Thursday, November 26, 2009

The object in Danah Boyd's Web 2.0 talk

Danah Boyd, a Harvard fellow and Microsoft researcher of social media and youth culture trends and behaviors, gave a disastrous talk at the Web 2.0 Expo this month.  I've blogged about it on the don't get caught blog in terms of the most-discussed factors that made it a train wreck:  a snarky group in the audience whose comments on Twitter were broadcast online and behind Boyd as she spoke, and Boyd's own preparation missteps, which she describes unflinchingly in her own post here.

We know the subject of Boyd's talk.  But what was the object?

Despite all the discussion, calls for apologies and outrage over this episode, I've yet to see observers pick up on an important point that Boyd herself makes: Some of the comments broadcast on Twitter by some of her audience members were objectifying and sexual in nature. Here's what she said:
I would *NEVER* have given my talk on race and class in such a setting. I shudder to think about how the racist language people used when I gave that talk would've been perceived on the big screen. Speaking of which...what's with the folks who think it's cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny... if you're 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry....I don't want to be objectified when I'm speaking - either as a talking head or a sexual toy. I want to inspire, to invite you to think, to spark creative thoughts in your head.
Told you she was unflinching.

Unfortunately, I can't pull up the offensive tweets to show you, due to technical problems on Twitter today (but if someone has preserved this part of the Twitterstream, I welcome hearing from you with a link, or from audience members who recall these particular tweets).  UPDATE: It was later found that the men in question deleted their offensive string of tweets. At some points during Boyd's talk, the projected Twitterstream was taken down due to the offensive nature of the comments, then projected again when the audience objected.

I'll leave it to the psychoanalysts, attorneys and academics to analyze whether the sexual comments from the audience, broadcast as they were online and to the attendees in the room, constituted narcissism, slander, hate speech or all three.  For me, the episode throws into high relief an issue about women and public speaking that generally goes undiscussed, as it has in the hundreds of reflections on this conference:  Public speaking is uncomfortable for many women because they sense (or know from experience) that they'll be seen as sexual objects, and it's considered acceptable to treat them that way, in part, because they've put themselves forward as speakers.  

Talk about discouraging women to speak.  In 2009, we're seeing yet again an issue that has plagued women speakers since the days of ancient Greece and Rome:  Attempting to silence women by treating them as sexual objects (or hysterics, or other negatives).  This chapter in Kathleen Hall Jamieson's excellent book Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking discusses this topic in detail, but the chapter's first lines sum it up: "History has many themes. One of them is that women should be quiet." If you want to understand the spotty and difficult history of women and public speaking, that chapter's an excellent short course.

Danah Boyd herself was the object in her talk, for some men in her audience. Not a researcher, not a colleague, but an object. 

The silence around this issue is all the more striking because this Web 2.0 Expo experience gives us two unique windows into the minds of the speaker and the audience. If the Twitter feed weren't public, those crude thoughts would've been known only by those thinking them--and the speaker would have had nothing to react to in her blog post.  In a way, I'm grateful for this public meltdown, because it lets us put this common but undiscussed issue on the table, where women can face it and, perhaps, deal with it. I don't think we can change people's thoughts, by a long shot. But we need to be willing to talk about the issue.  If we don't, it will remain one of those vague reasons women feel uncomfortable about public speaking, but aren't sure why. In fact, if the offensive tweets are removed, as they might well be, Boyd's willingness to write about them could be the only record we have--underscoring the importance of making these issues public.

And for those reading this who wonder, "Is this really a problem? I've never experienced it," let me just say that this blog--which aims to offer good advice and information to all speakers, male or female--came about because of the number of women who come to me for training saying things like, "They told me my presentations aren't sexy enough," or "My boss thinks I should wear skirts when I'm making a presentation or a speech."  And that's in the 21st century.  It's not the only gender issue women face in speaking, but it's a major one.

Kudos to Boyd, not just for her excellent research, but her willingness to speak frankly, allowing us to have a discussion.  Please share your thoughts and additional information about this episode, or what you've experienced directly, in the comments.

