In watching the twitter storm about #stopwadhwa2015 I’m struck by two things, but first, some context—which as we will see, is problematic in Twitter discourse. Vivek Wadhwa is an American tech entrepreneur, columnist, pundit, and researcher. He’s been a vocal advocate for more gender and racial diversity in technology and is a co-author of Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology. Upon being quoted in Newsweek’s “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” a number of women (roughly aligned with Geek Feminism) protested and asked Wadhwa that he stop presuming to speak for them. (Even if the article’s author, Nina Burleigh, was sympathetic to women, the graphic associated with it set the frame for controversy.) In response to this challenge, Wadhwa attempted to defend himself on Twitter. This led to further critique, best documented in Amelia Greenhall’s post “Quiet, Ladies. @wadhwa is Speaking Now”. Greenhall had been interviewed for a story on On the Media’s TLDR podcast, but it was removed, leading to further antagonism.
I’m struck by how inappropriately people use Twitter, such as breaking up a longer missive into separate tweets or trying to have a sensible disagreement. Little that is nuanced or complex can be expressed in 140 characters. As I note in the forthcoming book “because comment is reactive, it’s inherently contextual; yet, it’s also hypotextual, shedding context with ease which leads to confusion and retorts of ‘WTF?!?’ in response.” If you find yourself trying to have a challenging conversation, you’re using the wrong medium. Twitter is best used for links, status updates, and the whimsical; people who try to use it for more will often find themselves frustrated—I admit I may be old school. (I recommend Jon Ronson’s recent “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” on this point.)
This case also exemplifies what happens when a well-intentioned male is confronted by Geek Feminism. The well intentioned may have been thanked and congratulated for his disposition and efforts in the past, but Geek Feminism says no cookie for you. As I discuss in “The Obligation to Know: From FAQ to Feminism 101,” geekdom is culturally laden and one is expected to educate oneself on the rudiments. To avoid making stupid 101-type mistakes, one has to read up on the common problematic behaviors of misogynists and allies alike; this can be alienating (even for women) just as it is for the tech “newbie” who is told to go away and RTFM. As Kelly Ellis noted, the fact that Wadhwa presumes “nerds” can only be men is an egregious mistake for someone who supposedly studies the technology gender gap. It insults women because it further polices an identity they have claimed (sometimes at great expense) and, worse yet, it is clueless to this fact.
Update 2015-02-14: And all of this is assuming that Wadhwa is a well-intended but clueless newbie. As a friend reminded me, the critique is that he’s opportunistically exploiting the issue (to the detriment of actual women) for his own advancement.
Update 2015-02-16: Wadhwa responds to the critiques.