'Twitter DMs Can Be the Hand on the Knee,' a Destructive and Ridiculous Remark

Direct messages from a man to a woman on Twitter are the social media equivalent of a hand on the knee. That's the statement that had me worked up in anger for a week.

Let me back up.

Vivek Wadhwa is a researcher and professor, and some of his research and writing relates to women in technology. He was the subject of a huge controversy with a podcast called TLDR put out by On The Media, a fantastic radio program produced at WNYC in New York. The podcast, I've decided, is not so fantastic. I listened to several episodes, not just the controversial one, and I can clearly state that it is not for me. The show doesn't put out content that makes me smarter or more introspective. 

Without regurgitating the whole hullabaloo, allow me to summarize.

What Happened
TLDR released a podcast in which a reporter and a critic of Wadhwa's named Amelia Greenhall trash talked him. They clearly did not fact check most of the material, nor did they even reach out to Wadhwa for comment or to get his side of the story. The show even had moments of snickering. Some of the points raised could have been valid, but I for one dismissed almost all of it because it reeked of back-biting and one-sided opinions. Wadhwa came under attack on social media thereafter, mostly Twitter, where he has long been an active participant in all kinds of discussions. Wadhwa then published an op-ed on Venture Beat in response, and TLDR (or On the Media; I'm not sure who made the call) pulled the original episode, even though you can still find it easily online. It was correct to pull the episode because it was filled with slander that wasn't even fact-checked. TLDR then aired a follow-up episode in which the host, Meredith Haggerty interviewed Wadhwa to get his side of the story. Wadhwa comes off as overly defensive, as well as someone who is not media-trained.

The Twitter DM Can Be the Hand on the Knee
I have an opinion about nearly all the twists and turns of this whole debacle, but I'd rather focus on just one destructive comment made by Haggerty and Greenhall in the first episode that kicked off the issue:
GREENHALL: It's really creepy when a man you don't know goes into your DMs. It's really kind of this consensual, "Let's go over here where people can't see you criticizing me and then maybe I can talk to you there." Wadhwa has done this to several women.
HAGGERTY: It really feels like the Twitter DM can be, like, the hand on the knee of, like, social communication. 
What? What? What are you crazy people talking about? It's one of the most ridiculous things I've heard on an NPR-affiliated podcast, and it's destructive because it's spreading a fear-based message that simply isn't true.

Here are a few facts you need to know about Twitter. DM stands for direct message. It's when someone sends you a private message, which is still limited to 140 characters, on the social network. Only the specified recipients can see it. To receive or send a DM, however, each party must be following one another. Therefore, by following someone on Twitter, you are consenting to DMs. 

In fact, as my work as a writer, it happens all the time. A PR representative or source for a story will find me on Twitter and message me publicly to ask: "Who you mind following me so I can DM you some information?" If Greenhall or any of these other women didn't want to converse privately with Wadhwa, all they would have to do is click the unfollow button by his name. DMs are consensual! 

Additionally, this business of "when a man you don't know goes into your DMs." What? No one "goes into" anyone else's DMs. Getting a DM is the equivalent of getting an email. If you receive an email, the sender did not "go into" your inbox. 

The beauty of DMs and email for that matter is you can simply ignore them. Block the sender if you like. You are totally in control.

Wadhwa has in fact sent me a direct message or two. I asked him a question, and he answered me directly rather than publicly. I'm glad for it. I'm thankful he had the sense to think about where his reply would be most appropriate. And it made me feel like he was answering me and actually paying attention to my question, rather than using Twitter as a megaphone.

When a man emails me, I do not feel creeped out or violated in any way. I usually assume that this person has something to protect or is afraid, and that's why they want to move the conversation to a private area. Often 140 characters get misconstrued. If you tweet one thing and realize too late that it came out the wrong way, it's often safer to explain yourself in private to the people who got the wrong message than it is to try and fight fires publicly. I think it's everyone's responsibility to have an ounce of humanity and decency when another person sends you a private message to say, "I think I messed up. I feel like things are getting out of hand. Can we talk about this one-on-one so I can explain myself to you?"

Limited Room
Another comment sent up a huge red flag for me in regards to whether I would take Greenhall's criticism seriously:
"[H]e's taking up space and, like, sucking all the air out of the room from this conversation about sexism in tech and gender issues in tech that is a really big deal. And somebody who actually has experience and has something useful to say isn't getting quoted."
I don't think this woman understand how the Internet works. There is unlimited space and air for voices. No one is taking anyone else's place. We need more voices, not a limited number!

Second, she's just wrong. In Wadhwa's retort, he specifically mentions that when he's speaking to journalists who plan to quote him, he encourages them to cite women on the subject matter instead, or at least in addition. But he's an expert source, and just because he's male doesn't make him any less so.

Women in technology need allies right now. We need all the voices and backing by researchers, scholars, pundits, activists, and so forth, that we can get. I'm really sad that Wadhwa was attacked so viciously that he's now announced bowing out of the debate about women in technology. While I don't know if he means he'll no longer conduct research or write books on the topic, either way, it seems like self-defeating outcome for women in technology.