Article Lead Image

How a “big dongle” joke brought out the worst of the Internet

Before a lewd joke cost an attendee his job and spurred a misogynist online backlash, last weekend's PyCon event looked like a success. 


Kris Holt


Posted on Mar 20, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 9:06 pm CDT

UPDATE: Adria Richards was fired—publicly, in a Facebook post—by SendGrid. The backlash against her has also grown increasingly violent. Read more here

We also tracked 4chan’s raid against SendGrid, Richards’s former company.

Before a joke about a “big dongle” cost an attendee his job and spurred a misogynist online backlash, last weekend‘s PyCon event looked like a success. 

2,500 attendees had flocked to Santa Clara, Calif., to discuss the Python programming language; the event sold out more than a month in advance.

But once it began, two incidents prompted organizers to act. First, an attendee was removed from the event following reports that he used an illicit substance. PyCon called his behavior “inappropriate and unacceptable” and banned him from attending PyCon U.S. for two years.

That incident paled in comparison to the firestorm that erupted over a lewd joke.

When Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for email delivery company SendGrid, overheard a man sitting behind her laughing with his friends about the word “dongle,” she planned to brush it off as just another dumb dick joke.

But then the speaker onstage showed a photo of a young girl who’d taken part in a coding workshop, and “I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so,” Richards wrote on her blog.

So she tweeted a photo of the guys.

Richards next contacted event staff and shared a link to the conference’s code of conduct, which states “Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.”

Event organizers caught wind of Richards’s complaint.

She spoke with a staff member and the men were escorted from the ballroom. 

Roughly a day after the event, one of the men involved brought up the matter on a Hacker News thread, under the newly registered username mr-hank. He apologized and defended Richards’s right to report him to event staff. He admitted he made a “big dongle joke about a fictional piece [of] hardware that identified as male,” but he claimed Richards applied “sexual context” to another joke he made, about “forking.”

He also claimed he lost his job at mobile-gaming company PlayHaven when his boss found the photo of him.

My friends and I had decided forking someone’s repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said “I would fork that guys repo” The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us.

My second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.

She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.

He added in a separate comment that he was able to give his side of the story to staff. “I gave a statement, apologized and thanked them for upholding the cons integrity,” he wrote. “They felt I was sincere and let us leave of our own accord. I was also the only one who was let go.”

Richards weighed in, thanking him for sharing his side and expressing regret that the guy lost his job.

The forking joke set the stage for the dongle joke. Yes, this time I decided I didn’t want to argue my perspective. I decided instead to accept it bothered me and took action based on the PyCon Code of Conduct. It sounds like if I’d said something about the forking you would have denied it having a sexual association. Not sure if I smiled but I’m also unsure what facial expression you would have expected.

Richards claimed that the incident was the second time that day she had to deal with the “issue around harassment and gender” after a male developer made a joke laced with sexual innuendo. She told him that while the joke might be appropriate in some settings, it wasn’t the case at a type of conference where “women historically have felt unwelcome.” (Women accounted for more than 20 percent of PyCon attendees this year.)

“Both parties were met with, in private,” PyCon chair Jesse Noller said in a statement regarding “inappropriate comments made during a crowded plenary session.”  

He noted, “The comments that were made were in poor taste, and individuals involved agreed, apologized and no further actions were taken by the staff of PyCon 2013. No individuals were removed from the conference, no sanctions were levied.”

Andy Yang, CEO of PlayHaven, wrote this in a company blog post called “Addressing Pycon”: 

PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go. We value and protect the privacy of our employees, both past and present, and we will not comment on all the factors that contributed to our parting ways.

While much has been done to make software development and the technology industry more open to women, the development community can’t seem to shed its reputation for sexism. Derogatory terms are ubiquitous on open-source code-sharing site Github, for instance, while T-shirts distributed by a magazine at a U.K. conference last month urged attendees to “enhance your PHPness.”

The fallout—and backlash—over the PyCon incident bubbled over into communities like Reddit, Google+, Twitter, Hacker News, and even the comments on Richards’s blog post.

“What makes me rage the most are all the tweets calling her ‘brave’ and praising her for ‘taking a stand,'” commented redditor deirox. “Apparently getting offended by a silly joke makes her a victim.” Another redditor, TheHairyHungarian, simply wrote, “Disgusting excuse for a human.”

But the Twitter reaction was even worse:

Screenshot via @adriarichards/Twitter

Some called out Richards for having also made a joke about male genitalia before. (Slight difference there: She made the joke via Twitter at-reply.)

On the flip side, there were many messages of support.

Richards also claimed there was an attempt to force her blog offline through a DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack

As for the man who lost his job, he vowed to be at PyCon 2014, ready to joke and socialize but a little more aware of his audience and surroundings.

The story continues here.

Photo via @adriarichards/Twitter

Share this article
*First Published: Mar 20, 2013, 3:04 pm CDT