The terrible task of documenting abuse

This is a cross-post from the Block Party newsletter. 

Some number of years ago, a man who’d first found me from my posts on Quora started messaging me.

Please pardon me for some fuzziness of recall in this account — I could trawl through digital history to find specifics, but I think the emotional truth of the story comes through without them, and as you’ll see, part of the story is the difficulty of experiencing and re-visiting the trauma.

It began innocuously, with a vague, generic professional inquiry in a Quora private message. I didn’t respond. He messaged a few more times. I still didn’t respond; why would I? I didn’t know this person, and increasingly I was nervous to even acknowledge receipt of his messages as things escalated. He became more frenetic, threatening, and sexually explicit, demanding that I call him, meet him. He created accounts on Twitter to harass me, a whack-a-mole game as I’d block them and he’d set up new ones. On Facebook, he wrote deranged status updates about me, set them to public, and paid to promote them. He collected photos of me from the Internet and put them in a Facebook album, again, set to public — for what purpose, I don’t know. With physical threats in the mix, I worried about my safety. My employer was a matter of very public knowledge, the location of our office well-marked on Google Maps and brightly identifiable in real life by the company logo above the lobby doors. I let office security know to watch out for him. My home address was not so stupidly obvious to find, but it would be no difficult task for him to tail me home on my daily commute. I alerted the front desk of my apartment complex as well, though they shrugged off my concerns. For weeks, stretching into months, I lived in fear. Online, I had to keep an eye on all my social accounts as well as his; offline, I was constantly scanning, assessing threat level.

I didn’t know what to do. Someone told me I needed to be on record, at least once, telling him to stop. I carefully composed a Facebook message to that effect, sent it and blocked him. He didn’t stop. Someone else told me I should document everything and file with the police, so there’d be an official record with law enforcement.

So I forced myself through the painful process of documenting everything. Well, not everything; that would have been too much. Just enough to put together a report. And I’d already blocked and reported some of his accounts, which meant I couldn’t access some of the data anymore. For what did remain, the dread of opening those inboxes, clicking through his profiles, viewing the close-up permalink pages for his public posts to grab the URLs, being forced to see and experience the abuse again—it ate at me. I had to settle the emotional turbulence before I could even get started. But it’s not like bracing yourself to jump into the ocean for a swim, where the cold sting of the initial plunge recedes and then it’s fine, you keep moving and it’s fine. The task of collecting evidence of abuse and harassment exacts a psychological toll that only gets worse. It’s a weight on your mental health that only grows heavier. It’s not made any easier by the sheer tedium of the process. I had to screenshot everything; manually track platform, format, timestamp, and permalink metadata (“private Facebook message on <mm-dd-yyyy, hh:mm>, <url>”, “Twitter @reply from @<handle> on <mm-dd-yyyy, hh:mm>, <url>”); rename the files and organise them in folders; compile a timeline of activity in spreadsheet and plain text formats; highlight the most alarming messages; build the narrative for the bored San Francisco Police Department officer who’d show up at my apartment to tell me I was fussing over something that was harmless. “Most likely nothing will happen,” he said. “Let me know if something does.” I wanted to scream in frustration. I didn’t want anything to happen. That was the point. But at least I’d done the job of documenting the abuse in case anyone ever needed to see a paper trail.


This is far from the only example in my own life where I’ve had to take on the terrible task of documenting abuse, though it’s at least distant enough in time that I can suppress my unease in describing it to a public audience. I also have multiple ongoing situations right now; it’s a bit terrifying to even allude to them here, much less discuss them.

One thing that’s marginally better this time around: I get to use new tools that we’re building at Block Party to make the process that little bit easier. Putting aside the minor emotional scarring I get whenever I scan my harassers’ accounts for threats, being able to test our latest watchlist and documentation features has been an absolute delight. The process of adding users and tweets to my Lockout Folder for evidence preservation is buttery smooth—no more Dropbox folders titled “harassment”, stuffed full of tweet screenshots that I have to zoom in and out of when I’m searching for something, no more Notes files listing out permalink after permalink with manually annotated dates and timestamps. Once an account is on my watchlist, Block Party collects future mentions from them and alerts me to their activity. It’s exhausting to have to manage this problem at all, but at least the tools are getting better.

Screenshots of Block Party’s watchlist tab with “Add Tweet” functionality to save evidence and keep an eye on troublesome users.


In the saddest hilarious way, SFPD failed spectacularly at even filing my report. When I first showed the officer everything on my laptop, he tried to scribble down the abusive content on his long yellow legal pad, a futile task when there were dozens and dozens of messages and digital multimedia to log. I offered to email my documentation instead, and he gave me his email address to send it over. The next day, I got his reply: “Sorry, I can’t see the pictures you’ve included, I don’t have Internet on my email.”

I still don’t have the full details on what happened afterwards. From what I gleaned second-hand through private sources, my harasser did in fact have a history of assault in addition to a history of bipolar disorder. There may have been a restraining order at some point. His threats to someone else were serious enough for the police to confront him and force him to check himself into a mental hospital for help. He tried to contact me a couple times afterwards, the most recent after I’d started Block Party. He’d looked me up and seen I was working on solutions for online harassment. He was apologetic, surmising correctly that it was because of him and people like him that I’d chosen to dedicate this next chapter of my career and life to working on this problem. He offered some advice: Create accountability. If I had known there’d be accountability for my actions, he said, I wouldn’t have done those things. That’s the ultimate solution for harassment. Stop people from doing it in the first place.

