Tech anti-sexism event creator calls it off

(MoneyWatch) A technology writer who called for an online event to point out sexism and problems with appearance-based comments in industry and consumer blogs is now halting her project. Leigh Alexander, a gaming and social media journalist, was concerned that the event, "Objectify A Man in Tech Day," which was scheduled to occur on Friday, could cause more problems than it might solve.

The use of online forums to deliberately attack or belittle others is nothing new. The term 'troll' -- someone who intentionally tries to disrupt and upset conversations, communities, and individuals -- goes back to the late 1980s. In 2007, the New Scientist noted a "sharp increase in the amount of abusive language" on its website.

Women authors who focus on technology have often become targets of harsh treatment. Blogger and programming book author Kathy Sierra cancelled a conference appearance and suspended her blog that same year because of death threats she received in the comments section.

When good is bad

As Alexander wrote on January 23, 2013 in the New Statesman, "From booth babes to harassment, snide comments to double standards, women have often had a hard time feeling comfortable around the tech industry." As she argues, audiences often focus on the physical appearance of women writers, whether in a positive or negative manner:

I use Twitter as a primary avenue to promote my work, and it's common to see readers and self-described "fans" share links to my articles accompanied by superficial compliments that, while polite, have little to do with my writing, which generally focuses on game design analysis, social commentary and entertainment culture. In an article compiling opinions from industry voices on the current game violence dialogue, it was pointed out to me that I am prettier than my male colleagues. In a video of a panel I recently participated in to give advice to game developers as a member of the press, I heard a lot about how great my hair is.

Alexander, with others quickly joining, called for the "Objectify A Man in Tech Day," in which participants on Twitter would add a comment about the appearance of male tech writers when responding to something they wrote. The idea was to create a "funny and lighthearted" way to underscore how comments on physical appearance could make writers feel as though their work was only as important as their physical attractiveness, not as a form of revenge. The participants would add the #objectify tag to their tweets.

An event out of control?

However, Alexander began to have second thoughts about the approach when friends and colleagues raised questions about the potential results. Others, including gay and bi men, men of color, and transsexuals often face objectification but could be included in the broad category of male technology writers and get "caught in the crossfire." Furthermore, the lighthearted approach could undermine the seriousness of the issue.

So Alexander today publicly called off the event. The problem she faces is that the attention it has already received online will likely not immediately disappear, or even be modified to reflect her change in thought, even though she has publicly asked for such updates. Such is an inherent danger in releasing anything online, as the Internet has a persistent memory, though not necessarily a self-correcting one.

Image: Flickr user indy_slug