Women as Entertainment in the SEO Industry

Dec 21
2011

You, guy,” he said to my boyfriend across the table. “It’s not fair. You bring this girl here. It’s not fair.” We asked why not. “Because all women who come to conferences should be available,” he replied. Available to him. Throughout the evening, whenever he got the chance, he repeated that it “wasn’t fair” and that a woman like me shouldn’t be at a tech event if the opportunity did not exist for him to have some of me. He made it clear that he was finding it hard to control himself, and if a breakdown in his self-control happened, that would be unacceptable, but only because I had a boyfriend. This happened in London in late 2010.

Five days later, a woman at a tech conference in Atlanta publicly accused a male delegate of sexual assault. And you think, is it any goddamn wonder?

What would have happened had I actually been single, or if he had found opportunity to be alone with me? And would that too have been my fault for not coming along with a partner? If you show up alone and he tries to hurt you? All women who come to conferences should be available.

I began writing this blog post the day after the event took place, but was talked out of its importance by my own conditioning. Nothing happened to me. So it’s okay that he said that and that he travels the world (he is not British; he flew here for the conference) treating female conference attendees in that way? I find it hard to believe that I was the only person he’d ever spoken to like that. I talked myself out of it because I was scared.

At my second Pubcon, in December 2007, I learned that another attendee had said he was going to “hook up with me.” The people he said it to told him that was unlikely, as they didn’t believe I was single. The guy’s response was that he didn’t care, it was going to happen anyway, and I was going to like it. This one is closer to home. If you’re reading this because you know me through SEO, you know of this person. These are some of our own.

On both nights, I made sure not to let myself be alone with either of these people. Was it paranoid to believe there was a certain degree of risk from the unwanted attention? From the stories other women tell about their experiences at conferences, I don’t believe it was.

These are just two examples.

There is also the man who announced in front of seven or eight fellow conference attendees that he found it strange I claimed to be very happy having lived in London for two years, since there was no ring on my finger. Me being female, he said, made it hard for him to believe that I could be truly happy without being engaged or married. The people he said this in front of had paid hundreds of dollars in ticket fees, accommodation and travel to hear both him and me speak at a conference, and there he was – reducing me to a ring-hungry twit in front of them.

He apologised to me over email, saying he was only trying to find out if I were single. Which, clearly, he felt was appropriate conference banter as well. I never replied.

From many other conferences I’ve attended over the past five years, I have similar–albeit sometimes less eyebrow-raising–stories or being treated inappropriately, in one way or another, because I’m female. Many of us do.

It’s not as if people are silent about it, and it’s not as though it’s uncommon. When I worked at SEOmoz, my female colleague and I received the odd email from people who saw it fit to approach us inappropriately based upon our being women. And I can’t shake the frustration that there is nothing I can do about it.

What can I do about it?

I can decline to be featured in stupid posts about “the sexiest women in social media”, because it belittles my talent to have to tie it to what I look like, and belittles people further who aren’t deemed suitable for such acknowledgement, solely based on their appearance. When I declined to be in that post, the post’s writer clearly had no idea why I’d feel the way I do about it. In fact, he found it “hilarious”:

 

An apology for such a list is that “success is sexy” and acknowledgement is benign. But the author won’t feature people he or she considers physically unattractive, and someone shouldn’t be given press above her peers in a profession unrelated to appearance because of her face or her body.

To the small percentage of the population–and of our industry–who are not decent people, seeing ten women given press because of their looks helps to confirm that our presence at a conference is for others’ entertainment. To the man at Conversion Camp in London who told me over and over again that my presence wasn’t fair, because I was not available for him, my only worth was physical.

And I’ve been on the other side too, which is where I think this becomes less of a two-dimensional whine about sexism and more of an argument.

This is why public judgement and objectification reaches so far down my throat and twists my guts so hard. I’ve been on both ends of this shit. I’ve listened to how much men in our industry love going to conferences that use strippers as marketing tools and attendee bait, and I have compared my figure and desirability to those of the women in question. [Note that this site's "female entertainment" content has been significantly toned down in 2012 - older versions of the site make more mention of "9 former Playmates" being part of the package, and the videos are still around. The owner of the website has now disallowed Archive.org caching, possibly one of the least coincidental actions on the entire Internet. Evidence of how thrilling they used to find their Playboy contingent is still pretty easy to find though.]

Not that they ever would after this, but if I were asked to speak at an event like that, I’d turn it down. I’ve turned down a couple of events in the past for similar reasons. You think there are too few women at tech events, or you hear from organisers that they asked women to speak, but that they were turned down? Have you considered the environment you create? Is it exclusionary and primarily for the benefit of straight men? Have you managed to find one or two women who find it acceptable, and do you then hold those women’s testimony up as sterling proof that you aren’t doing anything wrong?  Do you use the excuse that “it happens everywhere – look at the automotive industry!” as a reason why you shouldn’t be held accountable in your own back yard?

