Sexism, Comic Book Movies, and Executive Stupidity

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Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson, prepared to kick ass (Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail)

Despite the fact that right-wingers firmly believe that Hollywood is controlled by socialist/communist gay and lesbian pornographers, the truth is that, like most rich folks, rich Hollywood execs tend to be pretty conservative.  Sure, some directors, actors, etc. are liberal, absolutely; but do you think the (American) folks in charge of Sony or Disney or other big multimedia companies are liberals? Ha, it is to laugh!

I mention this as a prelude to my main theme here:  The fact that these conservative, hide-bound, and almost-certainly sexist media execs refuse to green-light big summer movie projects starring women.  My particular peeve is with the huge increase in comic-book super-hero movies, which are getting the biggest bucks and most attention right now and where the problem is especially acute, but feel free to extend it to basically every other movie genre.

This topic has come up in the media (finally!) in the wake of the release of Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, a huge hit (apparently).  For those who don’t know, Whedon is very vocal about being a feminist, and is widely regarded as a writer of strong female characters, and is generally the go-to person for nerds to point at as an example of a man who is bucking the sexist trend in the nerd (comic books, sci-fi, and the movies based thereon) culture.  While this is perhaps true in broad outline, I think Leah Schnelbach does a great job deconstructing this claim (on the Tor.com site), without being at all unfair or doctrinaire as so many folks can get on this topic.

However, Whedon is taking some flack on this particular film because of his treatment of the character of Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.  For just a quick recap of the arguments:  There have been 11 “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (MCU) comic-book films, of which all have starred men, often multiple men.  These films rarely pass the Bechdel test (if ever); the presentation of the women in group/team posters is significantly different from that for men; women characters are often treated as plot devices or standard tropes (the damsel in distress, for example); and on and on.  It’s pretty ridiculous.

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Gee, what do you think they’re trying to draw your attention to?
(Photo courtesy of Zimbio)

(I will here make a brief nod to the TV end of things, where there are a few more solid characters: Peggy Carter (with remarkably her own show); Karen Page, Claire Temple, and Vanessa Marianna in Daredevil; Skye, May, & Bobby in Agents of SHIELD.  And DC has the wonderful Felicity Smoak in Arrow, a character so awesome they keep having her show up in their other series, The Flash.)

Specifically to the most recent MCU film “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, the one true strong female character is Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.  And as Leah Schnelbach points out in the post referenced above, while Black Widow has now been in four MCU films, hers is the only character who takes time out of a film to lament how she can never be a parent.  Thor doesn’t whine about whether or not to be a daddy, nor does Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Tony Stark, or anyone else (though Captain America laments not getting to dance with Peggy Carter during World War II).  She is the only Avenger whose character is defined—and only in this film!—in terms of her sexuality and gender.

Now, if there were as lot of interesting female characters in the MCU, maybe we could give this one a pass.  Or if Black Widow was about to get her own film, as nearly every other Avenger has (hell, Ant Man is getting his own film before he becomes one!).  I mean, geez, Hulk has had, what, two (really bad) films?  Captain America has had two with another one coming.  Thor has had two; Iron Man three.  Black Widow?  None.  With none on the horizon.  And if that isn’t bad enough, there isn’t even a female-starring MCU film planned until 2018 . . . eight more films down the line.  A second film about the Guardians of the Galaxy, a property that hardly anyone gave a damn about, sure (which, to be fair, was a film I enjoyed a lot); another Captain America film, another Avengers film, yet another reboot of the Spider-man franchise, even.  But a film about Black Widow?  Heavens, no; that’s a terrible idea!

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Do we really need another one? (Photo courtesy of Wibblyspider on DeviantArt)

One could argue, and some do, that female-led super-hero movies don’t make money.  But if you take a gander at the hacked emails by the studio execs, who complain about “Supergirl”, a bomb from 30 years ago, it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with nothing but blatant sexism here.  After all, way more male-centered super-hero movies have bombed than female-centered ones.  That’s sexism, kids.

And not only is it sexist, in the case of Black Widow—a well-established character played by a bankable actress that the public is actually asking for—it’s downright stupid.  Let me just run a few facts by you, here:

  • Black Widow has now been in four MCU movies and has actually established a considerable fan-base; there are fan sites, a twitter hash tag, a Change.org petition, etc. etc.
  • The Motley Fool does a good job pointing out the factual basis for expecting a positive result from a Black Widow film.
  • There have been far more giant flops in big Super Hero films starring men than those starring women.  Seven vs. three, if memory serves.  And it’s important to note that films like “Catwoman” genuinely stunk.
  • Scarlett Johansson is almost ridiculously bankable.

Let me throw you some numbers on that last point.  And this is where it connects to my opening about folks on the right, which is:  The right-wing simply can’t do math.  (I did several posts about this on Salon which I will re-post here at some point but in the meantime, take my word for it.  Two words:  Laffer curve.)

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They just can’t do math; don’t blame me! (photo courtesy of Democratic Underground)

  • Luc Besson is a director with a lengthy Hollywood career, and whose biggest film up until last year was “The Fifth Element”, starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, and (God save us) Chris Tucker.  On a budget of $93 million it made $263.9 million, or $170.9 million.  His newest biggest film?  “Lucy”, starring Scarlett Johansson; on a budget of $40 million it made $458.9 million, or $418.9 million.
  • Films with Scarlett Johansson have made a total of $2.393 billion dollars domestically, and a brain-melting $5.844 billion world-wide. “Well, okay,” I hear you say; “But she hasn’t starred in all those, some are ensemble films that made tons of money.  How does that compare to male stars?”  I’m glad you asked! Let’s look at the money with regard to those who have been in big budget films themselves.  (Figures from Box Office Mojo)
    • Chris Hemsworth (Thor): $1.622 billion
    • Andrew Garfield (Spider-man):  $587 million
    • Tobey Maguire (also Spider-man): $1.535 billion
    • Chris Pratt (“Star-lord”): $848 million
    • Chris Evans (Captain America): $1.909 billion
    • Paul Rudd: $1.143 billion
    • Ahnuld: $1.794 billion (!)
    • Harrison Ford: $3.925 billion
    • Bruce Willis: $3.186 billion
    • Brad Pitt: $2.610 billion
  • And those comparisons are apples to apples—lifetime totals of all films made by folks who have starred in blockbusters.  (I could do it in dollars adjusted for ticket price inflation but trust me, other than with Ahnuld, it doesn’t make a lot of difference in demonstrating the basic point.)  When you look at those comparisons, also consider this:  Bruce Willis is 60, Schwarzenegger is 67, Harrison Ford is 72, heck even Brad Pitt is 51.  Johansson is 30.  30!  You’ve got to think she’s going to blow those other guys out of the water by the time she gets to 40, let alone 60.
  • Speaking of “well known”; I like Paul Rudd as much as the next guy, but he’s not exactly Bruce Willis or Ahnuld or even Brad Pitt when it comes to big, summer, “tent-pole” action/adventure extravaganzas, is he?  Had anyone heard of Chris Hemsworth before they handed him “Thor”?  Eric Bana before he made “Hulk”?  While Chris Evans was not exactly unknown, he wasn’t a household name either when they made him Captain America.  And what about those total unknowns they handed Superman’s cape to?  On the other hand, Johansson is well know, with a huge built-in fan base.  How is a film starring her as a (now) well-known character more of a risk than “Guardians of the Galaxy” starring Chris Pratt or “Ant-Man” starring Paul Rudd?  I mean, c’mon!

