21 March 2013

Dot coms and dongles

I worked at a dot com for a few years during the heady days of the Web bubble. While I never got a tribal tattoo, I did dutifully line my desk with action figures and engage in office hijinks such as making an enormous mobile out of AOL free trial CDs and ordering single rolls of lifesavers from kosmo.com. In other words, I was trying to live the New Economy dream of the office as a living space. After the 80s and 90s had seen the Baby Boomers cede more and more of their private lives to their companies in the form of pagers, cell phones, and weekend hours, we of Generation X were going to turn the tables and make our offices into crazy playrooms and reclaim those lost Saturdays in the form of slack.

I began my adventures in the Web trade in '99 just as streaming media was becoming a thing. An ongoing fascination for some of the women in my office was a series of video feeds that originated in a strip club in New Jersey: the club's website showed a grid of four different camera views of the private (or apparently, not-so-private) rooms in which patrons got solo performances. When she caught a glimpse of action in an open browser window, one of my co-workers would shout: "Lap dance in quad three!" and a collective giggle would pass through the office as everyone commented on the stripper's nails or the patron's polo shirt.

While I'm sure this sort of thing will strike many as harassment, or at least terribly inappropriate for the workplace, for us it made a weird sort of sense. These sorts of transgressions served as passwords into the clubhouse and this wasn't no girls allowed. If anything, the women in my office were more given to rude jokes and time-wasting. This was a young industry and they were establishing from the beginning that there would be no double standards of behavior. The utopian vision was that women and men would work side by side, united by a common love of fart jokes. Well, at least until the bubble burst and everyone got laid off in 2002.

I thought about my old job when I heard about the controversy surrounding an off-color remark at Pycon, a tech conference, yesterday. Two men were joking to each other about big dongles while seated behind a woman who took offense—and then took a snapshot which she tweeted. In the ensuing fallout, one of the men has lost his job and the woman has received death threats. It's a sad case and one that I can see from all sides—well, not from the side of the company that fired the guy, that was pretty awful. I'm sure the two men were not intending to harass; I'm also sure that the woman felt harassed. But what she would have made of my old office, I can't say.

Sadly, I see no clear moral to any of this. I don't want to support harassment, but I also like living in a world where consenting co-workers can make anatomical jokes to each other, regardless of gender. I want a standard of professionalism; I also want people to be comfortable being silly. Perhaps the takeaway here is to always be careful what you say. But in the immortal words of Frances, "Being careful is not as much fun as being friends."

Update: It appears that the woman who tweeted the image has also been fired. Let me go down on record on the side of no one getting fired on either side. C'mon, companies, stop being so awful.    

Dongle image by Alphathon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons