“Dongle incident” proves we live in a world with no room for error


By Mark Schaefer

Perhaps you have heard by now of the “dongle incident.”

Adria Richards of SendGrid attended a tech conference and overheard a private joke between two guys behind her referring to a “big dongle.”  She was offended by the sexual innuendo, took a picture of the guys, tweeted it, and asked the conference organizers to remove them from the room, which they did.

The man issued an apology, but was fired by his company.  A firestorm erupted, criticisizing both parties.

An entire article is available here.  I am not going to pass judgment on anybody. I wasn’t there and I’m not going to open a can of worms about the behaviors and reactions on either side.

The hivemind speaks

But here is the part that was chilling to me, and it is in black and white.

Someone claiming to know plans of the hacker group Anonymous posted a note saying that it had acquired SendGrid’s client list and was going to attack the company’s infrastructure and harass its customers if the startup didn’t fire Richards.

Adria Richards engaged in malicious conduct to destroy the another individual’s professional career due to what she perceived as an affront to her own extremist views from a comment that was not directed at her, not meant for her to hear, and certainly not for her to provide unwarranted input on. As such, she should have her professional career destroyed just like her victim in order for justice to be rendered and balance restored to the universe. The hivemind’s judgement is final and there is no appeal. No forgiveness, no forgetting remember?

Later that day, SendGrid acknowledged that they had suffered a denial of service attack. And then, they fired Adria Richards, a move “in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers.”

This is an ugly, ugly episode. But here is the single statement that chilled me to the bone: “The hivemind’s judgement is final and there is no appeal. No forgiveness, no forgetting remember?”

An unknown number of anonymous cyber punks speaking for the “hivemind” dictated the actions of companies and helped crush personal careers. What kind of a world is this leading to?  The “unforgiving hivemind” is now our judge and jury?

If this new cyber dictatorship can bully a company with 130 employees, can they bully a Fortune 500 company? A government? Perhaps it is already happening behind closed doors and firewalls.

No room for error

What does this mean for those of us who make mistakes … meaning, everybody?

A few years ago, I was at a pre-conference networking event and one of the men who was to be keynoting the next day was very drunk and groping just about anybody that walked by.  While this behavior was repugnant and wrong, chances are everybody at some time or another has done something that is repugnant and wrong.

The good news is, since then, this fella has cleaned up his act. In fact, he’s stopped drinking and seems to have re-discovered his life. But in that moment of drunken stupor and poor judgment, his life, family, and career could have certainly been ruined via a 10 second smartphone video.  Would he have any chance for redemption or recovery? Perhaps the crisis of a humiliating public spectacle would have driven him further to drinking. Maybe it would have driven him over the edge.

One of the most interesting talks at SXSW last year was provided by Billy Corgan of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins.  In the talk, Corgan hypothesized that artists take less risks today because of a realization that one embarrassingly human moment will get tweeted and go viral — and possibly kill a career. Before the social web, these moments might be laughed about and become part of band legend, but today it can be career-defining. He wondered aloud about a world where artists would be nothing more than politically-correct robots.

A one-way ticket

There is no going back to an era of redemption, private repentance or second chances.  A public speaking gaffe, a stage stumble, an innocent moment of human weakness can end in permanent disaster.

What are the implications?

Will this relentless and unforgiving world actually drive better behavior?

Will it discourage risk-taking and openness?

Will it drive people away from having any sort of public persona at all?

Will it end up in a world that is ruled by the anonymous hivemind that is eager to destroy people who don’t conform to their ideals and values?

Are we living in a world where there is no room for error?

Illustration: Tightrope Walker by Forain

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