So honestly, given all this, ask yourself two things:  Can the lack of female-starring big-budget movies be anything other than sexism, and can the lack of a big-budget, Johansson-starring Black Widow movie be anything other than profoundly stupid sexism?

I think you all know what my answer is.

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Yeah, you got it (Poster courtesy of LemonPunch on Tumblr)

So there it is, you dim-witted, right-wing, major studio honchos (and you, Kevin Feige, you bonehead):  Women can make you tons of money.  It’s only your backwards attitudes that’re stopping it.  Get a grip and start making those movies!

The Stupidity of Workplace Discrimination

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Blindfolded man with "prejudice" text on the blindfold
Image courtesy of Ackerson Law Offices

Recently one of the transgender Twitter accounts I follow pointed me to a post by NPR about the discrimination that trans folks face in the workplace.  The gist of the post (and associated NPR audio piece) is that it really helps, especially when transitioning (i.e., transitioning from one gender to another), to have allies at your workplace.  And there’s some information as well about the discrimination trans folks face on a regular basis.  (As well as some pretty scary statistics about suicide rates for trans folks—statistics that I believe should shut up any transgender-exclusionary radical feminists, that is radical feminists who believe that it’s okay to exclude trans men/women from men/women-only spaces, but I’m sure won’t.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

It got me thinking that while trans folks face a terrible burden, there are other discriminations in the workplace (some of which I’ve written about), all of which are blatantly and profoundly stupid.

See, here’s the thing:  In high tech, it’s hard to find the right people for the job.  Really hard, honestly.  Yes, there are plenty of good programmers out there, plenty of good QA people, marketing people, technical writers, etc.  Sure.  But it’s not just a matter of people having the right raw materials for the job; they also need to have the right level of experience—sometimes you want that person with 25 years of experience, and sometimes you want someone fresh out of college—the right set of skills, an ability to work in the types of groups you have at your company, a track record of accomplishments in the appropriate areas, etc. etc. etc.  Not to mention someone who can add to your group’s dynamic; for example, if you have a bunch of really shy people on your team, maybe you need someone more extroverted.  Or maybe you work at a company where everyone is expected to work very independently, and so that experience you’ve had as a manager is important.  Whatever.

(Yes, I acknowledge that this can lead you straight down that slippery slope of only hiring white folks because you only “feel comfortable” with your “type of people”.  That’s not where I’m going with this.  In fact, I’m going in the completely opposite direction.  I just want to note that there are other factors besides raw experience that come into the hiring mix.  And so no, I tell you three times and what I tell you three times is true:  It is NOT okay to use “they have to fit in with the group” to excuse bigotry.  Not okay, not okay, not okay!)

So in this situation, I am constantly puzzled by people discriminating against potential hires because they are transgender.  Or women.  Or Asian or of African descent or from South America.  Or who speak English with (to my ear) funny accents.  Or who are gay or lesbian or bi.  It’s hard enough to find good people; ruling people out just because they sleep with people of the same gender or hail from Kerala instead of Colorado strikes me as self-defeating.

And specifically when it comes to transgender folks who transition while they’re in the job, it makes even less sense.  This is a person you’ve worked with, established a relationship with, whose strengths and “areas for development” (corporate-speak for “weaknesses”) you’re familiar with;  why should you give a damn if you find out that, “oh my heavens, his father is actually a black guy!”?  What does it matter if they worship God on Saturday morning in Hebrew rather than Sunday morning in Latin or English?  Who cares if Adam sleeps with Steve, as long as Adam continues to deliver code?  Does it make a difference that Ashok is sometimes hard to understand (when my wife has trouble understanding my Aunt Maureen from Boston) when he’s completing projects like a madman?  Why should you give a crap that you report to Deanna instead of Douglas as long as Deanna is a good boss?  What the heck difference does it make if Mark transitions to Margaret so long as they continue to crank out work?  I find it insane.

I will say this in defense of high tech:  I’ve met many, many, many bigoted people over the years who suck it up and deal and get along just fine with folks they’re bigoted against, when those folks are delivering.  (When they don’t, yes, it can get ugly.)  I can’t relay to you how many times I’ve had conversations with people along these lines:

“Man, I get so tired of working with [minority group] sometimes.”
“But [name] is a [minority group].”
“Oh, [name] is cool; I’m talking about in general.”

Yes, we have to move to a place where this conversation doesn’t even happen because CoWorker realizes, like I state above, it doesn’t matter.

A couple of other points to consider when thinking about this stuff:  As the world grows more interconnected (especially in high tech), you’re going to find yourself working for people who are not native Americans, or not white, or not straight, or not Christian, or not cisgender, or not [enter minority here].  And when (not “if”!) you do, how well do you think your bigotry is going to fly with them, hm?

Something else to consider is the extension of the workspace from “everyone come into the office” (which I’ll post about soon) to “distributed teams”, i.e. teams where people are spread out all over the country, or the world.  On such a team, are you going to discriminate against Yung just because she’s in Taiwan, or Ivanov because he’s in Ukraine?  Not only would that be self-defeating, it’s genuinely silly.

In movies (and sometimes real life), people say, “It’s only business”.  Now I personally don’t like this saying; too often it’s used by someone who just has, is about to, royally screw someone (or groups of someones) over.  (“Yes, we’re laying you all off, but it’s only business.”  Yeah, tell that to my mortgage company, you jerkweed.)  This is the corollary; if it’s only business, then the only thing that matters is what happens on the clock for the company, and if they’re getting the job done who cares if someone was hired wearing slacks and T-shirts and is now coming to work in heels and a skirt-and-blouse combo?

So stop discriminating, people; you’re not just hurting other folks, you’re hurting yourself and your business.  Knock it off!

 

Support Your Local Female Tech Professional

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STOP doing this! (Image courtesy of news.com.au)

I’ve written a few posts about women in high tech, and if you follow my blog at all you’ll know I’m pretty critical of how the high tech industry treats women and behaves around women.  I completely dismiss the argument—and you can see it practically anywhere—that women just have to “suck it up”, that they’re treated “just the same” as men, that they need to “fit in better” to the industry’s culture.

To which I say: Hooey.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  One thing that irks me about many columnists is that they spend a lot of time complaining about something, but then when it comes to making suggestions as to how to fix the problem they just spent 15 paragraphs identifying and excoriating, they bail.  “How this will resolve Remains To Be Seen.”  (“Remains to be seen” is a common sign-off line on TV news, and is basically the same as saying, “I have no effin’ idea where this is going, so this piece was pretty much a waste of time.”)  I try to suggest solutions to the things I talk about in my posts, even if the solutions seem silly.  After all, silly or not, any suggestion could get a conversation started, and that’s when better solutions may come up.

