Why I Want to Delete My Geeklist Account, Even If They Put Out a Real Apology

I feel the need to repeat my frequent disclaimer: My opinions are mine, and not anyone else’s. They have nothing to do with my employer.

You may have heard that sexism and gender equity are issues in technology and science (where I’ve made my occupational home for most of my life now). The issues, general and specific, have been described amply all over the Internet, so I won’t go into the broader picture here except to say that the problem is real, and that I try to do better and associate with people who do better.

So, today’s specific kerfuffle: There exists a social network for techies called Geeklist. I have an account there (but only because they haven’t implemented account deletion yet). Like young companies building a brand sometimes do, they sell apparel – t-shirts for men and women, and a couple of different styles of panties that look somewhat less unisex. No boxers or briefs for the guys. (Note: As of this writing, it looks like they’ve taken down everything but the t-shirts.) The videos on the product pages for this apparel, as well as another promotional video on Vimeo (also taken down), featured a young, shapely woman dancing around in a Geeklist t-shirt and panty set, and occasionally associating with a fully-dressed, bespectacled man who I guess was meant to be some kind of male geek archetype.

You know, whatever. That shit is sexist and kind of insulting to thinking geeks of both genders, but I have code to write and bigger fish to fry (have you seen what the Republicans are up to lately?). If it were limited to this, I’d have just rolled my eyes and moved on.

Someone had a stronger reaction to it than me. Predictably, it was a female programmer. Her name is Shanley Kane, and she tweets as @shanley. Her initial tweet on the matter:

@csanz @rekatz why the ads with a woman in her underwear dancing around to dupstep?

(@csanz and @rekatz are, respectively, Christian Sanz and Reuben Katz, the founding CTO and CEO of Geeklist.)

OK, great. She has every reason to be annoyed at the public intersection of soft-porn sexism and geek culture, and every right to speak her mind on the topic just as publicly.

At this point, it would be instructive to read the full exchange between the @shanley and the Geeklist guys. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, so that you don’t have to take my word for it when I summarize that @csanz and @rekatz:

  • Avoid any meaningful discussion of @shanley’s complaint.
  • Tell her they don’t like her tone – a common tactic to avoid substantive discussion.
  • Claim that all the women involved with the video were cool with it. (This might even be true, but does not change the fact that the video reinforces crap stereotypes of both genders.)
  • Claim that it’s not really their fault or their problem, despite the fact that their brand is all over the thing.
  • Tell her she’s unprofessional for not emailing them privately – despite the fact that their offense was public. Clearly, they’d rather make the problem go away quietly – and they clearly saw the problem as the complaint, not their imbecilic video.
  • Finally – and here’s the kicker – they try to drag her employer (Basho Technologies) into the discussion, and point out that they are clients of her employer, and suggest that she’s not reflecting well on their brand. (To Basho’s credit, they were supportive of Kane’s right to express her personal opinion.)

Most of this stuff is no more or less than the usual asshattery exhibited by educated men who should know better but somehow remain clueless. In the face of most of this behavior, I might give the bad actors the benefit of the doubt, assume them to be educable, and have settled for expressing myself with a tweet or three. For most of what @csanz and @rekatz said and did, a genuine apology (rather than their half-assed “I’m sorry you were offended” non-apology) would have covered it.

Even if they issue that apology, I still want to delete my Geeklist account and make sure I never support another Katz and/or Sanz venture. Most of their behavior could be described as clumsy or unnecessarily defensive, but forgivable. They went the extra mile, though, to attempt to drag her employer into the conversation and throw in implied threats to her livelihood. This is not the act of a geek entrepreneur out of his depth in the social arena – this is attempting to silence a critic without addressing the issue, by threatening her ability to pay the rent. This goes way beyond casual sexism, or cluelessness, or anything else that should be gotten over with an apology.