We’re still a far cry from creating systemic accountability. That’s a hard problem that extends beyond the digital platforms that enable abuse, to a society where laws and law enforcement are rotted with institutional racism and misogyny, fail to protect those most at risk and marginalised, and are hopelessly out of date when it comes to technology. But one small step towards creating that accountability is making it easier to document abuse and show the receipts, and we’ll start there.

Ask Me Anything About Reddit’s Cesspit of Toxicity

[content warning: violence, trauma, harassment]

The irony is not lost on me that I incited a tidal wave of harassment from Reddit’s cesspit of toxicity because I went in there to talk about working on anti-harassment software. It was the perfect case in point for why we’re building what we’re building at Block Party. And all the same, it was a torturous way to re-learn a lesson I’ve already had beaten into my psyche from more than 15 years of online bullying, hate, abuse, and stalking.

I was so foolishly optimistic about how a Reddit AMA might go

When someone first suggested the idea of going on Reddit, I instinctively recoiled from the idea, knowing the site’s reputation — but I ignored my intuition and last week I went in naively optimistic about doing an AMA (“ask me anything”) question and answer session in the subreddit r/IAmA/. I thought it would be a good opportunity to share more about how I came to be working on Block Party and to engage in genuine discourse about the problem of online harassment and our product thinking on how to solve it. Perhaps I would get questions about what I’ve learned from building and running a distributed team, or other lessons from working in Silicon Valley and then leaving for less tech-saturated locales. Or about diversity and inclusion, especially as I just released a course for startup founders. When I announced on Twitter that I would be doing a Reddit AMA, I even got a few good questions there: about COVID and re-opening, collaboration with social media platforms, crowdsourcing of Block Party’s filters.

My reddit AMA “proof”.
My Reddit AMA “proof”, taken before I had any idea what trauma was about to transpire.

The site tagline is “Reddit gives you the best of the internet in one place”. I shudder to think what the worst of it is, Reddit is vile beyond belief

I barely started the AMA on Reddit before the troll brigade arrived. They quickly overtook the page with bad faith “questions”, gotchas, twisted accusations, and insulting and abusive comments. They coordinated to downvote all of my answers into oblivion, as Reddit’s platform hides content that has been excessively downvoted. As I struggled to surface my answers, they taunted me about my alleged silence: “She has no answer because her views are wrong.” “She didn’t answer because she hates asian americans..” It felt like a violent mob had ambushed me and was forcing me to the ground, muzzling me, and violating me. Typically authors will start their AMA, let questions come in for a while, then write answers for an hour, maybe longer if they’re generous. I tried, I really tried, even as I write this now I’m crying as the feeling of trauma resurfaces, for four hours I tried, fighting through the abuse to write candid, thoughtful answers about what we’re working on with Block Party and how we’re trying to solve online harassment, I addressed willful misinterpretations of our privacy policy, questions about filter bubbles and polarization, data or lack thereof on the problem of online harassment, the role of machine learning in content moderation, diversity and inclusion in hiring, diversity and inclusion outside of America, activism, how Asian Americans figure in racial inequity conversations — no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t matter. Even for innocuous content, like the list of books I’m currently reading, I got downvoted into negative territory and an asshat reply saying I wasn’t actually reading those books and I cherry-picked those to be over-the-top. The harassment spilled over into Reddit direct chats, onto Twitter, into waitlist signups for Block Party where people submitted flagrantly racist and other abusive content.

Even worse than the harassment on my AMA itself was Reddit’s infuriating response: blaming me and refusing to take responsibility

Worse than the trauma of the AMA itself, which landed on the Reddit homepage and got up to 4k+ comments, the overwhelming majority of which were toxic and vile, was the response. My god, the response. From Reddit, I got only blame, gaslighting, a refusal to take any responsibility, and a bland declaration that they do not condone harassment on their site. Then they put the onus on me to report any “policy-breaking comments” so they could investigate — yes, because of course it should be the person being targeted with abuse who’s responsible for wading through the vileness to clean it up. One r/IAmA/ moderator went onto Twitter as well to blame me for apparently doing it “wrong”. There were more who told me it wasn’t Reddit’s fault that people just didn’t like my answers. Friends privately reached out to Reddit employees, including some that I know and (used to) regard as friends. A number of these people work in policy and product, areas directly responsible for a situation like this. The responses ranged from a reiteration of putting the blame on me, to silence and refusal to acknowledge the situation, much less express any sympathy. The absolute abdication of accountability has been the most angering part of the whole experience.

None of this is new. Reddit’s problems with harassment have been documented widely for many years. I am no expert on Reddit as I previously steered far clear of it and apart from my mistake last week to do an AMA, will do so in the future; but it is clear that they do not care to make even the most basic fixes to check the metastasis of the hate on their platform.

The sleight of hand Reddit is attempting in order to cast the blame on me is this: An error in how my AMA was posted prevented the pathetically meager anti-harassment protections they do have from kicking in (though all those would have done was prevent my answers from being downvoted into oblivion, it would not have been any defense against the thousands of trolls showing up to post harassing content). The claim is that I didn’t know how to use the site so it’s my fault. To be very clear, though, the error occurred on the platform side. And even if I had made a mistake because Reddit’s usability is so poor and it is a fundamentally user-unfriendly product, ultimately that is still on them. If Redditors pick up on this post and use technical nit-picking to try to discredit me, that only further proves my point. All of this finger-pointing from Reddit company, the official Twitter account, the employees, the moderators, the users, is merely a means of distracting from their own culpability.