But my suggestions for the sexist culture in high tech and what to do about it have been pretty limp and unsatisfying.  At least to me.  Which is why I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the more I do the more I realize that while yes, we have to get more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, and yes we have to help women throughout their path into these fields.  But we—and by “we” here, I men “we men of the male persuasion”—need to do a lot more than passive cheer-leading and supporting our daughters working towards their C.S. degree.

We need to be proactive.

Now before you become untethered, let me be clear:   I’m not talking about some kind of “affirmative action”/quota kind of thing—though I believe that’s needed—nor am I suggesting that people “carry” poor performers just because they’re women.  (Although I also firmly believe that way too many men use the “she’s a poor performer” excuse as a cover for sexism, similar to “she didn’t quite fit in” or “she was a distraction to the team” or “her style wasn’t compatible with the organization’s needs”, or some other BS excuse that boils down to “We’re a boys club and don’t feel comfortable with girls around”.)

No, what I’m saying is:  We need to be proactive.  We need to actively support the women with whom we work, rather than telling them that they’re “acting bitchy” or “need to suck it up” or “work harder to fit in”.  Or almost as bad, just sit there passively when we see blatant sexism acted out right in our faces.  Let me give you an example:

You’re in a meeting.  There are 10 or so people in the room, and maybe 2 of them are women.  One of the women—the QA manager, say, a relatively tall, quiet, middle-aged woman with over 20 years experience in high tech—speaks up about a problem she sees from her vantage point in QA.  Before she has a chance to finish, some 20-something guy interrupts her, and then basically expresses her exact point.  What do you do?

I’ve seen this hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  You know what usually happens?  Nothing.  Women have had it hammered into them since birth to be quiet, demure, to not object; when they get run over like that, they often just shut up and remain quiet, because that’s what society teaches them.  And if they speak up, if they push back, if they ask (respectfully) to please be allowed to finish, many of the 20-something men (and alas too many of other ages) will complain to their boss or co-worker about what a “bitch” they work with.  She’s “too aggressive”; they “don’t feel comfortable with her on their team”.

Right now, any woman who’s worked in high tech is nodding her head while reading along, thinking, “Well, duh!  You might as well tell me rain is wet.”  While I guarantee you the majority of guys—even the ones guilty of this behavior!—are thinking, “Well, I’m sure that happens sometimes, but I don’t ever do it!”  Yes, you do.  I think about this stuff all the time and sometimes I still blow it.  It’s easy to fall back on the socially-dictated patterns.

What should you do?  Dude, it’s so easy; ask the rude interrupter to please let the woman finish.  “Okay, Biff, but I’d like to hear the end of what Jill was trying to say.”  That’s what I mean by “proactive”.  Don’t just sit there and let some sexist dork be sexist; jump in!  It can absolutely be done without being rude, putting anyone down, or even implying Biff is being a sexist dork.

If you’re running the meeting, go even farther:  Make sure you actively seek the opinions of the women at the table.  Women in high tech have been so hammered on for so long that after a while, many stop trying.  Do you really want to write off 20% of the brainpower in your room?  That’s idiotic!  Ask their opinions!  And further, make sure they get the space to finish their thoughts.  It’s your meeting; if Jill gets cut off, tell Dirk, “Wait a minute please, Dirk; let Jill finish and then you can make your point.”  Not only does this get the opinions of the women out on the table, it also implicitly chastises people for rude and sexist behavior and provides them with a model for how to do it moving forward.

(I believe the person running a meeting should draw out opinions from all those at the table, no matter their sex, but that’s a different topic.)

But don’t stop there.  Recommend (qualified) women on your team for high-profile projects, projects that will give them visibility and responsibilities outside of their immediate job area.  Recommend them for training—management training, technical training, whatever.  Be active in helping them advance their careers.  Trumpet their accomplishments to the org at large.  Mention them to upper management.  And on the flip side:  Mention the negative, sexist behavior to management as well—though I would recommend on first offense to limit it to not mentioning the particular perpetrator.  Something like, “Mr. VP, I’ve been noticing some fairly bad sexist behavior among some team members.  Perhaps you could make some kind of overall policy statement about BigCorp’s policy of inclusiveness and having a friendly and non-hostile work environment?  Maybe an email, followed by a few words at the next all-hands?”  Everyone screws up once in a while, and someone should establish a pattern before being called on the carpet, IMO.  But of course if Mr. VP asks, that’s a different matter.

I would also recommend that, should you be in management, you take some time to educate yourself on how men’s and women’s socialized responses differ, and adjust your behavior and expectations accordingly.  For example, when men get pissed off, they frequently yell, punch things, throw tantrums, etc.  Most men overt the age of, say, 25 are more controlled than that, but if you’ve been in high tech for any time at all, you’ve probably seen it; some VP is frustrated, and he yells at someone, or cusses them out.  Or even throws things at the conference room wall.  I’ve seen it happen.

(Yes, I know this isn’t true across the board, and certainly not true for trans and gender fluid folks.  What I’m talking about here are what society and our culture consider “typical” male and female behavior and responses.)

Women, on the other hand, often respond to anger with tears.  These are not tears of sorrow; they’re tears of rage and frustration.  But many men viscerally respond to tears with a subconscious diagnosis of “weakness”, and of course in business, weakness is death.

Unfortunately, women are in a double-bind here.  If a woman yells, curses, and rages, she is “a bitch”, “too emotional”, “needs to dial it back”, etc.  So she can either act like a woman and be punished for it, or act like a man . . . and be punished for it.

To repeat:  The solution is to educate yourself and be more cognizant of how sexes respond differently.  I think one of the best books on this topic is Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand”, but there are plenty of good ones out there.  But if you’re too lazy to read a book, all you have to know is:  Men and women frequently react differently.  Learn to roll with it, and stop putting the women on your team into an impossible double-bind.  Further, when you see them being so defined by others, point it out.

I’ve gone on at length here (and haven’t even touched on other land-mines like how women are supposed to dress, and how men can get away with flirting at work but women can’t, and many other areas), but the bottom line is actually pretty simple:  As men, we’re too lazy and been too passive, and we need to get off our flat behinds and get involved.  We need to work to help women be treated equally.  We need to act.  It’s on us, too.

So get out there, and act!

PS: For some of my other opinions regarding women in high take, feel free to surf on over to:

Business Meetings: Minimizing their Pain

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Dilbert copyrighted by Scott Adams, all rights reserved

On LinkedIn, Jeff Denneen had a post wherein he opined that we should Kill the Weekly Meeting.  In it he talks about the time wasted in pre-scheduled, regular weekly meetings, has a couple of suggestions for making meetings less painful in general, and at the end asks, “Do you have other techniques for making meetings more effective?”

Oh hellz yes; I have a list.

I have long wondered about high tech’s love of regular meetings.  It’s something I noticed almost from the beginning of my career, and a part of the industry that I came quickly to genuinely hate.  But as a modern, 21st Century guy who’s spent plenty of time with various therapists, rather than sit back and seethe and simmer in my meeting rage, when I had the opportunity to run my own meetings—either through being a project lead, a manager, or just because no one else in the room wanted to take charge—I came over time to learn some tactics and techniques to make things better.  At least, I think they do.

