On speaking, trolling, inciting and growing

It's been going around in developer circles now for a few days, this whole controversy about the "Perform like a pr0n star" presentation from the Golden Gate Ruby Conference and the related accusations of misogyny and sexism and overblown accusations and double-standardisms and what-all else, and I've deliberately waited to let opinions in my head settle out before blogging on the whole thing. Sara J Chipps reacts on her blog, and the comments to her comments are also somewhat... interesting... to note.

Without any particular implied importance or order:

  • Matt Aimonetti, you are an idiot. You had to know that this was going to generate more than a few strong reactions. I'll admit, it's a funny title, and it definitely generated a ton of buzz around your name, but for the rest of your life, you're going to be "the porno Rails guy", and in about a year or so, it's not going to be funny anymore. You've touched off a firestorm, and you can't very well hide from it, and frankly, I think the short-term boost to your public recognizance is going to be more than outweighed by the long-term judgments that will be levied against you. "Wait, this is the guy who did that talk? Wow. I bet he's a good developer, but can I risk him pulling the same kind of stunt at a meeting with our VP or clients? Nah, I'll go for this other guy...."
  • Clearly we have a lot of issues to work out in the programming industry. I'm not going to go into the rights or wrongs of putting those images into his talk. I'm talking about the discussion that followed (one comment here says, "Matt Aimonetti is obviously an antisocial twerp still living in his mothers basement at the age of 35 who has never even been able to muster up the courage to actually talk to a real-life woman, let alone respect one.", and a follow-up comment says, "Great presentation, nevermind the jackasses, keep up the good work!"), and the fact that at no point in the time leading up to this presentation did anybody pull Mr. Aimonetti off to one side and say, "Dude, it was funny when we thought of it, sure, but it's time to stop." If ever we wanted to convince the rest of the world that the programming industry wasn't populated by a bunch of 13-year-olds giggling over the fact that somebody said, "Boobies".... well, maybe next year.
  • Ruby community, you have a long way to go if you want to convince people to spend money on you. Maybe you don't mind that corporations think that you guys are clearly unstable and immature. If/when you want to gain some degree of corporate acceptance, and maybe make it out of your parents' basement someday, you're going to have to learn that how you handle yourself in public goes a long way towards establishing peoples' attitudes towards you as professionals, and right now, you all collectively look like a bunch of 13-year-olds, what between this and DHH's famous "FUCK YOU" presentation of a few years ago. If you're OK with not being taken seriously, then cool, more power to you. But personally, I like the idea of making money at things I like to do and have fun doing, and you're not helping yourselves.
  • Why are we such prudes? Whether you agree or not with the rightness of the "porn" metaphor, you have to admit that there is factual basis in the bones of this particular comment: "This is probably the least offensive thing I've seen in 3 weeks." Glance at the billboards in the airport next time you're walking to the gate. Glance at the racks of magazines in the grocery store as you prepare to check out. Glance at the beer commercials on TV during prime-time. In every case, sexy, young, attractive, scantily-clad men and women seek to create an instinctive emotional reaction inside your head to subconsciously create a feel-good link between whatever product is being hawked and your id. Honestly, the photos in the presentation are hardly all that titillating—and a very long ways from the kind of commercials you can see on TV in Europe—so why are we getting up in arms over this?
  • Matt Aimonetti, you are an idiot. Notice how nobody's talking about the actual subject of your presentation? A good presenter knows that the message should never outstrip the delivery mechanism, just like a sauce should never overpower the flavor of the dish it accompanies. For all that the content of your presentation might have been spot-on, the lessons that might have been learned from the presentation have drowned in the "He's a pig!" "No he's not!" that has followed. Great job there, mate. Way to get your message across.
  • To the commenter on the presentation page who said, "ps [sic] feminism is dead", get a clue. Women still, on average, get paid less than men do for an equivalently-skilled employee in the same job. Maybe it's not $.50 to every $1 as it used to be, but so long as it's even measurable, there's work to be done. This industry in particular has absolutely no reason for gender discrimination in any form, since there's absolutely nothing "physical" about what we do. (Ditto for medicine and law, for that matter.)
