I took 2020 as a break from speaking at conferences, live for obvious reasons, and online for a couple different reasons. It took me until November to get my home office set up in a ‘non-embarassing’ way so that I didn’t feel like I was showing everyone my mess when we video’d. Also I was exhausted and realized how close I was to burn out after the last four+ years of stress and travel.
But there has been one other thing. I’d talked to a number of friends. I’ve broken down sobbing after a coworker mentioned what was going on. I’ve had longs talks with therapists and experts in this sort of thing. The issue wasn’t my workload, it wasn’t even the work I was doing. But I absolutely was burnt out.
… But it’s not for why you’re probably thinking. I’m dead ass burned from being harassed.
The largest contributor to my burn-out is an ongoing, over two years, harassment.
A year ago I gave a talk in NYC about how to deal with being attacked online, and the tools you can use to protect yourself. What I didn’t mention in detail in that post was what has been going on since November 2018.
Back then I was watching the Macy Parade (like I do every year), waiting for the oven to heat up, and cleaning out the emails for the plugin review team, when I got pinged by a forum mod. A plugin developer was being cruel to users, making weird threats and claims, and said volunteer wanted to know what to do, since that person had a flag on their account saying “If there are any guideline violations, report to plugins ASAP.” So I threw the turkey in the oven and pulled up the records.
What I found was a series of minor issues, but all repeating. The developer was asked (twice) to change their plugin name to be less spammy (ex. “The world’s greatest slider plugin! Greater than anyone has known! Used by millions!”). There were also multiple emails reminding them not to ask to contact people off the forums.
There was also a strange email from a couple months prior. A woman had emailed the plugins team about this developer, saying that after she left a bad review she was harassed by them on Facebook. At the time, we issued a final warning about behaviour (which is why the flag in the account existed). I had forgotten about it being related to this developer, as it was about their other plugin, but also we get a hundred emails a day, and I don’t memorize everyone’s drama.
In looking at that, and the post the forum mod was worried about, I saw the parallels. This was very obviously repeat behaviour, and at the time I was pretty sure that the developer was account sharing (multiple people using the one dev account), which meant not only did they not understand the message about not being unkind, but they were not making sure everyone who worked for/with them did either, and they didn’t understand basic security (there’s no need to ‘share’ accounts on WordPress.org — you can make new ones and ad them to your plugin as support reps after all).
This meant I did what I hate doing. I closed their plugins, locked the accounts, and emailed them saying that they were banned for repeat abusive behavior. After all, they’d had multiple warnings.
In retrospect, I should have seen this all coming.
Megs of Logs
At this point I’ve amassed megabytes of logs on this drama. I’ve written up a nearly 30 page document (with citations no less) of everything that’s happened before and since. I thought about listing everything they did ‘wrong’ here but honestly it doesn’t matter if I list out everything. That was all ‘normal’ poor behaviour by developers. People make mistakes, and many times they really just do not grasp how serious things are even when the email says “This is your last chance.” Which means I know I have to be the bad guy to tell people “Hey. This ends now.”
Now, banning people, especially existing developers, is not a common thing! It’s not un-common or rare, but it’s not like I do it every day. Around 4 people a year get banned following a final warning. Usually it’s only one person each year (though due to people being people, it may involve multiple accounts — we still consider that one). More often, people get insta-banned for trying to use the directory for malware. Once in a while someone will be banned without warning for lying about being previously banned, but usually we catch those pretty quickly these days. Even so, it’s not an every month thing, or even an every season occurrence! The majority of people get that final warning and stop and rethink their choices. That’s normal.
What was abnormal is what happened after they were banned.
Between November 21st and the 27th, the Plugins team received over 30 emails. The first few replies were replied to in kind, pointing out that they had their fair chance (and a couple extra) and they squandered it. At that point, emails were not replied to for 24 hours, when they were informed again as to their numerous violations, and asked to stop emailing or their actions would be treated as harassment.
The emails did not stop. 21 more were sent following that caution.
Yes that means over 50 emails in a 6 day span. Probably closer to 100, since we only tracked them by subject rather than by how many replies they got.
On the 24th, they tried to bribe me by sending me money via PayPal (it was refunded and reported — and yes, this is why generally I don’t like when developers send me a donation, though I understand most are not trying this). The message asked me to ‘forgive’ them and rescind the ban. At that point I blocked their email on all my personal systems and went on my merry way.
Instead, they thought “Well she blocked us on one email, let’s use a different one!” and found my old, only used for Google events, account. By the way, none of those personal emails were ever provided to them. It’s not hard to guess what my email on Gmail might be, though.
On November 27th, a threat was made. They emailed saying they prayed to their god to “take away all your name, fame, respect, wealth everything” and more.
And then it escalated…
Yeah some of you are thinking “Wait, THEN it escalated?”
- From November 24th to the end of the year, 77 separate email chains were sent, using 3 separate emails.
- In 2019 there were over 600 separate email chains from 126 separate email addresses.
- 2020? 34 separate email chains.
- 2021? Only 3 email chains, but it’s only February.
So yeah, 2019 was rough. My Dad died in the start, and this developer had the gall to say Dad’s death was my fault, as I was being punished by their (the developer’s) god. Yes, that really happened.
I did a lot fewer talks in 2019 because I was coping with the world without my dad, and in 2020 …. well. We all took an in-person break, and I took a virtual one as well, because I was tired of prepping myself before talks.
See, every time I would go to a WordCamp, I had to prepare myself. What will I do if they show up? They had made, after all, ‘threats’ to come to California, and they’d already sent physical items to my office. So how would I handle it? The odds of them getting to the United States, given our then administration, seemed unlikely, but what if… What if?
