Design Patterns for being creepy: Playing The Odds

Recently a friend told me this story. She had given a presentation at a conference and soon after started receiving messages from a guy that wanted to talk more about the topic. He was very insistent that she was the only person that would understand his situation. Not wanting to be rude, she offered they continue in email but he wanted to meet in person. His requests became more and more demanding over time. It became obvious that he wasn't looking for mentoring or advice. He wanted a date.

She had no interest in that.

Unsure what to do, she asked a few other female attendees for advice. What a surprise to discover that the same guy had also contacted them and was playing the same game. In fact, she later found out 5 women that had attended the conference were receiving the same treatment.

Yes. Really.

Wait... it gets worse.

This is the third conference I've seen this happen. This isn't just a problem with one particular conference or even one kind of conference.

So, it isn't a coincidence, this is an M.O.

I call this pattern "playing the odds". You approach every woman that attends a conference assuming that odds are in favor that at least one will say "yes".

I'm not sure what is more insulting: the assumption that any female speaker is automatically available or interested in dating, or that the women wouldn't see right through him.

The good news in all three cases is that the conference organizers handled the situation really well once they were aware of the situation.

So, guys, if you ever think you are the first person to think of doing this, I have some sad news for you. First, you aren't the first. Second, it won't work.

To the women that speak at conferences, now that you know this is a thing, I hope it is easier to spot.

The problem is that there is no transparency in the system. It isn't obvious if the guy is doing this to a lot of women because sharing such information is difficult. It would be uncomfortable to share this information. There are many privacy concerns, in particular if the guy was contacting the women for legitimate reasons, a false-positive being publicly announced would be... bad.

If only there was a confidential service where people could register "so-and-so is contacting me saying x-y-z". If multiple people reported the same thing, it would let all parties know.

I was considering offering such a service. The implementation would be quite simple. I would set up an email inbox. Women would send messages with a subject line that contained the person's email address, name, and whether their approach was "maybe" or "very" creepy. I would check the inbox daily. For example my inbox might look like this:

Subject: [email protected] Joe Baker  maybe
Subject: [email protected] Mark Jones  maybe
Subject: [email protected] Ken Art  maybe
Subject: [email protected] Mark Jones  maybe
Subject: [email protected] Ryan Example  very
Subject: [email protected] Mark Jones  maybe
Subject: [email protected] Mark Jones maybe

If I saw those Subject lines, I would alert the parties involved that Mark Jones seems to be on the prowl. The service wouldn't be entirely confidential, but I would do the best I could.

Then I realized I could build a system that would require zero human interaction and only be slightly less accurate. It would be a website called "did-he-just-hit-on-me.com" and it would be a static web page that displays the word "yes". True, it wouldn't be 100 percent accurate but exactly how less accurate is difficult to determine. If you have to ask, the answer is probably "yes".

Jokes aside, maybe someone with better programming skills could come up with an automated system that protects everyone's privacy, is secure, and strikes the right balance between transparency, privacy, and accuracy.

I'm not one of the people who is directly affected by this sort of thing, so if my thinking on these solutions is off base, I'm eager to hear it.

In the meanwhile, I'm holding on to that domain.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Women in Computing

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8 Comments | Leave a comment

I'm not a subscriber, but I figure systers.org's mailing lists function on this in some regard.

As far as a service design goes, I'm reminded of the 'did they leak your password' services, which publishes hashed email addresses so you can check if your acct is compromised without publishing your mail address. Maybe a CreepFilter using a bloom filter model could be applied. Hash an email, query the API, see if it's a member of the set. Broswer plugins could decorate email addresses with results.

This has a bonus feature of hopefully being less libellous. The claim 'Joe Baker is a creeper' on a website is easy; '21d0e128467510abd42080e5a74ed185 is a creeper' is probably a harder argument.

Not sure who should be allowed to add new members to the set. Too narrow and you lose some valuable data. But Anonymous write access would let one random troll fill it with random data. Even in the middle there's a risk of someone using the platform to libel the innocent.

"Playing the odds" can be a good tool for insecure people, men generally, however, to break the ice, or get accustomed to rejection. I've used it myself to build confidence, and practice the technique of talking to strangers with some success.

That isn't what made this guy a creep. That was when he was appropriate in expecting a long term relationship from a conference attendee after just one interaction, and being blind to the persistent negative reaction.

Unfortunately the Red Pill movement has taken some easily applied techniques and smashed them all together and created an abomination of creepy behavior that does more harm than good.

*inappropriate*

Public shaming is a very dangerous practice and something I don't think should be encouraged at all. A recent example from my local area: www.mamamia.com.au/news/darth-vadar-selfie-dad/

A lot of experiences are open to a persons interpretation of events and can have severe consequences for the accused. The person in your example appears to have gone a bit further and can't take a hint when someone is not interested, but it doesn't seem like he did anything 'wrong' apart from being a nuisance.

Mike,

Thank you for sharing that. Maybe I didn't express how much this person was so much more than a nuisance. There was no mistake that in these 3 situations he absolutely was misrepresenting his intentions.

I agree that public shaming is bad and I think it can be avoided (this is why the blog post talks about the need to get the privacy aspects right).

Tom

Is it possible we are only seeing the initial stages of creepiness? As more women are offered speaking roles and finally get the industry recognition for their talents I fear this type of behavior will intensify.

The top tier of technical professionals are in a sense turning into celebrities. We put them on stage, follow their work on git, read their books, follow their social interactions on twitter, and even sometimes get a response or retweet. I'm sure leaders such as yourself (Tom) have probably run into fans that were a little too friendly.

I treat my coworkers as equals regardless of gender or race. If you're good, I'll tell you. If your bad, I'll try to make you better. I certainly don't spam the mailbox of every female in a mile radius. My greatest fear though, is developing a connection to a female coworker/conference goer. I feel even broaching the subject once is a faux pas.

Are we at the point where part of the key note is reminding the crowd they are here for professional reasons? Not to try and hit on everything in sight? Will we eventually need body guards for you girls and guys? That's a joke. I hope.

There are a number of things that could be done to make a system like the one you propose more reliable (such as have conferences supply lists of email addresses of attendees, so submitters and submittees could be verified; and adding reputation-based weighting to the results, so that people who submit addresses that other people have also submitted gain reputation, whereas people spamming the system would tend to be ignored).

However, I think the first place that the problem should be addressed is at the conference with a solid Code of Conduct. PyCons (both US and AU) have had such codes of conduct for at least a few years. By setting the expectation early of no harassment and no creeping, and making it clear that such behavior could prevent attendance at further conferences, perhaps the creeps could be dissuaded before they even send emails like those you've mentioned.

Its either public and unrelated people can check it, or it will be shared between people who already know each other thus rendering it redundant. "Getting the privacy right" feels an awful lot like handwaving away the fatal flaws in this. What the guy did was creepy enough to get to the stalking level? Go to the police. They are the system we already have in ace for that.

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