Try to follow, if you want. Here’s the “technical issue”: Someone else can schedule an AMA on your behalf, but if so, then it may post from their account, such that the OP does not match your account even if yours is marked correctly as the person conducting the AMA. In this scenario, you have no downvote brigade protections, and even as the AMA author, your answers can be disappeared. You’re shit outta luck, sorry.

I find Reddit’s deflection of the blame enraging. First, my teammate and I did nothing wrong in how we scheduled and conducted the AMA. We filled out all the boxes correctly. She put her username in the box for who was scheduling the AMA, and my username in the box for who was conducting the AMA. If you need any proof of that, my account was flaired correctly as the one doing the AMA. Second, it was never our responsibility to reverse-engineer Reddit’s pathetic anti-harassment protections to understand that there is only one way to avoid the silencing that comes from coordinated downvoting. Third, the true problem is that Reddit’s voting mechanisms have this pernicious silencing effect on people from minority or marginalized communities. This is well known to mods as well as researchers. One sympathetic mod did let me know that this happens elsewhere too: For example, Black scientists in r/science/ getting so downvoted by racists that their posts disappear, even when they were expressly invited to do panel discussions on their areas of expertise. This admission of a pervasive issue leads to the next point: Fourth, it’s not actually that fucking hard to fix this. I am a software engineer who was literally one of the first engineers at Quora, another consumer web scale user-generated content site with answers, comments, voting, and ranking. Guess what, all you need to do to protect an answer from being collapsed is to add a not-collapsible boolean to it. Yes/no. That’s it. If moderators see an answer being inappropriately hidden, someone being unfairly silenced, it is possible, and not just possible but infuriatingly simple, to fix it. (Yes, I know that this is only one small tool that is needed and there are much broader issues, but even so, it seems stupid obvious to me to build this.) I cannot believe the condescension of the multiple responses I got from Reddit team and mods that the situation was “not possible to fix”, “it’s a technical issue”. Fifth, even if somehow the most basic engineering change is impossible to prioritize, help docs and other copy are easy to change. At very least, the scheduling tool should have an aggressive, big, bold warning to AMA participants that the system has this vulnerability.

Online harassment is a form of violence

Online harassment is a form of violence. What I experienced on Reddit was a coordinated, sustained act of violence. And not only did the authorities and responsible parties not stop it, they gaslit and blamed the victim. My own friends, the ones who could do something, merely looked away. They were unable to offer even an acknowledgement of the situation, much less a modicum of sympathy. I am still shaking in anger and disappointment.

If you have never experienced violence in this way, it can be hard to understand how traumatic it is. Nowhere is safe. I know what it’s like to be physically stalked and threatened, to be fearful of my security in the offline world, and that is bad enough. Sometimes I wake up in a panic wondering if I forgot to lock my door, and I still start when I hear unexpected sounds outside my flat. But at least there are places that I can lock myself in and hide away, and I can be with friends who protect me. Online, the same platforms where I get encouragement and solidarity from supporters are the ones where I receive harassment as well. Do you know the feeling when someone makes a remark that bothers you and it sticks, even when you try to shrug it off? It might not even be directed at you, or maybe it is but you know it’s not true, just a throwaway insult, but it keeps running through your head. Imagine that, multiplied by thousands, a mob feeding off its own energy, shouting you down with perverted, nasty things, choking your protests into silence, declaring their freedom of speech. Your supporters might be trying to get through, too, but it’s hard to hear them through the onslaught of abuse. The psychological toll is terrible. I have dealt with online harassment for a long time, but this past week crushed me. I haven’t been able to sleep through the night, despite the Ambien, anti-anxiety medication, CBD, melatonin, essential oils, meditation, anything I could possibly try. My resting heart rate spiked 20% the day of the Reddit AMA and my physiological state remains extremely poor.

I also have to live with the fear and possibility that the online harassment will escalate, that I will have yet more reason to fear for my physical safety. Just in the last few days there have been multiple news stories about people being shot dead, their murderers groomed and goaded on by toxic communities like Reddit’s, a noxious trail of online hate in their wake. People who have the power, influence, and ability to do something need to do it, not perform allyship on social media while disclaiming responsibility for harm directly attributable to their action or, more likely, inaction. I can only hope that they act faster in the future when danger and death is imminent.

Welcome to the life of being a startup founder

I have still not been able to take a break. I am the solo founder of a very early stage startup and things are always go-go-go-go-go.

The latest urgent, p1 TODO for Block Party is one triggered entirely by the Reddit situation. If you hazard a glimpse at the AMA page, there are strenuous objections to our privacy policy, and although it was a standard one that we picked up from our original legal counsel and we do absolutely none of the nefarious things that people accuse us of, they twisted reality so much I felt we should address it. Numerous Redditors even pointed out that I used to work at Facebook as proof that I must be violating user privacy and selling user data — the cruel joke is that I was so put off by what I saw during my Facebook internship that I once wrote an answer on Quora decrying the cavalier disregard for people’s privacy, but my answer got downvoted into the negative by Facebook employees and collapsed. For the past week, I’ve been spending late nights with our current lawyer to draft a new custom privacy policy that makes it clear exactly what we do. For a startup like Block Party, which is at such an early stage and still has so few users, it feels like a waste of investor money, not to mention my time, to be combing over these legal documents, but I want to be clear on our commitment to putting the user first.

