Biologist Danielle N. Lee blogs as "The Urban Scientist." She admirably strives to widen the audience for science and explain how the fundamental principles of science can be observed in any environment. A few days ago she received an email solicitation from Biology-Online.org, an ass-ugly advertisement-encrusted content aggregator site. "Ofek," a "Blog Editor" at Biology-Online, wrote Ms. Lee and asked her to contribute blog posts as a "guest blogger." Ms. Lee asked some polite questions — how often, and do you pay your content providers — and upon receiving the answers, very politely declined.
Because we don't pay for blog entries?
Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?
Ms. Lee told her story more kindly than "Ofek" deserved, and used it as an opportunity to advocate for widening access to science and the audience for science. Ms. Lee rocks.
Here the story might have faded quickly into obscurity — it hit on a weekend during a news-heavy month. But remember the first rule of public relations: it may quite difficult to make things better, but it's always very easy to make things much worse by running your mouth before you have time to get a grip. Hence the venerable Scientific American — which for reasons that passeth all understanding partners with Biology-Online.org — elected to delete Ms. Lee's blog entry about the issue from their site. Called on that, Scientific American Editor-In-Chief Mariette DiChristina reacted with a stupid lie:
As other Scientific American bloggers pointed out, that's just bullshit. Scientific American allows such blogs all the time. Scientific American's online leadership — faced with a story about a scientist being treated badly by one of its "partners" — deleted the story and lied about it, inexorably prolonging the story, substantially widening its audience, and associating Scientific American with its villain. The Aristocrats!
Many bloggers have written about this as a clear example of how sexism is pervasive in the sciences. After all, how else can you explain the interpersonal dysfunction of someone demanding free content from a female scientist and then calling her a whore when she refuses?
But I think sexism is, at least, an incomplete explanation.
I have no doubt that the scientific community is awash in ignorant and reflexive sexism. I've heard too many stories from loved ones, classmates, and clients1 in the sciences to think otherwise. But human douchebaggery spins upon multiple axes. It may be that the most powerful axis in play here is not sexism, but marketing.
Perhaps "Ofek" is2 some kind of scientist. If he is, and his identity is revealed, he is likely to experience significant social consequences — that is, he is likely to be treated as someone who calls women "whore" when they decline to provide him with free content. But Ofek is currently in the business of spamming bloggers to ask them to contribute free content to a sordid little advertising-heavy aggregator site in order to increase traffic and thereby increase advertising revenue to Ofek and Ofek's team. In other words, Ofek has ceased to be a scientist and begun a career as a marketeer.
And marketeers are entitled douchebags. Within the context of online marketing, Ofek's behavior is perfectly typical. Ofek's belief — that he is entitled to profit off of Ms. Lee's work, and that she's worthy of abuse if she objects — is the apotheosis of marketeer culture.
You can hear echoes of Ofek in the marketeer who called the Bloggess a "fucking bitch" when she snarked about receiving Kardashian spam. You can hear it in the offense taken by the spammer who showed up in our comments, outraged that we called out his spam. You can hear it in the attitude of comment spammers who suggest that if bloggers don't want comment spam they shouldn't have open comments. You see it in the buffoonish look-how-successful-I-am rants of marketeers who defend their vocation. You hear it in the rancor of marketeers who believe they own hashtags on Twitter and that anyone who uses them for criticism is a spammer. You can hear it in the angry entitlement of the marketeer who threatens me with a lawsuit when I call out his deceitful methodology.
It is right and fit that people who learn about Ms. Lee's experience should use it as a teaching opportunity about sexism in science. But that's an incomplete lesson. It's also an opportunity to remind yourself and your readers about the culture of online marketeering. This is what online marketeers think of you. When you treat with them you only help spread this culture. Fight sexism! But don't forget to shun marketeers and their methods.
Note: "Ofek" clearly intended "whore" to be a gendered slur. His communication should be treated accordingly. But when you think about the use of the word "whore", it's a good thing to remember that sex workers are actual human beings, not abstractions. They are more than the collection of social attitudes about them. Read the words of a dozen sex workers and you'll get a dozen different attitudes about what they did and how society treats them. I recommend Maggie McNeill, who writes forcefully from one perspective. Since I started reading her I stopped using "whore" as a political epithet.
- Represent a female cardiothoracic surgeon and listen to her stories and next time you go under the knife you may be tempted to check to see if the guy under the mask is Tucker Max. ▲
- Smart people have searched and found candidates named Ofek; I have written them seeking comment, without a response to date. ▲