Robert Scoble and Me
Foo Camp, the original unconference thrown by O’Reilly every year, is one of my favorite events in the technology world. In many ways, it’s often felt like one of the safest — it welcomes crazy ideas, breaks down social barriers, starts cross disciplinary conversations. Their format encourages people to contribute to sessions, or leave them, not if they’re angry, but just if they’re not getting much out of it or have much to contribute. People bounce around the space and ideas and conversations, and so many of the normal social distances break down into collaboration. This format is creative, and gave me access to both people and ideas that helped me shape my work and get it in front of a wider audience.
Where it is not as safe as I’d like is in sexual harassment — though to be clear, it’s not worse than any other tech conference. It’s just even more upsetting given the warmth and openness and honesty of the event in other ways. At one of my first talks on body hacking, one of the creators of VisiCalc sat in the front row and yelled out sexually explicit questions at me while everyone, not just me, grew increasingly uncomfortable. I avoided him after that, but these were attitudes you couldn’t avoid anywhere in tech.
In the early 2010s I was standing by the campfire on the Saturday night of Foo and a man was making out with a woman. Both were obviously drunk. Foo fosters a casual atmosphere, especially at night, and drinking is not uncommon. The making out was pretty weird though, and uncomfortable. I and some other friends chatted about it, loudly, about how it wasn’t appropriate here, but the pair went on anyway, either not hearing us or not caring. One of my friends, Artur Bergman, was getting a bit upset, and managed to break things up by starting a conversation with the woman, but before long the pair were back at it. He came back to me, on the verge of panic, and whispered in my ear. The woman was so drunkenly disoriented that she didn’t seem to understand what was happening, and the guy kept pouring drinks for her. It was quite possibly headed towards rape. He asked me what to do, and I realized the man in question was someone powerful. I blanked and said I wasn’t sure what to do, maybe try get them apart? My friend gave me a fantastic no-duh look and went back over to them. (Artur has given me permission to link to his account of the evening.)
At one point when they were separated the man in question was standing beside me at the camp fire. The person on the other side of me nervously decided to introduce us. It went roughly: “Robert, this is Quinn Norton. Quinn, this is Robert Scoble, he’s dangerous.” Scoble laughed and quickly said he wasn’t dangerous. I looked at him, keeping a blank expression, and said “I am.” I had learned this attitude after many years working in tech, that knowing how to deliver pain and putting everyone on notice that you would, was a way to avoid harassment. I knew this was fucked up, but it had been my normal for years.
And then, without any more warning, Scoble was on me. I felt one hand on my breast and his arm reaching around and grabbing my butt. Scoble is considerably bigger than I am, and I realized quickly I wasn’t going to be able to push him away. Meanwhile, the people around just watched, in what I can only imagine was stunned shock. I got a hand free and used a palm strike to the base of his chin to knock him back. It worked, he flew back and struggled to get his feet under him. I watched his feet carefully for that moment. He was unbalanced from the alcohol and I realized if he reached for me again I could pull him forward, bounce his face off my knee, then drive it into the ground. (I knew this move because it had been done to me, then the martial arts expert who did it picked me up and apologetically showed me how to do it.) He laughed and rubbed his chin and said something like “I like this one, she has spirit.” I said this: “If you touch me again I will break your nose.” I could still feel his hands on me, his intentions, all of it. He laughed again, and I repeated, “If you touch me again I will break your nose.” He didn’t grab me again after that.
Scoble went back to making out with the other inebriated woman before my friend established that she wasn’t able to consent in any way, was married to someone else, and wasn’t able to walk on her own. He interceded. She was propped up between two of my friends, walked away from the scene, and looked after for the evening. Both of those guys will have my undying respect for what they did that night. But that was also on my mind when I started thinking about telling this story.
I checked in with the organizers after that to make sure I would still be invited again if I broke Robert Scoble’s nose for sexually assaulting me. They said sure. But neither me nor they did or said anything more. I can’t be sure why for anyone but me, but I know why I decided to stay silent. I never knew who that woman was, I never had a name, contact information, anything. But I knew she was likely to get uncovered and destroyed if I spoke up. I had protected myself, the way I had for years in the technology scene, by threatening what should have been a professional contact with violence. I realized I was part of the problem that night — a woman’s safety in her career environment shouldn’t require credible threats of violence.