If we must grasp at silver linings, I am only more certain of the importance of what we’re working on at Block Party

The Redditors in my AMA perfectly illustrated the very need for “troll management” software, and though we didn’t need it, we did get additional validation for many of Block Party’s product intuitions and directions.

My biggest takeaway is that it’s quite clear platforms will not solve the problem of online harassment. The Reddit company stance has been that it’s not a priority to implement the product or engineering fixes that could turn back the tide on the toxic sludge. This doesn’t leave the moderators with much to work with, even when some good ones do care to try. In the case of my AMA, they were conspicuously absent, and though they very belatedly took some action to lock my AMA thread and do minor cleanup, all it did was leave the thread frozen with pages and pages of bad faith argumentation and misinterpretation and wrongful accusations that you had to scroll through before you could find anything I’d written.

To a further point about content moderation, there is a big difference between what’s not so egregious to be in violation of policy and what makes for reasonable, good faith discussion and a healthy community. Some of the most perverse trolling comes from people who are just clever enough to twist words around in a pseudo-intellectual fashion, with a pretense at being “genuine”, good at toeing the line and knowing how to avoid being removed or banned. As a participant in a community, or simply a guest, I have no interest in engaging with those people. I am interested in civil discourse that brings hard questions, contrary viewpoints, and challenges to my assumptions and thinking, but just because a platform has disallowed the shouting of racist and misogynistic slurs and will sometimes belatedly chastise people for it does not mean it has created a productive space for the interchange of ideas and information.

As for the most toxic, terrible comments on my AMA that were eventually removed, their absence from the thread now does nothing to remedy the damage that has already been wreaked, and the destruction of the evidence is only a setup for more gaslighting. I’ve already been deluged with the hate. I’ve already suffered for it, my mental well-being poisoned. Perhaps after I publish this essay, it will spur the moderators to remove even more of the bad comments. But it will only be worse that everything is gone. Abusers and harassers know this tactic well: Attack, then destroy the evidence. The most wretched of them will come back around to torment further. Even curious bystanders coming by later will not understand the violence and trauma that has happened, instead choosing to doubt the victim, wondering if things were really that bad. I know I’m supposed to document everything, but I cannot sacrifice any more of my mental health to do so.

And we have yet another data point for how pathological it is that platforms put the burden of managing abuse on those targeted by it. Reddit not only makes it so others cannot help you, but if they do try to—as in the case of my teammate helping me to schedule the AMA — you are subject to even worse terrors than if you went at it alone. At least for catching the harassment spillover to Twitter, I had Block Party to filter my @mentions, and my teammate was able to go through everything that collected in my Lockout Folder to block, unmute, or keep muted as appropriate. It was a relief to still be able to use Twitter without letting the trolls keep tearing down my mental health. And though some of those harassers fell back on their usual trick of deleting their Tweets, Block Party is keeping the receipts for me.

A deep thank you to those who gave me support, acknowledgment, and validation through the most traumatic episode of my life

I am grateful to the many people who reached out to offer their support and encouragement, the people who posted indignation and outrage on my behalf, the people who threw me “upvote parties” to try to rescue some of my answers, all these people who cared. I cried, in a good way, to read the messages from people who told me what my work has meant to them, how they have directly benefited from it or been inspired to pursue their careers. I cried, too, when reading the messages from people acknowledging and validating what happened. I needed to hear that I’m not crazy, not overreacting, that none of this is okay, that none of this is my fault. I haven’t been able to respond to every message but to all of you who have sent positivity my way, thank you.

Unfortunately, I have a creeping sense of dread that things are only going to get worse as the brokenness of the Internet becomes more and more overwhelming and the toxicity of the tech industry forces out those who have the heart and integrity to try to make it better. As for myself, I am doing all I can to stay in the fight. I’m doing everything I can to try to make things better, not just for me but for everyone who must endure this almost unbearable heaviness of online existence.

My #BLM booklist

In 2014, the summer of the Ferguson protests, I felt upset, helpless, and also woefully uneducated. At work, looking around at a majority white and Asian office, I was frustrated at colleagues who shrugged off my anxiety with a flippant “Ferguson? I don’t even know who that is,” but who was I to speak? I knew things were bad, and had been bad for a long time, but I didn’t really understand the experience of Black America or the extent of the country’s twisted racist legacy. Having spent time working on diversity and inclusion in tech, I was marginally more exposed to people in my friend and activist circles who were organizers or at least outspoken on Black issues, but in honesty, I couldn’t count that for anything.

At some point in my adult life, books became my default way of processing difficult situations and finding a way to progress myself through, onwards to better. Books are my therapy. Non-fiction books, selected carefully for their subject matter, give me new frameworks, insights, and vocabulary to understand events that have already unfolded as well as those to come or to mitigate and avoid. Memoirs and fiction books are an escape, sometimes, but other times a way to temporarily inhabit the worlds and experiences of others such that I may be more empathetic to them in the real world. With much love to the wonderful people in my life, it’s not fair to put on them the burden of navigating me through the morass of my sucking, swirling, half-formed thoughts and dredged-up emotions. The beauty of a good book is that someone, a brilliant someone, already devoted years of their life to putting together their best guidance for me. And I can get it for the price of a paperback and a few hours of time investment.

