpose, lightly touch people and ignore non-verbal cues to stop (but obey explicit verbal requests… usually), make comments which subtly establish themselves as superior or judges of others, interrupt in meetings, make small verbal put-downs, or physically turn away from people while they are speaking. Rock stars feel entitled to other people’s time, work, and bodies – signs of entitlement to one of these are often signs of entitlement to the others.

Call people out for monopolizing attention and credit

Is there someone in your organization who jumps on every chance to talk to a reporter? Do they attend every conference they can and speak at many of them? Do they brag about their frequent flyer miles or other forms of status? Do they jump on every project that seems likely to be high visibility? Do they “cookie-lick” – claim ownership of projects but fail to do them and prevent others from doing them either? If you see this happening, speak up: say, “Hey, we need to spread out the public recognition for this work among more people. Let’s send Leslie to that conference instead.” Insist that this person credit other folks (by name or anonymously, as possible) prominently and up front in every blog post or magazine article or talk. Establish a rotation for speaking to reporters as a named source. Take away projects from people if they aren’t doing them, no matter how sad or upset it makes them. Insist on distributing high status projects more evenly.

A negative organizational pattern that superficially resembles this kind of call-out can sometimes happen, where people who are jealous of others’ accomplishments and successes may attack effective, non-rock star leaders. Signs of this situation: people who do good, concrete, specific work are being called out for accepting appropriate levels of public recognition and credit by people who themselves don’t follow through on promises, fail at tasks through haplessness or inattention, or communicate ineffectively. Complaints about effective leaders may take the form of “I deserve this award for reasons even though I’ve done relatively little work” instead of “For the good of the organization, we should encourage spreading out the credit among the people who are doing the work – let’s talk about who they are.” People complaining may occasionally make minor verbal slips that reveal their own sense of entitlement to rewards and praise based on potential rather than accomplishments – e.g., referring to “my project” instead of “our project.”

Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization

Your organization should never have a single irreplaceable person – it should have a deep bench. Sometimes this happens through a misplaced sense of excessive responsibility on the part of a non-abusive leader, but often it happens through deliberate effort from a “rock star.” To prevent this, constantly develop and build up a significant number of leaders at every level of your organization, especially near the top. You can do this by looking for new, less established speakers (keynote speakers in particular) at your events, paying for leadership training, creating official deputies for key positions, encouraging leaders to take ample vacation and not check email (or chat) while they are gone, having at least two people talk to each journalist, conducting yearly succession planning meetings, choosing board members who have strong opinions about this topic and a track record of acting on them, having some level of change or turnover every few years in key leadership positions, documenting and automating key tasks as much as possible, sharing knowledge as much as possible, and creating support structures that allow people from marginalized groups to take on public roles knowing they will have support if they are harassed. And if you need one more reason to encourage vacation, it is often an effective way to uncover financial fraud (one reason why abusive leaders often resist taking vacation – they can’t keep an eye on potential exposure of their misdeeds).

Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible

Total absence of hierarchy is neither possible nor desirable, since “abolishing” a hierarchy simply drives the hierarchy underground and makes it impossible to critique (but see also the anarchist critique of this concept). Keeping the hierarchy explicit and making it as flat and transparent as possible while still reflecting true power relationships is both achievable and desirable. Ways to implement this: have as small a difference as possible in “perks” between levels (e.g., base decisions on flying business class vs. economy on amount of travel and employee needs, rather than position in the organization), give people ways to blow the whistle on people who have power over them (including channels to do this anonymously if necessary), and have transparent criteria for responsibilities and compensation (if applicable) that go with particular positions.

Build in checks for “failing up”

Sometimes, someone gets into a position of power not because they are actually good at their job, but because they turned in a mediocre performance in a field where people tend to choose people with proven mediocre talent over people who haven’t had a chance to demonstrate their talent (or lack thereof). This is called “failing up” and can turn otherwise reasonable people into rock stars as they desperately try to conceal their lack of expertise by attacking any competition and hogging attention. Or sometimes no one wants to take the hit for firing someone who isn’t capable of doing a good job, and they end up getting promoted through sheer tenacity and persistence. The solution is to have concrete criteria for performance, and a process for fairly evaluating a person’s performance and getting them to leave that position if they aren’t doing a good job.