  • Presentations reach far beyond just the attendees. One commenter on Sara's blog notes, "What an over reaction, there was nothing wrong with that presentation, i wouldn't show it to a board room but as far as showing it to a ruby developers conference then no probs." Frankly, that's a short-sighted attitude, making the presumption that someone of the suit-and-tie set (those supposedly inhabiting the "board room" where this kind of presentation isn't appropriate) wouldn't actually be in the audience at a ruby developers conference. Oh, granted, when in Rome, one has to expect Romans to act like Romans, but that just means that the Ruby community isn't welcome inside the board room, right? (Somehow I doubt this is what the numerous people who are trying to make money off of Ruby really want.) Fact is, that presentation is now captured by the Internet for all time, and it will forever be known as "The Ruby Porno Presentation", and it's an even money bet that somebody in that board room has seen the presentation (and the video, and the play-by-play from the people who had friends who had friends that were there....).
  • To the commenters who say, "You asked for it", get a clue. Commenters have suggested that the title should have clued people into what was coming: "I'm totally flabbergasted no one has stated the obvious here: if you see a presentation labeled "CouchDB: Perform like a pr0n star" and you choose to go to it, don't act all surprised when R-rated images are used as props." Sorry, no biscuit. Presenters use analogies and imagery all the time in their titles in order to "sell" their talks. Recently I was part of a talk that was labeled as a "smackdown"—did that mean the audience should have expected to see images of physical violence? If I title my next talk as something that's "hard-core", should you expect to see images of ball gags and snuff film clips? This is what happens when we co-opt terms like "smackdown" and "hard-core"—you can't fall back to the original meanings and then claim ignorance when people misunderstand how you're going to use them. (God only knows what Mr. Aimonetti would have done for a presentation on "Naked Objects". *shudder*)
  • Matt Aimonetti, you are an idiot. You could have had your joke and keep it tasteful too. You do, in fact, from time to time in the early part of the presentation: the photo of the "little blue pills" was perfect, offering a hint as to what you meant while keeping the double-entendre alive. Every single "objectionable" photo in that presentation could have been replaced by a more subtle one that kept everybody's mind on the subject and still got the point across. The fact that you resorted to the heavy-handed imagery only proves that you wanted to beat the audience's head with it.
  • Please, let the one-ups-manship stop. Can we please agree that moving and powerful presentations can be done without having to resort to cheap tricks? They almost always come off badly, particularly when you have to keep the gag running for a full hour or so. Anybody remember Marc Fleury's "Joker" retinue at TheServerSide a half-decade ago? Can you tell me what his presentation was about? Now, consider Dave Thomas' "Cargo Cults" talk from NFJS around the same time—what was he covering? If you were there for both talks, chances are you remember Dave's talk far better than you remember the Fleury keynote beyond the fact that he wore Joker face paint the entire time. Good presentations are about using humor to underscore and support the message, and not making humor the central point of the message. Think about that before you start reaching for the bad innuendo.
  • Is this really the kind of industry we want? Granted, it may seem like all of this is way overblown if you're a 25-year-old guy recently graduated from college and hacking on your first or second Rails project. "What do these grumpy idiots not understand about 'it's a joke'? My God, is everybody nuts? Are they trying to say that we can't have fun at work or with what we do?" To which all I can say is two things: one, check in with yourself five or ten years from now, when your daughters are learning about body images by staring at pictures of women who are entirely artificial (and yes, guys, those pictures you see are entirely artificial, having been touched up and enhanced in many ways), and two, you're more than welcome to have whatever jokes you like at whomever's expense you like, in private. This wasn't in private. A developer conference is not a private locale. More importantly, though, think about it—when you bring your girlfriend to work, do you want her hearing those same jokes that buddies toss off back and forth? What seems like "harmless fun" now, may have a very different feel to it for you a few years from now.

I'll freely admit, I drop profanity from time to time in my presentations. And to everyone who comes up afterwords (figuratively and literally) saying I shouldn't use such offensive language, I apologize, and point out that I did so in order to underscore the point, knowing that I'm taking that risk, and knowing that I may be required to offer up apologies after the fact for having offended them. (To date, those apologies still number in the single digits.) So perhaps I am no better than Mr. Aimonetti in the final accounting of things.

But all of this loses sight of a core principle. Regardless of the efficacy of his presentation, regardless of your feelings about the subject matter, regardless of your thoughts around the overblown-or-not nature of this discussion, a deeper principle is at stake here, that of professional presentation etiquette: Mr. Aimonetti, you owe an apology to anyone and everyone that was offended by your presentation (for whatever reason). Failure to deliver that, in my mind, equates to a personal and professional FAIL on your part.

When you stand up on stage, and you say something that somebody finds offensive, you owe that person an apology, even if you think their reasoning or rationale is bogus.

It's simple common courtesy.