As #BlackLivesMatter became the rallying cry heard across America, I started reading. I’ve been reading for a while, now. But six years later, as the never-ending, brutal, unnecessary deaths of yet more Black people at the hands of American police have sparked protests across the country and around the world, I have to admit, I still feel horribly useless, and guilty for my complicity. The world hasn’t progressed, but can I say that I have, either? I often think about this quote from Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative:

I get frustrated when I hear people talking about ‘if I had been living during the time of slavery of course I would have been an abolitionist.’ And most people think that if they had been living when mobs were gathering to lynch black people in the courthouse lawn, they would have said something. Everybody imagines that if they were in Alabama in the 1960s they would have been marching with Dr. King.  And the truth of it is, I don’t think you can claim that, if today you are watching these systems be created that are incarcerating millions of people, throwing away the lives of millions of people, destroying communities, and you’re doing nothing.” 

The best I can say for myself is that I am now more well-educated, and in order to know the steps forward for deep, sustained change I do think it necessary to have a foundational understanding of the legacies and ongoing harms of colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and systemic disenfranchisement of Black people politically, socially, and economically; the strategies and successes of revolutionaries, activists, judges and legislators; ongoing work by organizers on the ground now; as well as the analogies to and intersections with other issues and movements — apartheid reparations, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, ethics and accountability in technology, to name but a few.

Here is a list of books I’ve found helpful in my own education and that I can recommend to others who are joining for the journey. Most are by Black authors, some speak to specific issues being discussed in the moment, others are more contextual, particularly the fiction books. I’ve also included a few British books for a perspective on Black issues in a different country with a longer and certainly no less troubling history. This is far from a comprehensive list but I am offering it in the hopes that some may find it useful. I’m happy to offer more specific recommendations as well for those who want more direction as to where to start.

Non-fiction:

  • The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
  • Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
  • So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
  • White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo
  • Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy
  • The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Good Immigrant, by Nikesh Shukla
  • Becoming, by Michelle Obama
  • Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
  • Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama
  • Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate First, by George Lakoff

Fiction:

  • The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
  • Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid
  • An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo
  • Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
  • Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson
  • How Long ’til Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin
  • Kindred, by Octavia Butler
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  • The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

This all being said, while the reading and learning is never done, my challenge to myself is to translate more of my energy to concrete actions. I’m starting with donations to people and organizations doing the work, and making sure to research, support, and vote for progressive candidates up and down the ballot. It’s not enough by far, and I’m asking for patience from those who don’t owe it to me, but I do intend to do more, and better.

#BLM protests in Trafalgar Square, London. May 31, 2020.

Next up on the reading queue:

  • How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The End of Policing, by Alex Vitale

Trail running

A meditation on being a startup founder

It’s been almost 20 years and I still remember the dread of Mile Day in high school gym class: four terrible loops around the track, greeted at the graceless end by the rest of the class long awaiting us, some of the cool popular athletic girls laughing in that mean girl way at the misery of the final finishers.

Last week I went out with no particular training and hit an 11.5 mile rocky trail run through the desert, up 1600 feet of elevation gain. One thought kept drifting through my mind as I pushed through the sand and gravel and rocks: A mile on this run is so much harder, and in so many ways I didn’t even know it could be harder! than a mile on one of those synthetic rubber tracks, but damn am I feeling so much stronger and more powerful and yes it still sucks and I’m hurting but I’m going to make it.

It reminded me of a cartoon I saw in a diversity & inclusion workshop a long time ago. There are two runners at the starting line of a race. One, to the left, is in his running uniform and cleats, sprint position, ready to tear down a smooth track lane. On the right is someone who doesn’t have proper athletic gear and is looking down a path that’s torn up, obstacles in her way, rain and weather adding insult and mockery to the course she’s about to run. Tell me, is it fair to compare their mile times?

In high school, in that artificial, controlled environment, we were all on the same track, close to perfect conditions for running our best. In the real world, in life, in work, it’s not so comparable. Some people are still on the track and others of us are out here on the trails. I think running is hard no matter what the conditions (“running never gets easier — you just get faster”), but I’ve learned it can be comically more difficult than I ever imagined. I’m going through unknown terrain, under hot desert sun, on a path so poorly marked and mislabeled I keep losing it, up rocky inclines, through dried out river washes that sap my energy as my feet keep slipping through the sand and gravel, dodging accidental cactus pricks, just barely avoiding face-plants when my shoes catch against rocks, the strap of my hydration vest rubbing against a blistered bug bite.


I feel like I’m doing a miserably tough trail run version of the startup founder race. Of course startups are always hard. But I’m a solo female founder, working on a problem that most of the gatekeepers of capital and power neither understand nor empathize with. I’m an activist trying my utmost to dismantle those systems of bias and privilege that have elevated them and kept them floating in those roles. As a competent and experienced software engineer in my own right, I also threaten some people’s notions of what a woman in tech might be capable of. Anticipating the reply guys who’ll come along to tell me it’s unbecoming of me to be sure of my worth, I will not enumerate all the ways in which I am outrageously better than most of my peers and yet still am treated with far less respect or even outright disrespect.