In huge, cross-team projects involving dozens or even hundreds of people, all working toward a specific goal of releasing on a given date, you do have to have some regular meetings just so everyone is on target.  Really, you can’t avoid it; you can’t do everything by email or IM.  But when you are forced to have those suckers, make them as painless as possible.  Here’s some ideas to chew over, play-tested out in the real high tech business world:

  • Have an agenda, or at least a list of topics that you need to cover in the meeting, even if it’s only scribbled on a piece of scratch paper.
  • Avoid the “round-table status review”. I’ve been in high tech for 27 years and, while I have on occasion needed to know what my coworkers were doing, I never needed to know what they were doing on a low project level. Round-table status is too often used for people to simply puff up their own importance, and tends to waste time.
  • Start your meetings on time. This should be obvious, but alas it is not. (Don’t be a jerk about it like George W. Bush was, though, who apparently locked the door at the appointed time. That’s childish.)
  • Keep track of the time, and help folks be aware of it at need. “We need to pick up the pace in order to finish.”
  • Avoid going down conversational rabbit-holes, finger-pointing, and arguments. If there are disagreements that can’t be resolved in a reasonable (few minutes) amount of time, table the discussion and figure out another way to resolve them.  “Let’s take this off-line” is the common phrase in high tech.
  • Make sure to recognize and draw out opinions from the shyer folks in the room. This is a learned skill, but you have to watch for subtle clues that someone wants to talk, but is too shy or reluctant to “interrupt”. But they’re in the meeting; if their opinion wasn’t wanted, they shouldn’t have been invited. So be sure to try to spot them and give them the space to talk.
  • Deliberately make extra effort to pull the women in the room into the discussion, and protect their speaking time from over-bearing, interrupting, ‘mansplainin’ men.  Our business culture is flamingly sexist, and women are often ignored, interrupted, dismissed, and otherwise relegated to “outsider” status. Don’t let it happen; plenty of times, they’re the smartest ones in the room.  They usually haven’t had a choice; like minorities, they’ve had to be better than most just to get a place at the table.  Get their opinions!  (For more on my take about sexism in high tech, feel free to read High Tech Sexism.)
  • Related to the three previous items: Don’t be afraid to be a bit tyrannical in running your meetings. Don’t let people ramble on to no purpose–cut them off. Don’t let folks be rude or obnoxious to other folks in the room–cut them off, too, with a warning that that kind of thing isn’t productive. Shut people up when they interrupt a speaker who hasn’t finished making her point.  Keep people focused, on task, and ready to listen.  You don’t have to be a douche about it, but be firm.  Very firm.  Exceedingly firm.
  • Let meetings end early. In fact, make it a personal goal to end meetings early. There are few things in business that make people happier than ending a meeting early.
  • Before ending the meeting, go over the action items that came up during the meeting. Make sure people assigned to action items are aware of them. All action items should have a priority associated with them, and a time-frame for completion.

And on a personal note:  Learn how to take notes.  Everyone finds a different note-taking style that works best for them, so find yours.  Mine is based on my observation that for me, meetings have three things I need to keep track of (four if it’s a “bad” meeting):  General notes, questions I want to ask but don’t want to interrupt, and action items I’m given.  I usually start out each meeting by creating three sections in my notes file (I use Evernote) for these three areas.  (The fourth area is “Comments”, i.e. snarky comments to myself that come to mind while being stuck in a terrible, boring, endless meeting from which there is no easy escape.  This section keeps me sane in those situations, especially those where you can’t, for example, play Infinity Blade III or check your Twitter feed or whatever.  You know what kind of meetings I’m talking about.)

Like everything else, running a meeting is a skill. Some people have a natural flair for it, and others struggle with it. But as far as I can tell, everyone needs more practice. Think about some of the above points the next time you call a meeting. Believe me: You end a meeting early with clear action items, people will love you.

The Frustrations of a Long-Distance Tech Writer

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Image courtesy of Neil Newton

I’ve mentioned before that I am one of those lucky few that (in general) actually enjoys his job.  I like working in high tech, being around smart people, playing with cutting-edge (“bleeding-edge”, we like to joke) tech, while at the same time not writing code or designing hardware, two areas in which I studied and got a degree but for which I am depressingly untalented.  Writing about tech stuff, though; there, I seem to have a degree of ability, thank goodness.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the job doesn’t have frustrations.  Now yes, “Check your privilege”; these are first world problems, and for a cis-gendered, straight, white male.  I don’t have to deal with the rampant sexism in my chosen field (though I try to mitigate it where I can).  I don’t have to deal with racism, except in those rare cases where I have worked in a majority non-American environment (it happened a couple of times).  I don’t have to deal with homophobia or transphobia, and as I don’t go around wearing a yellow Magen David and don’t particularly “look Jewish”, the minor amounts of anti-Semitism I’ve encountered haven’t been a big deal.  Duly noted.

But in nearly three decades of professional tech writing, I have to admit that I’ve gotten pretty tired of some things that happen consistently, again and again and again, no matter how much I try to fix them.

In the high tech world, I should tell you that tech writers are pretty low on the totem pole.  Engineering believes that Marketing, Support, and QA are in the same region, but as Marketing knows they’re not, it never hurts their feelings.  I have on the other hand commiserated plenty with Support and QA folks, who are treated as (at best) necessary evils.

You see, the engineering attitude is, if they write awesome code, there’s no need for Support or QA; why test and provide support for something that’s awesome?  And Marketing?  Ha!  My code is so awesome that it will sell itself; what do I need those suit-wearing, MBA jargon-spouting fools for? (Of course, since Marketing feels similarly about Engineering—”Don’t those idiots know that if we don’t sell their product they wouldn’t even have jobs?”—that part kind of evens out in the end.  And besides, it’s the Marketing folks who tend to move up the ladder and become CEOs.)

Technical content?  Despite the fact that we supposedly live in an era where “content is King”, most people believe that it’s easy, that it’s just “cut and past from the specification”, that it’s just “ink on the page”, that “one of my engineers can do it”, that everyone can write the content if they didn’t have to spend their extremely valuable time writing code/being a manager/doing important Marketing work/whatever.  It’s like breathing; everyone knows how to talk, so everyone knows how to write technical content, right?

Well, um, no.

Like everyone else in high tech, technical writers have spent years (or even decades) honing their skills.  While everyone theoretically can write, the number of people who can write clear, concise, correct colloquial American English is pretty small.  People assume that that because they can speak, they can write. It’s simply not true.  The number of people who can do that and comprehend high tech concepts, software, and hardware is even smaller.

Now then, let’s look at me.  I spent 4 years in college—and plenty of time in high school too—learning computer technology.  I started when I was 15, and got a degree in computer science.  I did the work of going into a job as an engineer.  There’s not too many people who do that and then don’t become engineers.  I also had some inherent skill at writing, and since entering the field, I have spent more than 20 years working on my tech writing skillset–not just my writing, but theories of organization, information architecture, web page design and layout, editing tools, publishing tools, source control tools.  And I’m hardly atypical.

Despite this, tech writers constantly have to remind people of their ability.  I’m often tempted to say, “Hey, I don’t lean over your shoulder and tell you where to put curly brackets and semi-colons in your code, do I?”.