We keep reading about how the women used as bait make the conference so much better. It comes up over and over again. Regular girls are not plentiful enough, nor good enough company. Just today, we have been treated to another tacky video with Playboy girls, front and centre. But the rest of us still receive our fair share of unwanted sexualised attention. Huh? Interestingly, the post about this video has since been removed from the organiser’s website.

It sickens me that I even allow myself to do that! Do I not have high enough self-esteem to be proud of a body that put up with me through twelve years of competitive swimming, an activity that paid for a university degree and saw me represent my country and become its national champion and record holder? Am I not proud of a personality that is what it is after some difficult battles, accomplishments, agonies and victories from which I’ve emerged the adult I am?

Of course, I am. However, mine or other women’s prides aside, facts about our bodies or our faces or their comparison to any other woman’s have no place in our work or our industry. This stands, no matter whether I am judged as having lived up to an ideal, or not having achieved someone’s ideal of physical attractiveness.

And yet I read these posts and I associate with these people whether I want to or not, so the primal doubt climbs back up my spine and taps on the back of my neck. Which am I? Good enough a female specimen to be harassed and fawned over at conferences, emailed sexual requests and asked to flaunt myself in posts on the basis of my looks, or are my female industry peers and I so dowdy that a conference is seen as significantly more desirable if boobier, taller, curvier women are shipped in?

And a good solution is not for women to post images of whatever their sexual ideals might be either. It is not to jokingly suggest that we stage our own event with male strippers as our dancers and butlers. The answer is not for girls to waltz around Pubcon smacking boys’ bums in a pathetic attempt to reverse our lot. The solution is to stop engaging in abhorrent behaviour, whether at conferences, over email or elsewhere.

Harassment and assault happens to women in our industry at large, at our industry’s events and as a result of connections made through our industry. I can keep linking all night: post after post after post.

It’s very simple. You’re smart enough people and good enough marketers and–I hope–good enough human beings to knock it off. Stop accepting sexualised female entertainment at professional events, and stop jointly insinuating that women like me are not good enough for you, but that you have the right to treat us as entertainment to which you are entitled nonetheless.

What “Motel View” Knows About Marketing: Favatars 2010

Aug 26
2010

Eighteen years ago, Forbes Williams wrote a book called Motel View. It’s a collection of stories and my mother gave me a copy when I was fourteen. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but some of the stories are as familiar to me as well-known songs. My favourite is about the invention of an imaginary athlete named Stan Malone.

Williams’ protagonist, a sixteen year old named Paul, lives with two flatmates in the hills above Wellington. Bored and creative, the trio embark on a project to invent news stories and have them feature on the national news, and they succeed: once with a fictitious small plane crash, and once with a middle distance runner who was eventually selected to carry the New Zealand flag at the Olympic Games.

Williams’ characters faxed Malone’s imaginary times to New Zealand newspapers, who then published them in the small-print results on sports pages. However, when Malone’s name was left off the team for the upcoming Olympics, there began a national outcry. He was substantially quicker than most of the country’s talent; why was he not to compete?

You couldn’t do exactly this today: the Internet invented real time results reporting (like this and this), Ustream web broadcasts through which I’ve watched events from Texas whilst sitting in London, and instantaneous results syndication, ensure more honesty in sports reporting. Malone’s existence would be discredited pretty quickly. However, Williams’ characters did several things right, given their time and place, in their invention of Malone that heightened his chances of succeeding.

The makers of this Facebook profile did not.

People unfortunate enough to be embroiled in the fake avatars scandal of 2008 may remember that two years ago, social media avatars were the order of the day amongst those who shouted the loudest. “Fake avatars” referred to social media profiles that weren’t portraying real people. Created with the mind to promote something, these soulless shells presumably blended in to your Facebook and Twitter world the way the droids do to your cross-stitch group before they take over your frontal lobe.

This is assuming that the favatars appeared real. The profile above was brought to my attention yesterday by our favourite Frenchman, Ciaran Norris. That’s me in the photo, along with Lisa Myers, at a party in Edgware Road, London, in 2007.

The fake picture along with the “likes” and interests of this girl (which she shares with some of her equally fake-looking friends) are stereotypically generic. My best guess is that this was created by Al Marketing Guy in his cubicle, and he thought: “What do blond 23 year olds like?” (We so do still look 23. Yes we do, damn it). He came up with Pink, Beyonce, their mums, breast cancer awareness, Will Smith, house music and shoes. SHOES!!!!!

I’m aware that the existence of this girl could still be proven. However, I’ve messaged her twice, written to her Facebook friends, and several people I know have sent her a friend request. Of the two responses I’ve had from her friends, one indicated that he doesn’t know who she is, and the other said, “Probably some spam bot, feel free to report them”. Hayley’s case doesn’t look good.

Al the marketing guy could well have been tasked with the job of social mediaing something–probably something pink–and he needed some chicks to pimp it out.

Totally better than ur boyfriends iphone AM I RIGHT ladies?

