Sometimes I Respond To Email

Because I lack discipline and any real “life structure,” my email habits are rather capricious. I either respond RIGHT AWAY or I phantom respond. That is, I will BELIEVE I responded but what really happened was I wrote a response in my head but never actually committed it to something anyone could receive. BTW does everyone talk to themselves a lot? I feel like I talk to myself as much as John Nash as depicted by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, like when he was becoming full-on schizophrenic.

This morning a self-described tech industry exec wrote to say he mentioned me in his blog post, and was that okay? It turns out we had an email exchange back in 2014 when I was covering the tech and culture beat. The topic was the lack of diversity and women in computer engineering. (I had been writing a lot back then about the alarming gender and racial disparities in tech.) He had emailed me to say that the engineering team at his company was overwhelmingly white male but the problem was “nearly impossible” to change. I don’t remember what I wrote back but he did.

I know this because of the SHOCKINGLY FLATTERING post he wrote about it. I mean, seriously, I could not have made this up because if I were to make up a situation in which I helped someone out, I wouldn’t make is sound this nice because it wouldn’t be believable.

“I have not always been the greatest advocate for women, but I am learning. In 2014 a reporter from NPR, Elise Hu, had written a series about a lack of diversity in tech.  At the same time I was actively hiring and trying to fill the role with women. That said, I had gotten resumes from something like 50 candidates and roughly 47 of them were white men. What was I supposed to do?  How could this be my fault?  How could I be accountable? I reached out to Elise and pointed this out to her, thinking it was definitive proof that myself and people like me were off the hook.  
 
She wrote back in a little over an hour. She said many smart things, but asked me simply who had taught me to program?  The answer was my uncle.  She then carefully explained to me that white men were often teaching other white men to program and there in lies the problem.  They were sparking interest in computers in young white men, and doing nothing to spark an interest in more diverse populations. The cause of the pipeline problem was outside of academics.   
 
This resonated with me because it is my belief that while you can learn a lot about technology in academics, applying that knowledge successfully often requires direct one on one mentorship. The pipeline is our responsibility because we have the knowledge and even though we might not be academics we can still spend our time mentoring and sparking the interest in more diverse populations.  The problem is not caused intentionally, but simply based on normative behavior and pre-existing relationships.
 
We are accountable. Until that moment, I thought the best thing I could do was simply stand out of the way and avoid being biased as much as possible. Essentially be passive. It was again a strong and intelligent woman who changed my thinking, and taught me that it is everyone’s responsibility to play an active role in change.”

First, GO STEPHEN!

Second, the lesson of this is that sometimes the exchanges with strangers who write you can seem really mundane and perfunctory. But if you can offer your time or thoughts, they could potentially make an impact or have quite a ripple effect.

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Though Yorke insists that “OK Computer” was inspired by the dislocation and paranoia of non-stop travel, it’s now largely understood as a record about how unchecked consumerism and an overreliance on technology can lead to automation and, eventually, alienation (from ourselves; from one another).

Amanda Petrusich, in The New Yorker

The Unbearable Lightness of Internet Stalking

To briefly revisit a lesson from high school English, “dramatic irony” describes a situation in which the reader knows what’s going to happen to a character but the character doesn’t. It’s a tension that makes for great literature and art. And it’s the closest example I could think of to describe the situational discomfort of having to face someone who I’ve already internet stalked.

Just as a reader is one step ahead of a character because she possesses more information than say, Hamlet, so is the data-hoarding internet stalker. I usually do enough Googling to learn some stats that I’ll later have to pretend to not know in the course of face-to-face interaction. Unable to pack this problem into a single term, we will call this ‘”the unbearable lightness of internet stalking” until you come up with something better.

The context of this situation is part of the larger intersection of technology and human relationships that has long fascinated me.  The deep ocean of data available on the internet allow us to learn a lot about someone — and even communicate extensively with him — without ever talking to him in person. It’s the stuff of online startups, like my friends HO’s Umbel, which is designed to give people more control over internet searches of their identities. It’s also the stuff that can start relationships. A 2009 survey by Zagats found that more than 50% of respondents admitted to Googling their dates.

My problem is the human interaction that comes AFTER you learn or know information that you obtained in a slightly surreptitious but a let’s-face-it-we-all-do-it-kind-of-way. I am almost ALWAYS AWKWARD when I interact in person for the first time with someone I’ve searched or @ messaged on Twitter a lot. Two ways to think about this, both which make me act stupid.

1.) When I am the internet stalker: My fandom of a Google or Twitter @ subject leads to paranoia that the subject knows that I’ve been keeping up too closely with his feed because of my curiosity and interest. (This is why I was so strange everytime I saw Brian Stelter at SXSW, even though my friends say he is totally a normal, nice, dweeby dude.)

2.) When someone else has internet stalked me: This is usually revealed in a reference to something I tweet about a lot (like how someone saw a bacon-flavored something and thought of me). My response is always initial delight. “YOU LIKE BACON TOO? IT IS SO DELICIOUS, RIGHT?” But then, if I marinate on this too long, I start asking the vexing larger questions. Is it socially acceptable yet to reveal your stalkerdom? Maybe I feel weird on both ends of this situation because it’s not.

I quizzed my friend (over Gchat, natch). Let’s call her Megan:

Megan: I was very taken aback when I went on a date with someone who candidly told me that he had read my Twitter feed and then referenced things I had tweeted about like two months ago.

Me: What did it make you think?

Megan: I thought, “Why doesn’t he have the social skills to pretend he didn’t do that?” Because I had also stalked him too but I wasn’t going to admit it.

Me: So the reveal of it is somehow socially unacceptable.

Megan: Yeah… it’s almost as if you are exposing someone. Or forcing them to be intimate with you on this level you aren’t ready for. Because they have this info about you that you didn’t give them, but also, it’s all on a public forum, so why shouldn’t they know it?

And to use Hamlet once again, there’s the rub. Most of us admit to doing this sort of searching of near-strangers, and certain social media tools like Instagram allow us to go as far as seeing someone else’s day through their eyes. But I still can’t face some of my Twitter friends in person without feeling like a total dork/loser/insane person. When will this not be weird? When will internet stalkerdom be socially bearable?

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