Tech writers also have to teach every new product team that, yes, we do understand technical issues and yes, we are professionals on par with them in our own branch of the high tech industry and, finally, yes, they have to take us and (more importantly) what we do seriously if we want to get the durn product out the door.

And finally, it becomes very tiresome to have to behave like some kind of fascistic, yard-stick weilding equivalent of a Catholic school knuckle-smacking nun in order to get you to do that part of your job that intersects with mine.  Yes, I read the specs; yes, I try to use the product myself; yes, I attend the appropriate training classes (when they exist; for new products, they don’t).  Yes, I do all that.  But I also need a couple of things from you: When we ask for some of your time, rather than being grumpy, snarky, suggesting (either implicitly or explicitly) that we haven’t done my homework, do us the courtesy of providing that time.

Because see, if you give us just a little bit of time, not only will we document everything you tell us about, we’ll probably find other stuff that you and QA missed but that the customers won’t–I have an amazing gift for breaking software and finding odd corner cases–and we’ll document that, too.

Truly:  30 minutes of your time now will save you hours of hassle later.  I’ve been doing this a long time; I know. (Also, it provides you with some good CYA.  “I met with Doug on this; isn’t it in the product documentation?”  See?  Off the hook!)  Wouldn’t you rather spend that time chatting with me instead of arguing with trolls on the forums, dealing with irate customers via phone, or having an exec email you demanding you fix some problem?  It’s a good investment!

The other thing we ask is that, when we send you something to review, review it.  Look, I know reading technical content is the last thing you want to do.  I know it’s dull.  I know you think your time is too valuable for it, that someone else should be doing it, that I should have gotten it right the first time, that there’s no time in the schedule for you to review content.  I’ve heard it all, believe me.  (And if there’s no time, please tell me; I will go all the way up to executive VPs to get time built into your schedule for it.  Trust me; I’ve done it.  Ask my friend Margaret.)

But unless the experts—”subject matter experts” we call ’em, or SMEs (because in high tech it’s not important until it’s been assigned an acronym, even when that acronym is made up of other acronyms)—go over my content, it’s going to be wrong.  I’ll catch most stuff; hell, I’ll think up plenty of stuff you folks never would (remember my lecture on how much experience I have earlier on?).  But there are technical minutae that I will miss.  I can’t help it; you’ve been coding that project for six months and I’ve only been playing with it for a few weeks; how could it be otherwise?  If you didn’t know more about it than me, we would be switching jobs no matter how lame my coding skills are.  That’s what review teams are for: To catch the stuff I miss.

(And by the way, don’t worry about my grammar, punctuation, and other writing-specific things.  I know there’s a terrible temptation to mark those things up; it’s easy, it’s obvious, and it gives you a way to get back at the person who’s “wasting your time”.  Resist.  I know you can do it.)

So there you have it.  As writers, we don’t ask much.  Just

  • Treat your content people as fellow professionals whose time is also valuable even though they don’t code or design hardware
  • Give them the time they ask for (and if they’re asking for too much, go to their managers)
  • Give them the feedback they request

Do that and not only will your content person be really happy with you, they’ll do you favors.  They’ll post bugs that they found in the product that everyone else missed; they’ll help you re-word that email to the exec to help you get off the hoook for that major screw-up; they’ll advise you on your resume when you’re ready to head on to new challenges; they’ll give you solid advice on your web site that you never would have thought of.  This is the kind of stuff we do.  Leverage it.

The few; the proud; the technical content creators.  It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.  No, seriously.

Some Thoughts on Clothes

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Seriously, I think the guy on the left looks pretty good
(Photo courtesy of The Conversation)

My Twitter feed is–how shall I say this?–eclectic. Some nerds talking coding, of course. Some writers. A (very) few celebrities–Stephen King, Alan Tudyk–some writers like David Brin and James Fallows, some marketing people, sex workers, GLBT folks, goofy ones like PourMoreCoffee, and of course a bunch of friends. The cool thing is that I get a lot of different topics coming in at me. And today one that rolled my way was about clothing, where a sex worker gave the business to a guy who asked, “Why do lesbians wear men’s clothes?”

Well, I’ve been wondering something similar for a long time, but from a completely different angle. I was lucky enough to spend a huge percent of my life in California, where the climate is very mild. Even more, I was in Santa Cruz for 12 years, where the fog off the Monterey Bay keeps the hot air from the Central Valley from killing us every summer.

But even in Santa Cruz–and without any question now I’m in Texas–it can get hot, and make you wish you had a wider variety of clothing options.  So for example, when I was working in the cafeteria on a hot day, I would watch the women in their light cotton skirts and think, “Man, why can’t I wear something like that?  A kilt, say?  What’s the problem?”  And the problem is, it was against the “dress code”.  Men were required to wear long pants “on duty”.

This was similar when I went to work as a security guard; there were very strict requirements for what one could wear on duty, said requirements being tightly defined to established gender roles.  So that, for example, when my supervisor saw my earring, he immediately ordered me to take it off.  (After combing through the regulations, I found nothing that said men couldn’t wear earrings; there was only a note–obviously directed at female employees but not worded specifically to indicate this–that you couldn’t wear dangly earrings while on duty.  As I was wearing a stud I was prepared to argue, but not prepared enough to get fired.  But that’s another story.)

This not only offends my sense of equality, as an ally of transgender rights it irks me.  My trans friends want to wear what they want to wear, and get endless flack for it.  What could help more than the normalizing of “cross-dressing” by the rest of the population, much as “lesbians wear man clothes”?  My first girlfriend, who was very slender, liked to wear overalls.  Another very curvy one liked jeans (which looked great on her).  And who cared?  No one!  And from the purely selfish, comfort standpoint of a guy who is sick of being overheated in the summer, if a woman can wear pants, why can’t a guy wear a cotton skirt? (Or silk? Or hell, organdy for all of me?)

Besides, from the aesthetic standpoint, there are plenty of guys who would probably look much better in a skirt.  I mean, there are loads of guys out there with nice legs; why not give the folks who want to gawp at male gams the chance, huh?  And I have to think that all those flat-butted middle-aged guys would look a lot better in a nicely-tailored skirt than in those relaxed-fit Gap-for-man khakis, don’t you think?  Add some pockets to a skirt, some belt loops, and why not?

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Okay, ditch the white shoes, but at least it’s an attempt
(Photo courtesy of Goddamit I’m Mad)

So without making too fine a point of it the question is:  Why shouldn’t anyone wear jeans and T-shirts who wants to but, even more, why can’t men wear skirts on hot days?  Not kilts; I have a kilt, and while I quite like it the damn things are amazingly heavy and make you sweat like a demon around the waist on a hot day.  No, I’m talking light cotton skirts here.  If Harry Potter can wear Dress Robes, and Cornelius fudge pin-striped robes to work, why can’t we design a lighter kilt-like garment, or a skirt that “looks masculine” so that it’s okay for guys to wear it?  The skirt equivalent of a pin-striped, double-breasted jacket?  Why not?  The Romans and Greeks wore dresses, for pete’s sake!

So I say to you, fashion gods:  Make it so!

* Special thanks to Dominique for providing me with the idea for the post. Thanks, Dominique! (God I love my Twitter feed.)