Enforce strict policies around sexual or romantic relationships within power structures

Rock stars love “dating” people they have power over because it makes it easier to abuse or assault them and get away with it. Whenever we hear about an organization that has lots of people dating people in their reporting chain, it raises an automatic red flag for increased likelihood of abuse in that organization. Overall, the approach that has the fewest downsides is to establish a policy that no one can date within their reporting chain or across major differences in power, that romantic relationships need to be disclosed, and that if anyone forms a relationship with someone in the same reporting chain, the participants need to move around the organization until they no longer share a reporting chain. Yes, this means that if the CEO or Executive Director of an organization starts a relationship with anyone else in the organization, at least one of them needs to leave the organization, or take on some form of detached duty for the duration of the CEO/ED’s tenure. When it comes to informal power relationships, such as students dating prominent professors in their fields, they also need to be forbidden or strongly discouraged. These kinds of policies are extremely unattractive to a rock star, because part of the attraction of power for them is wielding it over romantic or sexual prospects.

Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives

Having a reasonable work-life balance isn’t just an ethical imperative for any organization that values social justice, it’s also a safety mechanism so that if someone is forced to leave, needs to leave, or needs to take a step back, they can do so without destroying their entire support system. Rock stars will often insist on subordinates giving 100% of their available energy and time to the “cause” because it isolates them from other support networks and makes them more dependent on the rock star.

Don’t set up your community so that if someone has a breach with your community (e.g., is targeted for sustained harassment that drives them out), they are likely to also lose more than one of: their job, their career, their romantic relationships, their circle of friends, or their political allies. Encouraging and enabling people to have social interaction and support outside your organization or cause will also make it easier to, when necessary, exclude people behaving abusively or not contributing because you won’t need to worry that you’re cutting them off from all meaningful work or human contact.

You should discourage things like: semi-compulsory after hours socialising with colleagues, long work hours, lots of travel, people spending almost all their “intimacy points” or emotional labour on fellow community members, lots of in-group romantic relationships, everyone employs each other, or everyone is on everyone else’s boards. Duplication of effort (e.g., multiple activist orgs in the same area, multiple mailing lists, or whatever) is often seen as a waste, but it can be a powerfully positive force for allowing people some choice of colleagues.

Distribute the “keys to the kingdom”

Signs of a rock star (or occasionally a covert narcissist) may include insisting on being the single point of failure for one or more of: your technical infrastructure (e.g., domain name registration or website), your communication channels, your relationship with your meeting host or landlord, your primary source of funding, your relationship with the cops, etc. This increases the rock star’s power and control over the organization.

To prevent this, identify core resources, make sure two or more people can access/administer all of them, and make sure you have a plan for friendly but sudden, unexplained, or hostile departures of those people. Where possible, spend money (or another resource that your group can collectively offer) rather than relying on a single person’s largesse, specialized skills, or complex network of favours owed. Do things legally where reasonably possible. Try to be independent of any one critical external source of funding or resources. If there’s a particularly strong relationship between one group member and an external funder, advisor, or key organization, institutionalize it: document it, and introduce others into the relationship.

One exception is that it’s normal for contact with the press to be filtered or approved by a single point of contact within the organization (who should have a deputy). However, it should be possible to talk to the press as an individual (i.e., not representing your organization) and anonymously in cases of internal organizational abuse. At the same time, your organization should have a strong whistleblower protection policy – and board members with a strong public commitment and/or a track record of supporting whistleblowers in their own organizations.

Don’t create environments that make boundary violations more likely

Some situations are attractive to rock stars looking to abuse people: sexualized situations, normalization of drinking or taking drugs to the point of being unable to consent or enforce boundaries, or other methods of breaking down or violating physical or emotional boundaries. This can look like: acceptance of sexual jokes at work, frequent sexual liaisons between organization members, mocking people for not being “cool” for objecting to talking about sex at work, framing objection to sexualized situations as being homophobic/anti-polyamorous/anti-kink, open bars with hard alcohol or no limit on drinks, making it acceptable to pressure people to drink more alcohol than they want or violate other personal boundaries (food restrictions, etc.), normalizing taking drugs in ways that make it difficult to stay conscious or defend boundaries, requiring attendance at physically isolated or remote events, having events where it is difficult to communicate with the outside world (no phone service or Internet access), having events where people wear significantly less or no clothing (e.g. pool parties, saunas, hot tubs), or activities that require physical touching (massage, trust falls, ropes courses). It’s a bad sign if anyone objecting to these kinds of activities is criticized for being too uptight, puritanical, from a particular cultural background, etc.