From the shape of the image, and fact that my Facebook photos are private (I’m guessing Lisa’s are too), it’s likely the marketer got it from the SEOmoz Flickr stream, where it’s public. It certainly shows no signs of being cropped by Facebook, which you’ll often do to a profile picture. Throw on the generic interests, and you’ve got yourself your marketing shell.

But Hayley Mansfield ain’t no Stan Malone. Top level analysis shows that she has no substance, but why was Malone believable and Hayley not? Of course, the irony is that Malone itself is fiction and the invention of Hayley isn’t, but there are some key things in Williams’ story that you really should pay attention to if you want a fake avatar to make its way into the mainstream.

Paul and his flatmates Tristan and Megan didn’t intentionally choose Malone’s circumstances for success, but they were still effective. Firstly, they chose a profession for their character in which the public was inherently interested. The story takes place in 1984 and Malone is a talented athlete. The Los Angeles Olympics are approaching. New Zealand enjoyed a golden era of athletics in the 1960s and 70s (remember?) with the likes of John Walker and Peter Snell dominating world track. 80s Kiwis expected to see good distance runners perform at the Games, and Malone could provide them with that. His inventors timed their invention to coincide with a large event and public interest, even though they didn’t intend to. Remember this. People’s interests move in trends. What will you tie your project to?

Secondly, they didn’t use someone else’s photo. The fake picture of Malone was Paul in a wig. Before the Internet, with Malone “exceptionally shy” and living overseas, a mediocre-quality picture did the trick. Nowadays, you would need a very good disguise of someone who knew he was being used if he were to become a national hero. Alternatively, you’d buy rare stock photos that were unlikely to be found or used by someone else. You couldn’t just take a photo of a real person who would be seen on the street, and you can’t just take the picture of two real people from Flickr who might one day come across it. It was a coincidence that Lisa and I work in marketing, but that sort of chance isn’t once you really want to take.

Thirdly, Tristan. Paul and Megan didn’t try too hard. They set something in motion and then the story created itself. From the book:

The modern day equivalent of this is getting stories written about your subject. It’s getting links. During the years I worked at SEOmoz, I saw things we did and said debated and discussed and passed around until sometimes, the end message was quite different to that with which we’d started. Sometimes this worked in our favour and sometimes it didn’t, but if the goal is to create a phenomenon in which people are interested, chat is gold. The New Zealand public made up their hero in more detail than the three flatmates ever tried to do.

The flatmates did not join whatever 1984′s Facebook groups (women’s magazines? Sports talkback radio?) were with some fake profiles–Malone’s sisters and ex girlfriends and former rivals, perhaps–and tell stories of his past, or talk about how awesome he was and why he should be chosen to carry the flag at the Games. They seeded something so that other people did that. Real people. Hayley Mansfield was undoubtedly created in order to do the former.

Earlier in 2008, prior to Favatargate, Lyndon Antcliffe wrote about that thirteen year old and those hookers. Before Lyndon admitted that the story wasn’t true, the media (namely FOX News) did go a little Malone on it, reporting on the issue and undoubtedly casting opinions on the boy, the parents, the hookers and what it meant for society in general. People would perhaps have even hypothesised about the identity of the family if Lyndon had been more specific about the location (it was only reported to a state level: Texas). He did what great marketing does: set something in motion. Hayley’s generic likes and interests, plus the fact that she won’t have any other photos of herself unless they’re all of Lisa Myers or me, plus the fact that her inventor likely doesn’t have much interest in making her a deeper character, limit her potential.

I am not going to make excuses for lazy Facebook profile making, but I do understand how hard it is to create a realistic fictitious character. I’ve tried it. It’s hard to know what a stranger whose characteristics are different to yours would do or write or think: Sarah Carling wrote a brilliant piece about writing anonymously on SEO Chicks during her interview for the role. It’s hard to be someone you’re not, because you’re very used to being you. It turns out that I’m not good at powering a fake social media profile, but I’m far better at it than the person who chose Lisa’s and my photo.

Awesome marketing stunts usually get found out, and people get upset. I personally don’t mind a fake story (I lived in the US where their TV reporting is largely hyped up garbage, and now I live in the UK where a lot of newspaper reporting is the same, so what’s an actress with a whiteboard when Obama’s apparently a Muslim extremist?). I believe, however, that these aren’t necessarily also awesome marketing, minus the dramatic qualifier.

Malone gets here; Hayley’s wares do not

Awesome marketing is under the radar. It is the girl on Facebook whose activity isn’t extreme enough or banal enough to look fake. It is the post on Reddit that isn’t crazy or staged enough to be unbelievable, but which is good enough to set a story or meme or idea in motion. It is a story from 1992, set in 1984, that displayed a lot more imagination than someone eighteen years later with the technology of 2010 under their fingers and a photograph of two generic blonde girls in a London pub.

NZ Flag… eclipsing the Valencian sun by  ednobofin on Flickr

Pink iPhone at the retreat by micala on Flickr