Matt Gemmell

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Responsibility

Personal 6 min read

About a year ago, I opened a new text file on my computer, then I used a random name generator to create a female name. I typed it into the text file. It was Lizzie Collins.

It’s not a great name (“Lizzie” is a bit juvenile to my ear), but it was just a placeholder, and I knew I’d change it later. I’d have been better off just skipping the random generator and choosing a name myself, but it’s something I always find difficult when I’m writing fiction. Her name didn’t really matter anyway.

What mattered was that she was going to be a new and upcoming technology blogger – particularly for the Apple platforms – and she was going to have her own site. A female voice, in an industry that’s notoriously toxic to women.

A social experiment, if you will.

I’ve always liked the name “Samantha”. It’s a good, solid, feminine name. Pretty, and also offering several variants to choose from. My wife and I were having one of those conversations about baby names a few years ago, and Samantha was one of my choices, largely due to the Samantha Carter character from Stargate SG-1, played by Amanda Tapping. Then there’s the artificial intelligence called Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in the movie Her.

Maybe I could even switch Lizzie for Samantha. Sounds better already, doesn’t it?

But then there’s “Collins”. No offence meant to any Collinses out there, but it just doesn’t work for me. I need something with a little more flavour. She’s going to be American, and that means you can choose any old name from anywhere in the world. You can even phonetically mangle it as much as you like.

You probably haven’t encountered this, but there’s something called the Bielefeld Conspiracy, which is in fact a satire of conspiracy theories; it claims that the German city of Bielefeld doesn’t actually exist (even though it most certainly does).

Besides being a real, actual city, it makes a hell of a last name.

I allowed the project to lie dormant for a while. I had too much else to do. Fast forward to August 2015, and one Samantha Bielefeld springs into existence, first on Twitter, and then with her own brand new blog.

Sparse biographical information. Nothing conclusive on Google. A profile photo (since replaced) that could be found elsewhere on the web without any apparent link to the name. From Philadelphia, and 26 years old. Tech background. Interested in the Apple platforms. A new and upcoming technology blogger. A female voice.

But hold up for a moment. You need to catch up first. Five days ago as I write this, Samantha posted The Elephant in the Room, which you should quickly go and read. It’s about Marco Arment’s Pragmatic app pricing piece from the day before, which talks about his move to a voluntary patronage model for his podcasting app, Overcast. You should form your own interpretation and summary of each piece, and not take my word for either. Go. I’ll wait.

For me, the hinge-point of Marco’s piece was near the end, where he’s defending Overcast’s monetisation model against a notional claim of predatory pricing. He says:

Patronage works. I may be taking a pay cut for a while, but it’s still very profitable for an individual.

That’s the sentiment – if not the actual extract – that incensed Samantha. Her retort was essentially that, no, Marco; patronage works for you, and it’s still very profitable for you – with your other income streams, your Tumblr money, and your large audience of followers, readers, and listeners. Samantha felt that Marco was being disingenuous, and self-serving. She thought it was sort of a slap in the face to the vast majority of developers, who are little fish and don’t have the financial safety net to make such a move.

That’s my reading, anyway.

Now, I’ve known (of) Marco for a few years now. We chat from time to time. We have some banter, and I think we read each other’s stuff – I do read his. For the most part, he seems like a nice man. I mostly judge that from how evident it is that he loves his family. I don’t care about his cars and his coffee machines and his podcast microphones, but those are harmless enough obsessions, and I have my own corresponding ones.

He writes some good stuff. He also writes some crap. There’s much more good than crap. It’s all that I aspire to here too, and what’s crap for me might be your favourite stuff. That’s all fine.

I agree with Samantha.

I can’t speak to Marco’s intent – I assume it was positive and genuine, from my experience of his writing and my gut feeling – but his piece was tone deaf and indulgent at the very least. He also knows it was, because he’s a very intelligent and creative man, and honestly, he’s been a bit defensive about it. He’s usually quite humble and self-effacing, though, which is why I’ve been puzzled at some of the recent stuff that’s going on. I’m not sure what the underlying reason is.

So; Lizzie Collins. Lizzie Samantha Carter Bielefeld Collins. This is all a big intro, as is my style from time to time, before I tell you that I created the character of “Samantha Bielefeld” and started blogging as her, to make a point about toxic misogyny in tech – which I talk about quite a lot anyway. Right?

Nope.

Nothing to do with me.

Is Samantha Bielefeld a real person? Well, she’s a pseudonym, certainly; she told me that yesterday, then tweeted so a little later, and mentioned it in another post today.

That didn’t come as a surprise. I told my wife Lauren that the account was pseudonymous within the first couple of days, just based on a feeling. I’m not going to reproduce anyone else’s private words without permission (if I’ve spoken with you privately about this, please feel free to publish my words – unedited, and in context), but here’s what I said to Samantha when she told me:

You don’t owe me, or anyone, your identity. I knew yours was a pseudonym from the first, somehow – I mentioned it to my wife weeks ago. It doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t see how it changes anything.

Some people might try to say otherwise at some point, but I think it’s just an example of the kind of deflection that often occurs with a perceived-female voice, online or anywhere. I’d advise you not to get drawn into any defence of using a pseudonym. That’d be playing someone else’s game. Your words are all that matter.

Sounds pretty good, even as I read it again now. I’m pleased with that. It’s because I had to struggle for it, taking a few days to think. Did it matter? What’s the real issue here?

I decided that this whole thing is a lot simpler for me than I was tempted to make it. She says her name is Samantha (it’s the Bielefeld part that’s pseudonymous), and the other biographical info is accurate. I accept that at face value. Her implied “agenda” is… just to write about tech. I accept that at face value too.

Because that’s the thing – and stay with me here – that actually matters: this is about how I respond. This isn’t about principle, or theoretical nebulous motives and grudges, or the difficult interplay between authorship, authenticity, safety (of job, and/or self) and privacy. It’s not about any of that.

It’s about how I behave online. How I want to see things, and treat people. I read her words in The Elephant in the Room, and I thought… yep. I pretty much agree with that. I’d still agree even if the self-appointed (and unsanctioned, of course) Team Elephant were to produce documentary evidence that she’s a fifty-year-old Frenchman whose girlfriend Marco once stole. Because it just doesn’t matter. Only the words do.

Her post attacked Marco’s stance, and if it were me on the receiving end, I’d feel bad about that. Taken aback, hurt, angry; some combination of those feelings, and others besides. I can’t be certain what I’d do. Maybe I’d lash out. Maybe I’d do so publicly, and then there’d be fallout. God knows I’ve stood by before when my own not-tiny audience leapt to my perceived aid, and dog-piled onto someone.

That was a shitty thing for me to do, because having a following doesn’t just make patronage work, or let you take creative risks in product monetisation; it’s also a responsibility.

Now, that sucks, because you can’t possibly be held accountable for the actions of every sociopath who happened to click the Follow button on your Twitter profile. You can’t.

But you can discourage the worst abuses. You can shut down the public chat with your superfriends about “catfish accounts”, and veiled references to cheese. Come on, Grubers both. Come on, Merlin. Come on, Arments. You know so much better than this.

You enjoy the grace of an industry that’s horrible to women. You knew exactly what was going to happen, even before she started getting the rape-threat emails. You’re free to respond or to ignore, always, but you’re not entitled to turn a blind eye.

Mindfulness of mob reactions is the price of your follower count. Your status has privileges and consequences.

You can’t have one without the other.