Related posts:  Twitter backchannel: Danah Boyd's take
New ebook on presenting with Twitter

Tweeting at meetings gets controversial

Speakers: Learn from Twitter hecklers

5 ways to find out about your audience

Find out more about women's issues in public speaking on The Eloquent Woman blog

Find out more about my workshops and one-on-one speaker coaching services

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Alexandre Cayla said...

While I do understand the reasoning behind this, I am not sure I totally agree. Of course, such behavior is offensive and should be denounced. However, I think its mostly something that has to do with the individuals rather than social dynamics. This is like using an anecdote to generalize and establish grand principles.

Also, I think this reasoning is flawed because it presents a false dichotomy : I am a inspirational figure OR a fuckable object. Firstly, I can appreciate somebodies mind AND body. I'm pretty sure a few women thought at one point that the speaker up front was quite sexy and decided that they were going to try to engage a conversation in the hotel bar when the day was over. For me, its not offensive, it just that humans are sexual beings. What is offensive, is that some people do not know how to be sensible about it. THEY are jackasses, not every man watching a woman speak; also, the fact that you know who tweeted allows you to call them out for what they are. Make sure they get the respect they deserve (not much) instead of thinking : MEN !

Secondly, nobody is ever one thing for a whole audience or for even one person for that matter. The reasons for attending an event varies greatly from one individual to another. In the same way for one woman can be an inspirational speaker for some and be a fuck toy for others, one man can be thought leader for one group and a punching bag for another. Basically, my point is that there will always be idiots that will typeset and see objects rather than people. And, in those cases, women are not necessarily the only victims.

Denise Graveline said...

Thanks for your comment, Alexandre. I am careful not to generalize, and there is a well-documented history of this type of intimidation of women speakers. The only difference here is the technology, and that we know about it overtly, which makes it dramatic and known. I'm glad if this has not been your experience, but I know it is the experience of many--and worth discussing.

And I have not addressed the topic at all of whether one can be attractive and worth listening to--that's a different issue and not one this blog would address.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Great post on a tough topic. I'm excited to have found this blog.

I've been thinking tons about this issue. Here's part of what I wrote about it:

I parsed the archived twitter stream, tweet by tweet, and didn't find anything in there that suggested the audience saw or was trying to treat her as a sex object, though I don't doubt she felt completely objectified. Let me reiterate: I do not doubt that she experienced this bullying as objectifying, possibly terrifying, definitely absolutely demoralizing. I don't doubt that I would feel exactly the same way. In fact, isn't that the point? It didn't even take an outright sexual comment for boyd to feel objectified, sexualized, and treated like a "fuckable object." That's what the best hecklers can do to even the most capable female speakers.

Denise Graveline said...

Jenna, thanks--would love it if you could share a link to the tweet stream for Boyd's talk.

Denise Graveline said...

And Jenna's very good post about the episode is at

Max said...

The sexual comments in the twitter stream involved observations whether the tweeter would "do" danah boyd or not. Rude perhaps, certainly objectifying, but not extreme and par for the course as far as internet comments go.

These comments have been pulled by the tweeters from their own accounts (as this was a professional conference), and won't show up in twitter archives.

Denise Graveline said...

Thanks, Max, for adding that information--and for confirming that, indeed, publishing comments about wanting to "do" a woman speaker are not considered extreme, and are considered "par for the course," by a man, at least.

Emily said...

Dear Denise Graveline,

Thanks for blogging on this topic!

I disagree with Alexandre Cayla's statement that he thinks "its mostly something that has to do with the individuals rather than social dynamics."

Online social spaces in which I've participated--whether blogs, social networks, or Twitter streams--often become dominated by a few guys who seem to compete and perform with one another for who can deliver the best diss. Their behavior tends to silence women, especially when women become its object.

As Clay Shirky writes in HERE COMES EVERYBODY, "When we change the way we communicate, we change society." Individual speech and behavior, therefore, can't be understood separately from the society or network of which the individuals are members.

So that while I agree some individuals are "idiots" who will objectify women and others, I think we need to focus on how these new technologies that enable "new kinds of group-forming" (Shirky) exacerbate the negative characteristics of some social groups.