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Vice vs. Sexy Cyborg: How US Journalists Nearly Ruined a Chinese Maker

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Transcript:

Naomi Wu is a Cantonese programmer and “maker,” better known in the US as “Sexy Cyborg.” I first learned about her a few years back when some of her creations started gaining traction on Reddit and other social media networks. She specializes in making wearable tech, like the LED underlit skirt that was probably the first project that really went viral on Reddit.

I remember seeing that post, and I definitely thought at first that the woman in the photo was just a model, and that the actual maker was someone else. And yeah, maybe someone male. Internalized misogyny, y’all!

But clicking through the tutorial I realized that Wu is super intelligent and funny, in addition to looking like a bombshell model with enormous fake breasts. And yeah, they’re fake, and no, she’s not ashamed, nor should she be.

Wu is in the news right now due to a huge dust-up with Vice over a profile written by Sarah Emerson. I want to talk about it because it hits on several interesting and controversial areas.

At the outset, Wu told Vice that she was wary of the profile focusing on her personal life. She made it very clear to them, in emails that Wu has since made public, that she could not discuss her family, her relationship status, or her sexual orientation. Vice claimed to be able to honor that.

 

Everything apparently was fine until after the interview, when Emerson asked Wu if they could Skype to address a Reddit-based conspiracy theory that Wu didn’t make any of her own creations, and that they were actually created by her tech-educated partner. According to Emerson, Wu then panicked and refused to address the question while accusing Vice of writing a hit piece on her. Wu asked to see a draft of the story before it was published, which Vice refused as it went against their policies.

At this point I honestly sympathized with Vice. The harassment Wu has gotten from Reddit is a legitimate story of interest, and it’s not normal in the US to allow a subject to see the entirety of an article before publishing. At best, you run major quotes past them to make sure their accurate.

When Vice didn’t cooperate, Wu then doxxed some of the journalists. She made a pair of boots with a digital display panel that showed a home address. Vice reported her actions to the platforms she was using, and Patreon (where she made most of her income) removed her account as doxxing is against their policies.

Again: I have to admit I was on Vice’s side here. The doxxing seemed to me to be egregious and an overreaction, especially considering that the article hadn’t even been published yet.

When it was published, Emerson included a passage describing her request to Skype about Reddit and Wu’s repeated insistence that it not be included in the story. This is where I started coming around to Wu’s side. And the more I read about all of this, the more I’m convinced that Wu is in the right and that Patreon should return her account.

The crux of the matter is a fundamental difference between two cultures: America and China. I know basically nothing about China. I’ve visited there once, including going to Wu’s hometown of Shenzen where I gave a talk. Even doing that much was serious business — it was difficult to get the required visa, and I was instructed multiple times that I had to be very, very careful what I say about politics and religion. And that’s as a foreigner, who at worst would just be kicked out of the country. If a Chinese National is caught holding the “wrong” opinions or if they’re seen to be doing something like, I don’t know, forming a social movement based on telling women and girls that they are equals who deserve to thrive in male-dominated tech spaces, the punishment can be much, much worse.

Even having been to China and seen some of that firsthand, it still took me a lot of thought and consideration to come around to seeing Wu’s viewpoint. That’s how strong our cultural bias is, and someone — anyone — at Vice should have had the awareness to take a step back and realize that maybe in this case, it would be worth changing the standards a little in order to work with a subject who could literally end up in prison because of a poorly written article, or even a well-written article that doesn’t translate accurately into Chinese when it hits Chinese social media. For instance, an article that champions Wu’s subversive push for women’s equality could be dangerous to her, as Jackie Luo pointed out in a Twitter thread where she lists several feminists and political bloggers who have ended up in Chinese prisons recently.

In other words, it’s more complicated then “interview subject overreacts and doxxes someone for no reason.”

Do I think Wu should have doxxed someone? Absolutely not. Aside from the fact that it made a journalist fear for the safety of his family, it didn’t work. They still published the article. And aside from the fact that it didn’t work, it hurt Wu’s credibility and made her look just as bad as Vice in the eyes of Western readers who don’t know any better. All that said, I get why she did it: she felt trapped and terrified and she lashed out in a desperate attempt to save herself.

All of that brings us to Patreon, a platform that I use and generally really love. They have a no-doxxing policy, and Wu violated it. But this entire saga up until now shows us that black and white policies don’t work across vastly different cultures, especially when all of us are actually on the same side. Vice didn’t want to do a hit piece — they wanted to celebrate Wu’s accomplishments and talk about harassment of women. Patreon doesn’t want to kick makers off their platform. But that’s what we get when corporations lay down rules in stone.

I don’t think Patreon should allow doxxing, but I’m also not sure that zero-tolerance is appropriate for cases like this. Give her a warning, delete the video, and let’s all move on having learned a thing or two about a culture other than our own. I don’t know.

Whether you agree with me or not on this, I suggest you follow @RealSexyCyborg on Twitter. It’s a complicated subject, but the only way to truly figure out where you stand is to hear from the actual people who are affected.

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