Election “Year” “Reporting”

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“The boys on the bus”, image courtesy of NPR

Yes, I put both “Year” and “Reporting in scare quotes.  Know why?  Because something that starts two years (at least) before election day is not a “year”, and because the “reporting” the reporters do from the campaign trail doesn’t qualify as true reporting, in my opinion,

Which is the main fact behind my whole point.

There are a couple of really irritating aspects to election reporting that I think about often, especially during election season (and especially during Presidential election season).  The first irritating thing, the reasons behind which are easy to understand, is that the vast majority of election reporting are “reports” on “the horse race”, i.e. who is up, who is down, who is moving up, etc. in the polls.  Nothing about people’s positions, who might actually make a better office-holder, what a given candidate might do in a particular situation or facing a certain vote based on their past behavior (or past votes), or hell even what their past behavior has been.  No, it’s all breathless discussions of “the polling”.  (And equally breathless discussion about how shallow modern political discourse has become in that we only discuss “the horse race”.  Which is kinda absurd, since my memory goes back to the Nixon years, and I don’t remember a whole lot of reporting on the issues back then, either.)

The reason for this is simple:  That kind of writing is easy.  I can sit here, right now, make up some poll numbers and write a story about it.  Seriously.  It’s absurdly simple, the only research it requires is looking up poll numbers, and it can easily fulfill your word quota (or minute quota) of the day.  And everything is reported in this box. It’s not “How would Candidate Jones’ statement on Israel effect his future Israel policies”; no, it’s “How does Candidate Jones’ gaffe about Israel effect his polling?”  Writing all your stories according to a pre-existing narrative is way easier than coming up with something original.  It’s like writing a new fantasy story based in Middle Earth or Westeros instead of coming up with your own fantasy world.  It’s lame, reductionist, a cop-out of your responsibilities, but it’s easy and understandable.

What I don’t understand is:  Why is there a pool of reporters traveling with each candidate at all?

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last, oh, say 20 years of Presidential elections, it’s that reporters and commentators are constantly talking about how useless and news-less campaign events and speeches are, how little access they have to candidates, what a pointless exercise campaign reporting seems to be.  Expect these stories to start flooding in soon; New York Magazine got off an early salvo–the proximate cause for this blog post–just last week (20 months before election day!).  And as I read all the whining in this post, and anticipated all the whining to come in the next 20 months, I kept thinking, as John Oliver would say, “Why is this still a thing?”

One would think that reason enough to do something about campaign reporting.  But we have been hearing about–and observing–for nearly two decades now the vast shrinkage in “traditional media”.  Newspapers folding or being “consolidated”, network TV ratings dropping like rocks (along with their budgets), magazines going out of business or migrating to the Web, etc.  Money is tight in media.  They’re closing overseas bureaus all the time.  And so I get back to my John Oliver question:

Why is campaign pool reporting still a thing?

Cover campaigns, absolutely.  And I can understand why the Washington Post, New York Times, and a few other papers and TV organizations with national reach cover them.  But do CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, ABC, Bloomberg, and God alone only knows how many other networks really all need individual reporters on the ground for every candidate for every event?  Do we need reporters from the Des Moines paper going to New Hampshire in December of 2015?  You get the picture.

What I don’t understand is, with every network and paper crying pauper, why are they still doing this?  Why don’t they designate one or two people to follow these people around–particularly the right-wing nitwits who have absolutely no chance of winning–and leave it at that?  They can share their “news” with the other outlets, and write their feather-weight “news” pieces from that.  Or they can just stay home, look at the poll numbers, and write the exact same stories.  But either way, sending dozens of reporters howling after this election season’s Herman Caine is absolutely idiotic.

That’s what I think, anyway.  How about you?

Support Sex Workers on Sex Worker Rights Day (repost from Facebook)

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Photo courtesy of Julia Laite at notchesblog

First posted on my Facebook feed.

I know this will be controversial with some folks who follow me, but: Today is Sex Worker Rights day. This is NOT about the approx. 22% of all human trafficking victims who are trafficked for sex work. (The majority of trafficking victims are for the agriculture, garment, and construction industries.) No. This is about people–men, women, and trans folks–who for whatever reason choose sex work in which to make money. By choice. I just want to be clear.

I absolutely, unequivocally support sex worker’s rights, their right to have their work treated as work rather than stigma; their right to have their industry decriminalized; their right to be safe in their work; their rights in general. Sex workers–particularly those who are people of color or transgender (or both)–deserve respect and safety, rather than being subjected to harassment, assault, and stings by police whose primary motivation is (this is true, I promise) money.

Look: I’m not stupid. I know we live in a fairly Puritan/Napoleonic Code-based social framework, which looks askance (to put it mildly) at anything of a sexual nature. But I ask you to look beyond that and realize that sex workers (for the most part) are just doing a job. “How can you do a job so demeaning?” 1) It doesn’t have to be demeaning just because it’s sexual, and 2) There are plenty of other jobs that are plenty demeaning that aren’t sex work. I have laid sod and landscaped hillsides during a heatwave; worked graveyard shift as a security guard; cleaned restaurant toilets and floors as a janitor after hours; and plenty others. These were demeaning.

And I’d like you to consider the positive aspects of sex work you might not have thought of, or dismissed as silly or absurd. What if you are a man with some kind of mental disability who has never had sex before because your disability makes you unattractive to potential partners? What if you are physically disabled and your partner can’t deal and needs help? What if your partner simply lose interest in sex but you don’t? What if what excites you changes completely over time but doesn’t for your partner? These and many other areas are places where sex workers help, not only individuals but entire relationships.

Sex work is work. They deserve respect. Please give it to them.

Sex Work is Work, and Prohibition Doesn’t Work

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Photo courtesy of caans.org

In many ways I feel incredibly lucky to have attended UC Santa Cruz.  For one, it’s simply a good university; high quality, good instructors, wonderful campus, good facilities, etc.  I received a damn fine education there at a quite reasonable price.  (It’s not particularly reasonable now, but that’s a post for another time.)  I met some–hell, most–of my lifelong friends there.  All good things.

But in many ways the most important thing was living in Santa Cruz, and being absolutely immersed in a social matrix that was wildly, spectacularly, incredibly left-wing.  A place where the majority of the town council was, like Bernie Sanders, openly Socialist–That was their party affiliation, not just their political philosophy–and given this was spang in the middle of the Reagan era, that tells you just how leftist it was.   A place that was doing “take back the night!” marches in the early 80s, that occupied the campus library in 1985 to protest Apartheid and demand divestment of UC assets from South Africa; a place that was my introduction (as a Freshman) to loud, emotional protests (for tenure for a professor name Nancy Shaw, in I believe Women’s Studies); a place that had a class called “Birth of a Poet”, where you were required to write down your dreams every morning.

That kind of place.

And I’m glad, so very glad, I went there, because even though my parents were quite liberal (and my dad amazingly so for a Naval officer born during the Depression), growing up as a military brat narrows your view of the world pretty considerably.  Middle class all my life, rarely exposed to many minorities, almost totally unfamiliar with religions other than Catholicism, it was a major eye-opener, to put it mildly.  And a time I absolutely cherish.