Your organization should completely steer away from group activities which pressure people, implicitly or explicitly, to drink alcohol, take drugs, take off more clothing than is usual for professional settings in the relevant cultures, or touch or be touched. Drunkenness to the point of marked clumsiness, slurred speech, or blacking out should be absolutely unacceptable at the level of organizational culture. Anyone who seems to be unable to care for themselves as the result of alcohol or drug use should be immediately cared for by pre-selected people whose are explicitly charged with preventing this person from being assaulted (especially since they may have been deliberately drugged by someone planning to assault them). For tips on serving alcohol in a way that greatly reduces the chance of assault or abuse, see Kara Sowles’ excellent article on inclusive events. You can also check out the article on inclusive offsites on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

Putting this to work in your community

We waited too long to do something about it.

Odds are, your community already has a “missing stair” or three – even if you’ve just kicked one out. They are harming and damaging your community right now. If you have power or influence or privilege, it’s your ethical responsibility to take personal action to limit the harm that they are causing. This may mean firing or demoting them; it may mean sanctioning or “managing them out.” But if you care about making the world a better place, you must act.

If you don’t have power or influence or privilege, think carefully before taking any action that could harm you more and seriously consider asking other folks with more protection to take action instead. Their response is a powerful litmus test of their values. If no one is willing to take this on for you, your only option may be leaving and finding a different organization or community to join. We have been in this position – of being powerless against rock stars – and it is heartbreaking and devastating to give up on a cause, community, or organization that you care about. We have all mourned the spaces that we have left when they have become unlivable because of abuse. But leaving is still often the right choice when those with power choose not to use it to keep others safe from abuse.

Responses

While we are not asking people to “cosign” this post, we want this to be part of a larger conversation on building abuse-resistant organizations and communities. We invite others to reflect on what we have written here, and to write their own reflections. If you would like us to list your reflection in this post, please leave a comment or email us a link, your name or pseudonym, and any affiliation you wish for us to include, and we will consider listing it. We particularly invite survivors of intimate partner violence in activist communities, survivors of workplace harassment and violence, and people facing intersectional oppressions to participate in the conversation.

2016-06-21: The “new girl” effect by Lex Gill, technology law researcher & activist

2016-06-21: Patching exploitable communities by Tom Lowenthal, security technologist and privacy activist

2016-06-22: Tyranny of Structurelessness? by Gabriella Coleman, anthropologist who has studied hacker communities

We would prefer that people not contact us to disclose their own stories of mistreatment. But know this: we believe you. If you need emotional support, please reach out to people close to you, a counselor in your area, or to the trained folks at RAINN or Crisis Text Line.

Credits

This post was written by Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub), Mary Gardiner (@me_gardiner), and Leigh Honeywell (@hypatiadotca), with grateful thanks for comments and suggestions from many anonymous reviewers.

The Ally Skills Workshop returns, Impostor Syndrome book, public speaking and more

After taking three months off work, I naturally decided to found another company! Allow me to introduce Frame Shift Consulting, my new consulting firm. I’m continuing to do what I loved from the Ada Initiative – teaching Ally Skills Workshops, advising companies and conference organizers, speaking – and leaving out what I hated – fundraising, line management, and non-profit paperwork. I’ve also expanded the Ally Skills Workshop to teach people in a position of privilege how to support members of any marginalized group (formerly, it focused on teaching men to support women). I already have enough paying work that I’m behind on filling in my company web site, but I’ll be adding more content in between contracts over the next few months.

Woman holding microphone and raising arm in front of a photo of lightning
Calling down the lightning in a lightning talk
(Credit David Balliol, Thomas Bresson)

One of my goals for 2016 is to do more public speaking. I love speaking and people seem to enjoy my talks, but speaking was rarely a good use of my time when I was at the Ada Initiative. I regretfully had to turn down a lot of speaking engagements over the last 5 years. Now speaking is both fun and aligned with my work, so let me know if you’d like me to come to speak at your event! I’m especially interested in opportunities to speak to tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area and paid speaking engagements anywhere in the world.

I’m also working on a book about fighting Impostor Syndrome, based on our work on Impostor Syndrome at the Ada Initiative. The approach I’m taking is that Impostor Syndrome isn’t a mysterious production of unfathomable personality quirks, it’s the intended result of a system of oppression designed to reinforce existing hierarchies. Once you understand where that nagging internal voice doubting your accomplishments is coming from, it’s easier to take action to reverse it. I’m looking for an agent who does traditional paper books for traditional publishers and knows the self-help market – let me know if you have a recommendation for someone!