I talked to a lot of people after the weekend. Every time the question was raised of what I should do about Scoble assaulting me, I flashed back to another friend, K, who I’d known long before I got into this world. I got to know her when she married a friend of mine. She was a warmhearted and energetic person. But after one fateful party, she told her new husband that she was sexually assaulted. He threw her assaulter off a mailing list we were all on, and then quit as the list administrator. It blew up into a local scandal, and people demanded to know who the victim was. We tried to hide her identity, but her name got posted to the list. Once she was outed as a victim, the hate mail, the barrage of nasty questions, the endless accusations took, such a toll on her. Eventually, she took her own life. She’d just never been able to put it all back together after that.
A couple years after I met Scoble at Foo Camp I met up with a friend in San Francisco who also knew him. He introduced me to one of Scoble’s female co-workers. She agreed with angry enthusiasm about Scoble’s behavior. Harassment was just part of working with him, it was commonly known, one of our “Open Secrets” in the tech world. But again, I couldn’t come forward and name her for risk of destroying her career and possibly personal life. So, despite being in the best position a woman could hope for, despite having an ironclad reputation and pretty damn good at opsec, I’ve stayed silent. I couldn’t risk the other women.
For years when I saw Scoble’s name on something, or the mention of Rackspace, his employer, I flinched. I stopped consuming media that was supported by Rackspace, not wanting to feel those hands on me every time they were mentioned.
It’s been a long time now. With any luck, those other women will be hard to find if they want to be. Scoble has gotten sober and written apologetically about doing bad things.
I’m very mixed on this. I believe if we don’t provide paths of redemption for badly behaved people, we enable abusers as much as we do by remaining silent. I also believe we need to talk about these things plainly, and we need to seek to help and elevate the victims.
I learned when I was raped as a teenager that the complete demonization of the rapist is counterproductive. My rapist was my high school boyfriend, considered a better student and a boy with much better prospects than me. It was occasionally suggested that I’d be lucky to be raped by a boy of his stature, always with encouragement that I let the whole thing go. I never did. It was never said, but it was implied that I was trying to ruin a person whose life was, simply put, worth more than mine.
What we both were was fucked teenagers who needed help, and one had hurt the other. Not strange, not rare. Instead of addressing that, I was pushed out of school, and his emotional problems were ignored and neglected. In the end, my rapist and I were better allies to each other than our schools and families were.
The demonization of either rapists or victims is what makes the subject unapproachable, and doesn’t let anyone intercede to get abusive people the help they need, much less the victims. Men aren’t wild predators, but sometimes the broken ones can do very bad things. Sometimes, even if rarely, broken women do bad things to men. So the people who care for, love, or need these broken people cover for them. They destroy the people that seem the most likely to destroy their loved ones: the victims. Ultimately, this neglect destroys their loved ones, too.
I’ve watched this toxic dynamic play out in my life and others since I was a child. This is the first reason I became a fan of restorative justice. Not because I am some kind of soft-on-crime libtard, but because I’d rather less people got assaulted and raped in the future, and restorative justice prevents more terrible things from happening. But restorative justice is hard, for everyone, not just the aggressor and victim. It requires admitting and discussing painful issues, and looking for ways to make things whole, by the community, not just the people directly involved. This has to happen even when things can never be whole again.
I do hope Robert Scoble gets the help he needs, and I hope that the women he hurt get the help they (we) need. And I hope that Scoble and the people who helped Scoble perpetrate this violence against the women around him spend their time lifting up the careers of these women, as some small recompense for what they endured in their workplace.
I’ve corrected this text: I previously misplaced the timing of my meeting with Scoble’s coworker. It was in two years later, rather than a few weeks. I’ve also added my friend Artur’s account of helping the drunk woman and linked to his tweets retelling the story.