I rehearsed, I practiced not being alone, I made sure at least one trusted person knew why I was nervous. My wife and I talked about strategies. But online? What if he saw something on my backdrop that let him figure out my home? What if he tracked me? What it he did something to put my family in danger? It was all too much to bear, so I simply didn’t.
Somewhat related, my office knew and went way above and beyond what I had any reason to expect to make sure I felt safe there. I love those people.
So … where are we now?
The developer still emails, on average twice a month now. We’ve sent a cease & desist (which was repudiated) and I’ve spent a lot of time literally ignoring everything that comes in. I do have a list of all the various claims made, and all the email subjects. I stopped tracking the content of the emails in mid 2019 because they were so outlandish that I couldn’t even anymore. I mean, does anyone think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cares that someone in another country is angry they got banned from a website?
Effectively? I am still being cyberstalked and harassed. And my god, it’s draining.
I sat here, thinking ‘is this even a good idea? It’s just going to make them be bigger annoyances”
After how disastrous 2020 has been? I think it’s right to step up and say “Hey, so this shitshow happens, and people are out there who are going to make it their mission to make you miserable. You’re not alone.”
This is me, walking back into the fire because I’m refusing to let it make me smaller.
What I want?
It’s super simple. I want it to stop. I want them to accept that they’ve burnt every single bridge a human can burn, short of physically attacking me, and now, even if anyone accepted their apology, we cannot unban.
There’s no way to know they won’t start this up again, or use this as the freedom to be a bigger harm to the community. There’s no way to walk back from this level of harassment. And if that means I have to shoulder this to protect everyone else? Well. I’ll do it, but I’ll do it my way, which means I post this. I share to the world “This is a thing.”
And this sucks. I hate telling someone “Buddy, it’s over. You’re done.” But they are. Even if I overstepped or over-reacted, 700 emails, physical packages, cards, threats, accusations of killing people, etc … how do you go back and say “Oops, I was wrong” and expect everything to be okay.
It’s not, because it can’t be. Things don’t just go away and get better because you said you were sorry. I do believe they’re sorry, but I think they’re sorry because they got caught and punished. They aren’t sorry they did harm (if they were, they’d have stopped). Right now, they’re at the point where their argument is “We will stop hurting you when you do exactly what we want.”
And that, I simply cannot do. Not just because I’m standing to protect the rest of the WordPress.org users, but for the principle of the thing.
What I want? I want them to stop trying to contact me in any way, shape, or form. I want them to accept the (painful) fact that they made a massive mistake and acted in a harmful manner. I want them to be grown ups and walk away.
Sadly, this appears to be something they cannot do.
It’s totally Burnout
This absolutely is burnout.
I’m socially burned out in a lot of ways. While I had some phenomenal support from WordPress, from my work, from my friends, from professionals, it was exhausting to have to deal with this. Legally? There isn’t much I can really do. The persons involved don’t live in the US, so our laws are not in play here. International harassment laws don’t really exist. There’s nothing the police can do to stop it unless they show up in the US (which is highly unlikely).
At best, I can file complaints (which I have) and block their contacts (ditto). I can also be proactive, look them up, find out everything that’s them, and block them before they contact me (did that). I’ve done a lot more than I list here, by the way. I don’t want to tip my hand.
People have done everything I could possibly expect from them, and more, but … it’s still going on.
And yes, this is part of why Plugin Team emails went anonymous.
It’s absolutely, 100%, burnout.
And about speaking at events?
I don’t know.
The last two years I just needed a break from all that to process how I felt about the situation. I knew I was tired, but that isn’t really how I feel emotionally. The last year was so hard for everyone, so brutal for us all, that having it sit on top of the pain of loss meant I never really got the chance to process. I don’t feel like it’s been two years since Dad died, I feel like it was yesterday.
What I feel is anger and annoyance and a lot of ‘damn it to hell.’ And I am filled with defiance.
Now that there’s a little less stress in my life (and most of ours), and with the hope that people in charge will be held accountable for their seditious actions, I feel like I’m freer to say that this happens. This happened. This is happening.
Soon, hopefully, I’ll feel like I can safely do interviews and talks again.
Why did I post this on my Tech blog?
The world is angry right now. Everyone’s at their limit for coping, and for most we’re well beyond what our brains can wrap around. Half a million dead in the United States alone? It’s nearly unimaginable. And I think we’re letting our anger get the best of us.
I posted on HalfElf and not my personal me-blog because in tech, we can easily forget there are other people on the screen. I knew, when I banned this person, that I was harming a human. I felt I had run out of other options to get them to understand that they were doing harm to the world in general, and I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. This is not an excuse, though. I hurt someone. I hate that I did it. I hate that I have to. But there’s literally no way to stop someone from hurting others without hurting them in some way. At least not that I’ve found.
But if I banned someone from a physical location, I could get the cops to do something (in theory, I know). I could get legal help. I could have security escort them from my location and be within my rights.
We don’t build our tools to handle harassment. We just don’t.
If someone harasses you on Twitter, or Facebook, the ‘solution’ is to turn your account private, because these people will just make more and more accounts. We can’t block by IP, because they can use VPNs. We could ban all VPNs, but that has a negative impact (just for an example, I can’t edit Wikipedia when I’m at my office because we have a firewall and VPN).
Looking at WordPress, how would you stop someone from harassing you? You make use of banned terms and plugins, but did you know most contact form plugins don’t have block tools? Logically it’s so if someone’s accidentally blocked from commenting, they can get a hold of you. But most don’t even have this as an option.
So I post this here to put a human face on the damage being caused by our own negligence, and to make us more aware of the monster we’ve created.
When you write new code, think about how it can be abused. Think about disrupting harassment. Think about allowing people to protect themselves. And, above all, if someone tells you this is going on? Believe them. I was lucky. Everyone believed me. Most people are not.