I have been sexually harassed during fundraising. I have had different investors inquire about my age and relationship status and tell me about their first time having sex. In roomfuls of men, I have been completely ignored and talked over, despite being the expert in the room. Although Twitter is the water cooler of the tech industry, on that platform being a woman of color with an opinion and a minor following means I deal with harassment every day, some drive-by, some extremely targeted and persistent, spanning 6+ years by this point. I get racism, misogyny, sexually explicit threats, links to Asian porn, incoherent and disturbing professions of love, conspiracy theories involving me and a former FBI director, all sorts of anonymous heroes just letting me know that I’m off-putting to men and I would be more attractive and dateable if I weren’t so angry. I have been stalked in real life and then gaslit by law enforcement and private security firms trying to make me feel like I’m self-obsessed.

Over and over I’ve had men who purport to be advocates of diversity & inclusion try to take advantage of me and my company, costing me months of invaluable time, attention, and energy, not to mention so many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, billed by the 6 minute increment. One, I discovered later, has a pattern of using his position of fame and wealth to prey on female founders, I suppose because we are more vulnerable. A potential co-founder, after negotiating vigorously for special terms that I almost acceded to, accidentally emailed me his diary full of unflattering and coded sexist thoughts about me, wondering if I would be able to step up to the role of CEO. Another job candidate sent repeated emails after a bombed interview and subsequent rejection berating me for making a huge mistake and not seeing that he would be a huge asset to the team and telling me I was a bad interviewer anyways.

The stories go on. It’s a lot of abuse to take, in so many different forms.

Through all of this, I’m just trying to build my company. The great irony is that everything I’m trying to do directly addresses the adversity I’ve had to face and stare down. The tech industry’s dearth of diversity, ethics, and accountability has led us to a place where our real and digital worlds are rife with harassment, and disproportionately women, minorities, and other marginalized groups bear the brunt of it. I started my company not only to give people a safer experience online, to empower them and protect them from bullying and abuse, but also to attempt another existence proof for a company run by a woman, with a diverse team, that prioritizes the well-being of our users.

The people who care most deeply for me ask me if it’s worth it to put myself through all of the pain, suffering, and stress. But how could I not? I’m one of the few that even has the privilege to try. I am immensely lucky to be able to do what I do. And my crucible of experiences makes me uniquely suited and determined to solve the problems I’m trying to solve.

I was never a gifted runner but by force of will and perseverance over decades I can now casually do the kind of trail running that I once thought sheer impossibility. The rocks, the hills, the sun, the heat, the dehydration, everything that makes the running a challenge is that much more a reminder that I’m alive and it’s glorious to be able to move through this beautiful world. And it’s that same endurance and brutality of training that I trust will make me stronger, faster, and more resilient as a founder, an activist, and someone trying to make a little bit of positive difference.

A gearhead post for digital nomad coders

The standard issue tote bag for all new members of the women’s co-working space The Wing exuberantly describes us as:

T A K I N G . U P . S P A C E

That is indeed exceedingly accurate for me when I’m at the Wing, though more by coincidence of my digital nomad coder travel setup than an intentional effort to manspread. I have a widescreen monitor at home, but I’m so frequently away from home that I had to find a better solution than collapsing all work down to my 13″ MacBook Air screen. In particular, my coding workflow typically consists of having many screens of code from different files open side-by-side, white and fluorescent green on black background, very movie hacker stereotypical of me. I also like a couple other Terminal windows or tabs open for monitoring logs and build status, or testing code in an IPython shell. The 13″ screen only fits 2 columns, and it gets squishy if I reserve any space for my other shell needs.

Back in the days of being geographically fixed and working from an office where I had a beautiful Thunderbolt display, my primary concern was that my handbag be able to fit my laptop. Now I’ve come to terms with the fact that I must carry a sturdy backpack stuffed full of electronics all the time. Apart from being far less stylish and far more bulky, though, I’m quite happy with the setup I’ve landed on.

The core electronics:

  • 2019 13″ MacBook Air, which has a 1.6GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. It is gold and decorated with an Arya Stark sticker because
  • ASUS ZenScreen MB16AC, which is just a flat panel that connects and charges off the same USB-C to USB-C cable plugged into the computer
  • Apple Magic Mouse, in space gray for aesthetics
  • Apple Magic Keyboard, the one with a numpad, only because that was the one size that came in space gray, and again, aesthetics
  • iPhone 11 Pro, which is my main phone
  • Pixel 3A, which is on Google Fi and serves primarily as my international wifi hotspot, but also has a really nice camera with incredible Night Sight
  • AirPod Pros, necessary for the many video calls inherent to distributed work
  • Mophie external battery pack, Lightning charging tip built in, rose gold, obviously

Cables, chargers, miscellany:

  • MacBook Air charger, with a blockhead adapter for American outlets and a UK adapter for when I’m there
  • USB-C to Lightning cable for charging the iPhone off the MacBook Air
  • USB-C to USB-C cable for charging the Pixel off the MacBook Air
  • USB-C to USB-C cable for the ASUS screen
  • The shell of a metal pen that has lost its inky bit and whose sole function is to be inserted into a hole at the bottom right corner of the ASUS screen to prop it up. It came with the screen and I’m sure some industrial designer thought they were super clever when they came up with this. This is the silliest part of my setup
  • A global travel adapter with 1 one outlet that takes any wall plug, 4 USB-A ports, and 1 USB-C port
  • USB-A to Lightning cable for charging the iPhone off the wall adapter
  • USB-A to USB-C cable for charging the Pixel off the wall adapter
  • USB-A to Fitbit Inspire HR charging cable
  • USB-A to dual-tipped Lightning/micro-USB cable for charging the Mophie