I ended a lot of things in 2015 and I’m pretty happy about that. After 5 years of successful advocacy for women in open technology and culture, Mary Gardiner and I shut down the Ada Initiative (Mary is now working for Stripe, the lucky ducks). I stepped down from the board of the feminist makerspace I co-founded, Double Union, which is still going strong. With the shutdown of Magic Vibes, I am no longer involved in any joint projects with Amelia Greenhall and won’t be in the future. I stopped drinking alcohol entirely; I never drank that much in the first place but it turns out I’m allergic (!!!) to alcohol. After 5 enjoyable years of single-tude, I started dating again and am, to my pleasant surprise, in a long-term relationship with a great guy.

I’m really looking forward to 2016: teaching workshops, writing books, and speaking (and not fundraising!!). If you’d like to talk to me about teaching an Ally Skills Workshop, consulting with your organization, or speaking at your event, shoot me an email at contact@frameshiftconsulting.com. Here’s wishing you a great 2016 too!

How to have more fun while online dating

Updated Dec. 4, 2015: I did a podcast with dating expert Virginia Roberts about this post. Also, I’m now happily in a relationship with someone I met on Bumble. Enjoy!

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!

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. [Update 5 Feb 2016: Amelia and I are no longer collaborating on any projects.]

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.

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.

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. [Update 5 Feb 2016: Amelia has deleted her blog and we are no longer collaborating on any projects. Link updated to a different copy.]

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!

TV I like

Something happened to TV in the last few years: it got much better, and it got easier to watch. So I find myself, an anti-TV die hard, slightly sad that I only have 24 hours of vacation left in which to watch rather more than 24 hours of TV. Without further ado, stuff I like to watch:

The Good Wife: Inspired by Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Bill Clinton, this show follows Alicia Florrick, who restarts her career as a lawyer after her politician husband is caught sleeping with a prostitute and goes to prison for corruption. The best part of this show is the frequent ripped-from-the-headlines episodes about BitCoin, NSA wire-tapping, and police scams. I sometimes feel like if I care about a news story, The Good Wife is filming an episode on it right now. I also have ALL THE HEARTS for Alicia’s family and Eli Gold, her husband’s campaign manager.

Madame Secretary: I just started this one, but it’s good enough I felt like I had to write this post. Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent analyst turned college professor, becomes Secretary of State after her predecessor dies in a suspicious plane crash. What I like about it is the focus on finding creative solutions – and Elizabeth’s relationships with her family. I recently read Madeleine Albright’s memoir and am interested in learning more about working in the State Department.

The Mentalist: I felt incredibly guilty about watching this Sherlock-style show for a long time and never mentioned it to anyone. I started watching it because Simon Baker is hot hot hot, and kept watching despite the annoying motivation for Simon Baker’s character Patrick Jayne: he works for the California Bureau of Investigation as a way of tracking down the serial killer who murdered his wife and daughter (cue endless near-misses, yawn). But one day I was watching a scene in which two characters do a dramatic physical take-down of the killer and felt like something strange was happening. Then I realized that the fight was taking place between three women, and the only man in the scene was unconscious in a hospital bed. Yep, every episode passes the Bechdel test and more, and while the main character is a man, he strays from received masculinity in lots of ways: he thinks guns are icky, runs away whenever actual violence might occur, etc. It’s not just detective story brain candy!

I won’t write up descriptions for the rest of these, but I also enjoy the David Suchet Poirot series, despite the rampant sexism and racism, probably because Suchet is an amazing actor and Poirot such a quirky character. I’m sure Patrick Jayne’s character owes a lot to Suchet’s Poirot. I’m also a huge fan of the BBC/WGBH Lord Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane series – also quite a bit of sexism but “Gaudy Night” in particular features a mostly female cast and the whole thing is just so deliciously intellectual. Also, a shout-out to Bones, even though I haven’t watched in years and I skipped a good chunk of it due to a particularly annoying plot line about a serial killer. What makes that show for me is the dialogue for a variety of different nerds: bug-nerd, psych-nerd, goth nerd, autism spectrum nerd – these are my people, getting the love and attention we deserve!

Just realized the three shows I wrote up in detail are all on CBS – that’s incredibly encouraging. I didn’t believe mainstream TV would ever make TV I liked, but this looks like a veritable trend! If only it could spread to Hollywood – I’ve walked out on more movies this year than ever before in my life, in part because I knew I could go home and watch one of these shows on demand. Here’s to what’s new in 2015!