Which brings me, in my time-honored style of burying the lede, to sex work.

It is a cliche to call sex work “the world’s oldest profession”.  But the fact is, we all know about the existence of sex work, and like any teen I was familiar with the bold outlines when I started college.  Indeed, I probably had a somewhat different view than most, as I had read a lot of science fiction in which sex work was either a normalized part of life, or even societies where it was an honored and exalted profession (viz. how it is treated in “Firefly”).  But like everyone else, I had imbibed by osmosis the Madonna/whore dichotomy, along with the usual john/pimp/ho’ cliches.  I probably wasn’t as bad as some, but I was still a pretty ignorant middle-class, white, teen male.

But it was at UC Santa Cruz where I was first exposed to the actual concept of sex work as it collides with the real world.  It was there that I first encountered the term “sex work”; there that I was first exposed to actual sex workers; there I saw sex workers supported by non sex workers, advocating for their rights, the organization COYOTE setting up tables and giving out info on campus, students writing papers and articles in support of sex work and sex workers rights, and so on.

And to be perfectly frank, all that in combination to the already-fertile, science fiction-tilled ground of my brain, radicalized me.  The arguments of sex workers seemed so logical and reasonable when weighed against the almost-hysterical inveigling the anti-sex work crowd engaged in.  Sex workers wanted their victimless, consensual, non-coercive work to be treated as exactly that:  Work.  Difficult work deserving of dignity, recognition, and a lack of persecution.  Work that they had chosen, and that they believed was deserving of treatment equal to a schmuck like me toiling away in a cafeteria dishroom to put himself through college.

Seemed pretty reasonable to me.

By contrast, the anti-sex work crowd had many, many arguments against it but, not unlike arguments against marriage equality boiling down to “I think butt sex is yucky and no one should do it”, it always seemed at base to rest on “It’s against my moral code”.

Now, it didn’t matter that we separate church and state in the country.  It didn’t matter that it didn’t match the moral code of plenty of other people.  It didn’t matter that many of the people espousing draconian punishment against these Evil Whores used their services themselves (think David Vitter).  And it certainly didn’t matter that the “oppressed” providers were themselves saying, “Hey, no; I’m not oppressed!  I want to be paid a fair wage for my difficult and involved work and not be at risk of harassment and arrest just for my work!”  Or as they put it now:  Sex work is work.

I am bringing all this up for two reasons:  There have been a raft of laws proposed or passed recently (like #C36 in Canada, or the law in Alaska) in an effort to eliminate sex work, and today is Speak Up for Sex Workers Day (h/t Maggie McNeill).

Now, like every other political effort nowadays, this isn’t what the proponents of these new and draconian laws say.  The efforts in favor of what is called “the Swedish model” or “the Nordic model” say that by following this model will “end demand”–i.e. they target the clients rather than the sex workers–and thus give the oppressed sex workers the incentive to find “legitimate” work.

That “end demand” hasn’t worked with alcohol, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, marijuana, or any other thing we’ve tried to “end demand” on, doesn’t detract these social warriors.  That prohibition doesn’t work is something they don’t acknowledge.  Hell, they outlawed absinthe, and people are drinking it again.  And we’re talking about sex here, not drugs.  Do they really think putting laws in place will cause people to stop?  They know this is nicknamed “the oldest profession”, right?

They are convinced it will work, and refuse to listen to the sex workers who keep telling them a) It makes their work more dangerous and b) They don’t want rescuing, thank you very much.  They are convinced they have The Solution, a solution that literally has eluded every single society since the beginning of history.  I mean, seriously, think about that.

After much reading on the topic it’s pretty clear that the advocates both on the far right (religious folks) and far left (radical feminists) both just think sex work is eeeeeeeevil, and this is one way to try to eliminate it.  I’ll leave as an exercise for the student the weirdness of radical feminists and fire-and-brimstone Christian fundamentalists being in bed together on this (and yes, that was deliberate).  But their purported reasons don’t hold up; they want to remove the choice of work from the sex workers.  They know better.  The sex workers to these people are “fallen women”, victims, deluded; they only think they want to be engaged in sex work.  Once they realize the error of their ways–either that it’s immoral, or an oppressive continuation of the patriarchy, depending on who is arguing about it–these sex workers will be happy to be church secretaries or telephone sales people or whatever.  They’re just deluded and need to be educated, or victims needing to be saved.

I’ll let you go ahead and think about the epic level of condescension required for the point of view.  Me, I am immediately suspicious when Person A purports to be doing something for Person B’s “own good”.  “It’s for your own good” is generally a smokescreen behind which lays “I think what you’re doing is icky and wrong”.

One of the big ways anti-sex worker activists (and their name is legion) push their agenda is by intentionally blurring and obscuring the line between human trafficking and sex work. (Not to mention continually repeating the same exploded myths and statistics about sex work, like “the average age of entry is 13″, which is just flagrantly untrue.)  Let me be crystal-effin’-clear here:

Human trafficking is evil.  I tell you three times and what I tell you three times is true:  Human trafficking is evil; human trafficking is evil; human trafficking is evil.

But here’s the thing:  The majority–the vast majority–of human trafficking is not for sex work.  Nope.  22%.  Yes, that’s still terrible; but why are we harassing sex workers who are in that business by choice (i.e. they are by definition not trafficked) and their clients over that 22%?  Further, since the vast majority of sex workers being abused by the police and courts are in that job by choice, we are not even helping that 22%!  And why are we so focused on that 22% that we are basically ignoring the other 78%, who are stuck in garment factories in lower Manhattan, or out on farms living in hovels in essential slavery in the Southwest, or doing dangerous construction work all around the world?  Aren’t those people deserving of our attention?  And why are we wasting money and effort on sex workers who aren’t trafficked and are doing their work by choice when that effort could be spent helping all those other trafficked people?  Where’s the logic?

And the answer is, the unholy left-right anti-sex worker alliance isn’t using logic; they think sex work is icky and should be ended, and there’s no evidence to support the idea that they give a rip about the other trafficking victims.

So what can we do, here on this particular day during this particularly time when seemingly every small hamlet and big city wants to “crack down on those prostitution rings”?  Glad you asked!

First, you should read up a bit and not swallow the anti-sex worker propaganda whole.  Here.

You can’t argue against someone who has religious convictions; like in the anti-abortion fights, the best you can do is fight against them.  And the folks who believe that sex for pleasure is evil are living in a completely different universe than the one I occupy.  Frankly, I think they need clinical help.  If God gave you the ability to get pleasure from sexual stimulation, doesn’t it make you more godly to seek that pleasure?  Where in the Torah does it say self-pleasure, or pleasure with a partner, is evil?  (Pro Tip: It doesn’t.  But boy, you should read some of the rationalizations some folks try to use to justify their “no masturbation!” perspective!)

But you can shine a bright light on government agencies (police departments, prosecutors offices, etc.) who waste enormous amounts of money running “sting” operations on “crimes” that have no victims.  Is that what we want them doing, rescuing “fallen” women who haven’t asked to be “rescued”, and busting men who are just seeking pleasure and are willing to pay for it?  Wouldn’t public monies be better spent, oh, hey, I dunno:  Serving and protecting?  (And this isn’t even going into the profound, astonishing, ridiculous hypocrisy where the same police officers who expect to use a sex worker’s services for free later turn around and bust the same sex workers.  And yes, it happens all the time.)