Packing it all up:

  • Away backpack, large, light blue, designed with an open back flap that can be slipped over the handles of an Away carry-on luggage which of course I also have in matching light blue
  • Leather case for the MacBook Air, navy blue, from Apple
  • Standard-issue screen cover for the ASUS screen
  • A poorly fitting garment travel bag that I Velcro around the keyboard and mouse to avoid too much scuffing during transit
  • Small felt ProCase for the MacBook Air charger and the 2 USB-C phone chargers. If I’m dropping down to laptop-only for a lightweight work session, I only need this bag of chargers
  • Larger Herschel cosmetics bag re-appropriated to store the aforementioned felt cable case, as well as the ASUS screen connector cable, and sometimes the global travel adapter
  • The global travel adapter always has the 4 USB-A cables plugged in, and I use it in the States as well as abroad. It’s nice to not have to manage all those cables separately
  • Leather pencil case for my pens and very importantly the fake pen that is my screen stand

It takes a few minutes to do setup and teardown but the larger second screen and external keyboard and mouse do wonders for my productivity. I need it especially for coding but the extra screen space is useful for lots of other things as well, like reviewing designs and cross-referencing text documents.

I stood on a chair to take this photo. I know.

The things that don’t work so well:

  • The MacBook Air is slightly underpowered and occasionally Chrome or Slack chokes it up. Luckily I code in emacs which is much more lightweight than GUI editors; Atom completely destroyed my machine when I experimented with it
  • The MacBook Air only has two USB-C ports so when I have the external screen plugged in I have to choose between either charging the laptop itself or charging a phone off of it, plus the screen draws extra power so it is much slower for the computer to charge
  • The MacBook Air has issues with core audio services and the AirPod Pros have a lot of connectivity hiccups with the computer, though my previous AirPods (not Pros) were fine, and the AirPod Pros connect to my iPhone with no trouble
  • Google Fi service internationally is a lot less reliable than advertised, and God help you if you try to use the SIM in an iPhone. I set up dual SIM on my iPhone when I was still in the States and at first when I went overseas I liked being able to get the Google Fi data boosting on my iPhone, but then I started running into issues. Most importantly, Google Fi doesn’t support international data hotspots on iOS. I switched the SIM into the Pixel temporarily and was able to get things semi-working, but after that I couldn’t switch it back to the iPhone. Apparently the Google Fi SIM must be re-activated on the device in the States, so then the dual SIM situation was busted
  • With the Google Fi SIM relegated to a separate phone, it requires both battery and wifi hotspot management for that other phone
  • The Mophie I have doesn’t have a built-in charging cable for USB-C, only Lightning and micro-USB, so I can’t charge up the Pixel without carrying an additional cable
  • Back to the original point, T A K I N G . U P . S P A C E my setup is certainly guilty of and unless I’m at a co-working space or somewhere that it’s socially acceptable to pull out full coding equipment, I feel a bit embarrassed to use it. Come to think of it, though, I once saw someone with his desktop computer tower and full-size 25”+ monitor camped out in a 4-person corner booth at an otherwise completely packed Chiltern Firehouse; he had over-ear headphones on, hood up, computer glow on his face, and absolutely no concern about sitting in one of London’s most scene-y cocktail spots with dressy crowds around him paying 25 quid a cocktail and the deliberately sexy female serving staff in extremely clingy form-fitting pantsuits stalking around the dark and bustle. I thought he might be a Saudi prince or some such staying in a suite at the hotel and basking in the confidence of royalty or at least extreme oil wealth, but maybe I should just stop making excuses and learn to take up space so confidently

句號 Full Stop

I was recently in Taiwan for a few days and though I’m American born and raised, the trip reminded me how much Taiwan feels like a second home. There’s family and generational history and culture, of course, but more than I might have anticipated when I was struggling through painful hours of Chinese homework, it feels exceptionally like home because of the language. Seeing Traditional Chinese everywhere, on signs and advertisements and newspapers and menus; hearing Taiwan-accented Mandarin everywhere, from transit announcements and store attendants and street passersby; and most importantly, being able to understand it all — I feel connected to the place. I suppose I get some sense of belonging from being part of the exclusive club of 1 billion plus who know the language!

I’m what college course designations term a “bilingual speaker”, because I grew up in a Chinese-speaking household. I went to a weekly extracurricular Chinese school from grade 2 until grade 12. But I really only learned the language because I was obsessed with Mandarin pop when I was in high school and college; I went from slightly above-average ABC-level Chinese to newspaper-literate by studying song lyrics, copying them over and over in my notebook and translating them to English.

