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Jon Ronson: How A Tweet Can Ruin Your Life Group Group Group

“…I stood up slowly, turned around and took three, clear photos. There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry. It takes three words to make a difference: “That’s not cool.” Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.”

But Hank had already been called into his boss's office and fired.

***

“I packed up all my stuff in a box,” Hank said, “then I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears but…” Hank paused. “When I got in the car with my wife I just… I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”

That night Hank made his only public statement (he had never spoken to a journalist about what had happened before he spoke to me). He posted a short message on the discussion board Hacker News:

“Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel.

“She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. [But] as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have three kids and I really liked that job.

“She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate.”

“The next day,” Hank said, “Adria Richards called my company asking them to ask me to remove the portion of my apology that stated I lost my job as a result of her tweet.”

***

I sent Adria an interview request. “All right, pitch me via email and if relevant, I’ll respond,” she replied. So I pitched. Successfully. We agreed to meet two weeks later. “We will meet in a public place for safety reasons,” Adria wrote. “Make sure to bring along your ID for verification.”

We settled on the international check-in desks at San Francisco Airport. I was expecting someone fiercer. But when I saw her half wave at me from across the terminal she didn’t seem fierce at all. She seemed introverted and delicate, just like how Hank had come across over the Google Hangout. We found a cafe and she told me about the moment it all began for her — the moment she overheard the comment about the big dongle.

“Have you ever had an altercation at school and you could feel the hairs rise up on your back?” she asked me.

“You felt fear?” I asked.

“Danger,” she said. “Clearly my body was telling me, ‘You are unsafe.’”

Which was why, she said, she “slowly stood up, rotated from my hips, and took three photos.” She tweeted one, “with a very brief summary of what they said. Then I sent another tweet describing my location. Right? And then the third tweet was the [conference's] code of conduct.”

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“You talked about danger," I said. "What were you imagining might...?"

“Have you ever heard that thing, men are afraid that women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them?” she said.

I told Adria that people might consider that an overblown thing to say. She had, after all, been in the middle of a tech conference with 800 bystanders.

“Sure,” Adria replied. “And those people would probably be white and they would probably be male.”

This seemed a weak gambit. Men can sometimes be correct. There is some Latin for this kind of logical fallacy. It’s called an ad hominem attack. When someone can’t defend a criticism against them, they change the subject by attacking the criticiser.

“Somebody getting fired is pretty bad,” I said. “I know you didn’t call for him to be fired. But you must have felt pretty bad.”

“Not too bad,” she said. She thought more and shook her head decisively. “He’s a white male. I’m a black Jewish female. He was saying things that could be inferred as offensive to me, sitting in front of him. I do have empathy for him but it only goes so far. If he had Down’s Syndrome and he accidently pushed someone off a subway that would be different... I’ve seen things where people are like, ‘Adria didn’t know what she was doing by tweeting it.’ Yes, I did.”

“Hank’s actions resulted in him getting fired, yet he framed it in a way to blame me. If I had two kids, I wouldn’t tell ‘jokes’”

The evening Hank posted his statement on Hacker News, outsiders began to involve themselves in his and Adria’s story. Hank started to receive messages of support from men’s-rights bloggers. He didn’t respond to any of them. Later, a Gucci Little Piggy blogger wrote that Hank’s Hacker News message had revealed him to be a man with: “a complete lack of backbone… by apologising you are just saying, ‘I am a weak enemy – do with me what you will.’ [In publicly shaming Hank, Adria had] complete and utter power over his children. That doesn’t piss this guy off?”

At the same time that Hank was being feted and then insulted by the men’s-rights bloggers, Adria discovered she was getting discussed on a famous meeting place for trolls: 4chan/b/.

“A father of three is out of a job because a silly joke he was telling a friend was overheard by someone with more power than sense. Let’s crucify this cunt.”

“Kill her.”

“Cut out her uterus with an X-ACTO knife.”

Someone sent Adria a photograph of a beheaded woman with tape over her mouth. Adria’s face was superimposed onto the bodies of porn actors. Websites were created to teach people how to make the superimposing look seamless — by matching skin-tones. On Facebook someone wrote, “I hope I can find Adria, kidnap her, put a torture bag over her head, and shoot a .22 subsonic round right into her fucking skull. Fuck that bitch, make her pay, make her obey.” (That one, Adria told me, although I couldn’t confirm it, was from a student at the New York City College of Technology.)

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