I want to be clear on how strongly I feel about this – and, in case of the unlikely event that Katz or Sanz reads this, I’ll address my main point directly to them:

You amoral pricks acted from a position of security to threaten someone else’s livelihood because she criticized you. You are fortunate that I am not one of your investors or on your board, because I would be making your lives all kinds of hell until you either gave me my money back or resigned your positions in favor of better people – and I would be doing my level best to make sure that no respectable investor ever touched one of your ideas again.

The fact that the tactic of dragging Basho into the discussion seems to have backfired (presumably because it is run by better people than Geeklist) matters not at all. What matters is that Sanz and Katz were great enough scumbags to even try it – and I’m not going to give them a pass for it no matter how many months they decide to highlight women’s achievements in technology. This is not a PR problem; this is a problem of people in a leadership position who clearly do not deserve it. I want my Geeklist account deleted and my data off their servers.

And of course, I am not a Geeklist investor, and about four people read this blog, and not many more actually pay attention to me on Twitter. But I have Twitter handles for some of Geeklist’s investors (Crunchbase FTW). Maybe someone should raise their awareness of how Sanz and Katz are representing the Geeklist brand?

(Irony intended.)

TL;DR: I Got a Straight Job

So… I’m employed in the normal sense, and winding down my other commitments including Moveable Feast (which I still wish a long and lucrative life).

As is my custom, I’m not going to name my employer here. It’s not top-secret or anything, but I prefer to avoid any confusion between my foul-mouthed ranting and the company’s press releases. My words are mine, the company’s are the company’s, and ne’er the twain shall meet, unless I speak at a conference or something.

I will say that I’m almost 100% focused on mobile development, specifically iOS, which is fun for me.

On a side note: I’m hoping to have a bit more time & money for small personal projects now, including (but limited to) revisiting Guitar Cardio (web and mobile), painting, maybe updating this blog more than twice a year, and taking up the Chapman Stick. We’ll see how all that plays out in practice.

Advertising: Why Bother?

So the other day, I was looking for a guitar pedal – a digital delay with recording loop, and if it had some on-board effects, so much the better. This is kind of a specialty item – mass-produced, but you can’t get it an WalMart. So I googled some relevant keywords, scoped out the brands and products that came up, and spotted a brand I trusted from a previous purchase. I checked out some other options, but eventually settled into researching the product from the trusted brand.

On the product page for the pedal I was considering there was a short instructional/demo video featuring a musician from a band I like and one of the engineers who had designed the pedal. That pretty much sealed the deal – I could see that it did what I wanted, and more. To be sure, I looked at user reviews at a couple of retail sites (one specialty site, one general). From there, I went to a price comparison site to see what my options were. I didn’t purchase at that moment, but I could have.

And I did all this in less time than it takes the Chinese restaurant on the corner to bring my food. So, to recap, that’s:

  • Impulse
  • Brand-level research
  • Product-level research (to the depth of getting instruction from the product designer)
  • Polling user reviews
  • Comparison shopping
  • Where the hell is my Szechuan chicken?

Probably once or twice in that process, I was presented with a paid, third-party ad – I can’t say precisely, because I paid attention to ads exactly zero times.

Compare this with what the process would have been in 1990. I could ask friends about similar products they’d used, but I’d be limited to the small set of products they had experience with, and by their personal biases. I would probably have to learn about products from catalogs and mailings, assuming I had found my way onto a suitable mailing list – and even then, I’d only have access to information about a subset of available products. I could also have dug through the Yellow Pages, and if there were one or more retailers nearby that carried something like what I wanted, I could call or drive over and talk to a half-informed salesman who was going to steer me toward whatever gave him the best commission. I sure as hell wasn’t going to get any instruction from the product designer, and this wasn’t all going to happen before dinner was ready.

When’s the last time you used the Yellow Pages for anything? (I use them to clean paintbrushes.) Will a kid born today even know what the Yellow Pages were? Remember the old 800-page Sears and JCPenney catalogs – ever wonder where those went? When’s the last time you bought a new kind of product or service based solely on the ad copy, without checking reviews online?