This song 句號 is the most recent release by G.E.M., a Chinese singer (originally from Hong Kong) who’s sometimes called the Taylor Swift of China. She’s a very talented singer with great vocal range who also composes and writes her own songs. And like Taylor Swift, who calls out gendered double standards and discrimination in her song “The Man”, in this song G.E.M. also addresses gender issues, describing a relationship where the long-term (male) partner cuts the woman down, unsettled and angered by her success, wanting her to always be an obedient little doll. It’s ambiguous in the song and sounds like it could be a romantic relationship, but she is actually referencing her previous record company Hummingbird Music — another good analogy to Taylor Swift, fighting against mediocre men at record companies bullying her about her music.

作詞:G.E.M.鄧紫棋 作曲:G.E.M.鄧紫棋
製作人&編曲:G.E.M.鄧紫棋 / T-Ma 馬敬恆

可惜我們終於來到 一個句號
What a shame, we’ve finally come to a full stop
窗外不願飛的蜂鳥 也在哀悼
Even the hummingbird that won’t leave the window is mourning
城市再也不會聽到 我們爭吵
The city will never hear our fights again
你會不會少了一點煩惱
Will you be a little bit less upset

回到十二年前 回憶就在眼前
Thinking back to 12 years ago, the memories right here
你帶著帽子 而我樣子 帶著靦腆
You were wearing a hat, I was shy
不過第一次的見面 你說
But when we first met, you said
你有先見 我的先天 被訓練過 我能有片天
You could see the future, I had talent, the sky was my limit
我當時天真 寡見鮮聞
Then, I was innocent, naive
不像成年人 有能力辨認
Not a grown woman, able to discern
不是為了賺了有錢分 我為我的前程
It wasn’t to make money, it was to build my career
希望我寫的歌裡面有更好的和弦聲
That I wanted to write songs with more beautiful melodies

時針滴滴答 你還記得嗎
The clock hand ticks, do you still remember
說句心裡話 你還懷念嗎
To tell the truth, do you still miss the old times
第一次發唱片 就一馬當先
The first time I released an album, I immediately shot to the top
從此在大場面 我不再站旁邊
From then on, I never again stood to the side at those big events

我是真的感謝 佩服你的眼界
I was truly thankful for and admired your vision
怎麼想到和你是帶著刺痛地完結
Who would have thought, we’d come to such a stinging, painful end

你看著一朵花慢慢萌芽
You saw a flower, slowly budding
我卻看著你意氣慢慢風發
But I saw your temper like a rising wind
慾望聚沙成塔 價值慢慢分岔
Desires like grains of sand gathered to form a castle, the value dividing
太多失望讓我對你的信任慢慢崩塌
After too many disappointments, my trust in you crumbled

可惜我們終於來到 一個句號
What a shame, we’ve finally come to a full stop
窗外不願飛的蜂鳥 也在哀悼
Even the hummingbird that won’t leave the window is mourning
城市再也不會聽到 我們爭吵
The city will never hear our fights again
你會不會少了一點煩惱
Will you be a little bit less upset

時針滴滴答 你還記得嗎
The clock hand ticks, do you still remember
說句心裡話 你還懷念嗎
To tell the truth, do you still miss the old times

你說我是個商品 沒有你我就不可以
You said I was just a commodity, without you I couldn’t be anything
這些扭曲的真理 差點毁掉我的自信
These twisted truths almost destroyed my self-confidence
如今的我已覺醒 如今我不再哭泣
Today I’ve awakened to the truth, I will cry no more
再不怕堅持自己 做你沒做對的決定
No longer afraid to persevere in myself, I will redo the decisions that you made wrong for me

你知道嗎 這一輩子除了我的爸爸
Did you know, my whole life, apart from my father
你曾是我最信任的男人吧
You were the man I trusted most
但空白的娃娃 總會慢慢長大
But the blank doll of a little girl eventually grows up
抱歉我沒法永遠當你聽話的傻瓜
Sorry I can’t forever be the fool that just obeys you
可惜我們終於來到 (終於來到) 一個句號 (一個句號)
What a shame, we’ve finally come to (finally come to) a full stop (a full stop)

窗外不願飛的蜂鳥 也在哀悼
Even the hummingbird that won’t leave the window is mourning
城市再也不會聽到 (不會聽到) 我們爭吵 (我們的爭吵)
The city will never hear (will never hear) our fights (our fights) again
你會不會少了一點煩惱 (我們終於來到 一個句號)
Will you be a little bit less upset (we’ve finally come to a full stop)

(可惜我們終於來到) 多少年裡 多少遍你 (一個句號) 多少錯卻沒多少歉意
(What a shame, we’ve finally come to) how many years, how many times (a full stop) how many wrongs, not so many apologies
(窗外不願飛的蜂鳥) 但過去了就不再介意 (也在哀悼) 把珍貴的放心裡 把痛的傷的全都忘記
(The hummingbird that won’t leave the window) But let bygones be bygones (it’s also mourning) Keep what was precious in our hearts, let’s forget the hurting wounds
(城市再也不會聽到) 我青春的全部回憶 (我們爭吵) 那愛的恨的全都是你
(The city will never hear again) All the memories of my youth (our fights) All I loved and all I hated, it was all you
(你會不會少了一點煩惱) 希望你偶爾也會想起 就讓我真心真意 把歌唱完重新開始
(Will you be a little bit less upset) I hope you will remember ever so often, let me sing this song to the end sincerely and wholeheartedly, and then start fresh

時針滴滴答 你還記得嗎
The clock hand ticks, do you still remember
說句心裡話 你還懷念嗎
To tell the truth, do you still miss the old times