But most importantly, you yourself should start treating sex workers–in your own mind, and by your behavior–as workers, just as deserving of respect as tech writers, or computer programmers, or electricians, or police officers, or soldiers.  Sex work is work.  Like with any work, sex workers are doing it to pay the bills (though many enjoy their work), and how many of us love our work?  I mean, I do, but I’m well aware I’m in the minority.  Sex work is work.  Keep telling yourself that.

And then go out and tell others.  Cuz that’s the only way the word will get out.

Content in an Online World: A Modest Proposal

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This pic will make sense later, I promise

When I went to New Zealand at the age of 27, some of the things it taught me were about the United States.  For example, at that time Baywatch and Pam Anderson were hugely, wildly popular, and a question my friend Tim and I often heard, especially when people learned we were from California, was:  Is that what it’s really like?  (“Only in Venice,” I said to one.)  Another thing I learned was the sheer variety of food we had available in California.  At a small grocery store near Christchurch–a decent-sized city–they had two sets of lunch meat.  Not three types of meat; three sets, period.  You could have ham, or beef.  By manufacturer X.  That was it; your choices.  You didn’t get to decide between grain-fed beef or free-range turkey or whatever; this packet of ham, or that packet of beef.  Thanks for shopping!

But the other big thing I noticed about America while I was in New Zealand was . . . standarization.  We’re big into standards here.  Not quality standards; design standards.  Not to gross you out, but the place I noticed it most was in plumbing fixtures, specifically urinals.  Here, urinals either look like vertical (when they’re individual) or horizontal (like in older sports stadiums) bathtubs.  All of them, everywhere.  You go into a men’s room in Omaha and it’ll have a urinal that looks just like the one in your office park in Mt. View.  Oh, there’ll be a bit of variety; here there are self-flushing ones, there you have to use a handle and flush manually.  But in the main, standards.  Hell, there’s a company that makes this stuff called, naturally enough, “American Standard“.  We like to standardize.

So you’d think (he said, finally getting to the point) that after 20 or so years, Web pages would be pretty standardized by now.  That at least there’d be some agreements on some basic things, like putting an author’s name and email address on there, or some such.  But if you think that, you’d be out of luck.  And so, in an effort to correct this rather egregious error, I offer to you a very, very short list of simple things everyone can do to their web sites to make life much better for everyone.  So pay attention!  I’ve been writing online content for longer than the web has existed, and I actually know what I’m talking about here!

Every web page, everywhere, should have a date stamp.  You’d think this goes without saying, but apparently it doesn’t because a lot of otherwise fine sites don’t follow this rule.  Why is it important?  Because in an online world, you can’t always tell by looking how old a post is.  You’re reading a post that you got to through google and thinking, “Wait, there’s a chance of a government shutdown?”, and then do a little digging and find that you’re reading a post from 2009 or something.  Why make readers guess?  Put the date stamp right up there at the top.

Another important ease-of-use issue is:  Don’t make readers click through dozens of pages.  Yes, I know it ups your click counts; yes, I know you can squeeze in more advertisers that way; yes, I know you can sucker readers into accidentally clicking on ad links that are made to look like a “Next page ->” link.  And you know what?  That’s a good long-term strategy for driving away readers.  I once clicked on a link that was The Top 100 [something]–I can’t remember what–and they were all on their own separate page.  Does the writer, or more likely the editor or site owner, really think anyone is going to click through that many pages?  It’s absurd.  I got out of there in a hurry.  I wonder how many hits they got on page 100; close to zero, I’m guessing.

If you feel you must have click throughs, at least give your readers the option of reading it as a single page.  Yes, it’s more work for you–which is why I urge you to make your content a single page to begin with!–but it will make your readers happy.  Buzzfeed has plenty of long lists, and they don’t force you to go to multiple pages and they’re doing pretty durn good.

And speaking of multiple pages, for the love of God, don’t force open a whole bunch of new pages or tabs when they’re all associated with your site.  I went to pay my daughter’s tuition and opened up the main college site.  This told me to go to the student site which, when I clicked, opened a new tap in my browser.  Then when I logged in and click the “payment plan” button, it opened up yet another new tab; I now had three separate tabs open when all I wanted was to pay the durn bill.  Bad design, ACC.  And again, if you feel you must open new tabs or pages, let your readers choose at least.

Another feature I think should be avoided is forcing people to “sign up” with your site in order to leave comments.  I’ve gone to [random site] following a link from Twitter or Facebook, left a comment, and then had the site ask for my name and email address at a minimum, or access to my Twitter, Facebook, or whatever account.  First, stop calling the name field “name”; call it “handle” or “alias” or something so that people know they don’t have to use their real names.  But even better would be to stop doing it altogether.  I don’t mind my regular sites having that information, but the Atlanta Constitution-Journal or whatever just because I went there that one time?  Silly.

Related to that is the obnoxious “opt out” practice.  Most sites that use your email are at least polite enough to inform you and give you a “please don’t spam me” checkbox (sometimes checked by default, sometimes not–another tip:  Let it always be unchecked by default!).  But there are clearly plenty that just grab your email address and start sending you spam, which you then have to opt out of by clicking a link to an “opt out” page.  Don’t do that to your readers.  And if you have an “opt out” page or pages, don’t force them to answer why they’re opting out; the answer is simple: They’re tired of spam from you!  There, I’ve told you; stop asking!

In a similar, and much more obnoxious, vein is the pop-up (or whatever the hell they’re calling it now).  Again, it’s an issue of revenue, I’m sure, but two things to avoid: Don’t let it cover the entire page, and have a big, clear, easy-to-find, easy-to-tap “X” in either the upper-right or upper-left corner.  That’s where years of Mac or PC use have taught us to look to close stuff.  Making the pop-up cover the whole page; having it stay there for a pre-allotted time before you can close it; making it a video that plays automatically; giving it an audio track that plays automatically; making it look like you can close it but really it takes you to another page; all these are douche moves.  Don’t do them.

Finally–and I know this will be controversial for some–include the author on each piece.  On technical documents on corporate sites this isn’t a real need; on opinion pieces, it really is.  And if you don’t want to use your real name–and I know plenty who not only don’t, but legally can’t–use your nome de plume or alias or handle or whatever you write behind, and then include a link to where people can voice their opinions other than the comments page.  I think a link to folks’ Twitter accounts is good, but maybe just set up an email account–I’ve got five (I think)–where people can send stuff.  Will most of it be dreck?  Of course.  But one of the benefits of online content is that it makes people feel there are less layers between you and the writer.  When I read a Matt Taibbi piece to which I take issue, I don’t comment after the post or send mail to Rolling Stone, I tell Taibbi on his Twitter feed.  Maybe he doesn’t respond, but it feels as if he might.  And improving people’s feelz when it comes to online content is what we’re talking about here.

Anyway, those are a few of the things I’ve noticed in my time online, and think we should strive to standardize against.  What about you?

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