I admit: I live in an urban, Internet-connected, tech-savvy social bubble. But even the most non-technical people in my life are using the Internet for buying, and – much more importantly, for learning about the products they buy.

Television ad revenues are tanking. The news is not much better online. Sure, we can blame it on the economy, but is that the only force at work? Check the chart in the link on online ad revenue – the growth rate was declining a year before the banking crisis hit.

Here’s my point: Whereas we were once almost totally dependent on paid advertising interspersed with our media to tell us about the existence of products, where to get them, and what they cost, paid advertising is now worse than useless for these things. We know that advertising has always been mostly posturing and lies, but when that was all we had, we dealt with it. Now we have access to actual information on price and user experience (much better organized than it was even ten years ago), and we’ve gotten very good at filtering out ads, using either our brains or technological fixes.

So what does get people in the door? I can say what worked for me in this case:

  • The company makes great products. It will become increasingly difficult to sell crap as more people learn to use online shopping tools. The customers you burn will out you in a heartbeat, and it won’t take me much longer to hear about it.
  • I had purchased from the company before, and it was good. The relationship matters. It is now trivial to find many, many other options if one company doesn’t do right by me.
  • They informed me rather than selling to me. Free videos with real information and instruction – not just rigged demos or canned endorsements – delivered by authoritative people such as product designers and power users go a long way toward helping a purchase decision.
  • They respond when I ask questions on Twitter and Facebook. If they didn’t, they’d risk losing me to a competitor that did respond.

Boiled down, that could be stated as: Engage me, and don’t suck. Attempting to pay for my attention only convinces me that you have enough money to buy an ad – and I automatically assume that the ad is a one-sided half-truth at best. But be excellent, evangelize, and engage people, and I’ll come sniffing around eventually.

So where are ads useful? No tool or evolutionary strategy ever goes away. You can still buy buggy whips if you’re so inclined (even if your best bet is probably to check your local fetish wear shop first).

I actually finally purchased my new pedal based on an ad – a vendor I’d done business with before emailed me about an insiders-only sale. Even here, though, the new rules trump the old rules – the discount wasn’t enough that I’d have taken it if I didn’t already have a good relationship with the vendor – and the ad didn’t try to sell me anything, but gave me information about a price break that I probably wasn’t going to get elsewhere. Also, it was not a third-party ad – it was a direct communication through a channel from which I can opt out.

I don’t claim to know what these observations mean in a global sense – I know that ad revenues are shrinking. I know I’m probably not a typical consumer. I know that I don’t need advertising to find, learn about, or acquire anything I want or need. I know that some of my favorite companies and performers eschew traditional ads and commercial channels in favor of engaging me and not sucking. I know that advertising isn’t going away anytime soon. I know that I see the new strategies working for smaller companies, and it’s not clear to me how they would scale for the WalMarts and Budweisers of the world, who seem to see the new strategies as next-generation astroturfing tools anyway (and will probably not stop sucking nor rush to embrace true engagement).

Mostly, I know how this informs what I want to do for my own projects – websites and software I’m working on. I know I do pretty well at not sucking, but also that I need to work more on engagement – both as a personal habit, and in terms of making time for it.

And I don’t know, but I have a hunch, that the future is probably not as bright as some assume for the advertising business and all its epiphytes – the targeters and optimizers and analyzers springing up everywhere now will help with advertising ROI in the near-term, even as they commoditize audiences, make the advertising market more efficient, and thereby cut margins in that business to the bone. They will eventually drive themselves to a steady state where the only way to compete is on price, at which time the whole business will be engaged in a race to the bottom. (That’s the commercial bottom, not the cultural bottom that ads are widely accused of pursing already.)

So go ahead, tell me where I’m wrong in the comments.

P.S.: If you were wondering which pedal it was: It was the Stereo Memory Man by Electro-Harmonix. It should be here Thursday, and shortly after that I plan to review it over at the GuitarCardio blog.