Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider, was largely unknown to the world until this week, when the world discovered his history of making crass tweets on topics ranging from rape to gay people to poor people. One tweet involved the N-word.
Amid the backlash, Dickinson was fired the next day. In his first interview since the Incident, he spoke to Daily Intelligencer about what he regrets, sexism in the tech industry, and why his wife of fifteen years thinks the whole thing is "bullshit."
Do you have any regrets?
Well, of course, I mean, I loved my job. Business Insider was great. I had a great three years there. So, you know, I have regrets. But I think what I’m doing now, I can bounce back from this. Glimpse is a great product, I’m really excited to be working on the new product full-time. I think it’s something that’s needed, with the way the NSA is, and encryption really needs to be brought to the mainstream, and so I’m excited about it. So I have regrets, but I’m excited too. I’m excited about the future.
Do you regret the tweets, do you regret how you handled the backlash — what exactly do you regret about it?
I regret some of the tweets. Some of them — they were taken out of context. They’re old. I should have been more careful. I definitely blame myself. So I regret, you know, being a little too intemperate maybe. Maybe putting things out there that led easily to be misinterpreted under my own name, which is my mistake, and I’m paying for it.
In a post-controversy blog post, you insisted that the tweets that many people found offensive were merely satire. Why didn’t people get the joke?
Well, to a certain extent a lot of the tweets that were really called out on me were very old and topical, and the topical nature was lost. You know, a three-and-a-half-year-old tweet about Mel Gibson, the context was kind of lost there. If I had known that tweet was there I would have gone back and deleted it just because it could be taken out of context too easily. But I still — I still think it was funny, so I don't apologize that much. It was a funny joke, sorry!
During the backlash earlier this week, you tweeted, “I’ve been expecting this to happen for a long time.” If you knew your tweets were going to get you in trouble, why did you keep writing them?
Well, I mean, I suspected that I might get grief over the tweets. I did not expect the magnitude of the firestorm.
Why do you think the firestorm was so big?
I guess it just struck a nerve somehow? I don't know. The media needs a bad guy, and I fit the role well, so I don't take it very personally.
Did your Business Insider colleagues, or anyone else, ever warn you about your tweets before this whole thing erupted?
I don't really want to talk about BI, it’s still a sticky situation right now. So I don't want to discuss too much what happened at BI, specifically ...
What about your friends maybe saying, “Hey, you should be careful about this kind of stuff.”
Yeah, I've had friends say that in the past, but you know, they also know me, and they know the real me. And the people who know the real me like kind of don't — would never take those tweets that kind of way. They know me well enough to know that I'm kidding, I'm playing a role. It’s a thing, it’s being — it’s comedy, it’s fun. People are so thin-skinned and, I don't know, we can't joke anymore in this society, it seems. And that’s kind of unfortunate, it seems. And it’s unfortunate that people didn't try to get my side of the story at all, really. It was just an instant thing. A post went on on Valleywag at 6:30 p.m., and 9:30 the next morning I lost my job. I feel there was a big rush, and that wasn’t necessary, and my side of the story could have been gotten easily. I'm easy to reach.
Some people would argue that ascending to a position of power in the corporate world means giving up the freedom to make crass jokes about women and poor people and gays in public. Do you disagree?
Well, I guess I'm living proof that that's actually pretty true. I don't think it should be that way. I think that we can talk and we can joke and we can communicate and find out what people are really talking about. My jokes may be harsh, but they all have a point; I don't just disparage people for no reason. I'm making a point every time. When I say that someone on minimum wage, you know, I'm pointing out there’s a skill problem; the problem isn't the amount of money they make, the problem is the skills. We need to help get better skills, not worry about legislatively increasing their pay, that’s not going to help the situation.
Did you see the post by Elissa Shevinsky, who helped you co-found your new start-up? On Medium she said that she was “surprised and not amused by the tweets that surfaced over the last few days.” But she seemed to also know you pretty well. So how does that square with you saying that most people who know you think this is just a ridiculous dust-up over nothing?
Well, Elissa has to be careful. She has a career of her own, and I’m pretty radioactive right now. I don’t blame anybody for needing to distance from me. I have people who want to defend me, and I won’t let them, because they’re going to just become targets. And I don't want — I’ll take this on myself. I don’t need anyone else to become a target on my behalf. That’s not fair, and I don’t think that will help. I mean, I don’t think that pointing to a friend here a friend there that says, “Hey, Pax is a really good guy." That’s not going to help me, you know? That’s immaterial.
When your tweets were being criticized, you responded, “feminism in tech remains the champion topic for my block list. my finger is getting tired.” That wasn’t satire, and that fanned the flames.
Yeah, and I’m surprised by that. I mean, when I tweet about feminism in tech, I get a lot of grief. I get vitriol, and it’s content-free vitriol. And when I get content-free vitriol, I, you know, tend to block. That’s what I used to do. That was kind of my way of keeping the haters away. And now, you know, it doesn’t really matter anymore. The haters are everywhere, so I don't need to block anybody anymore. But that’s all I meant by that. I don't block people who are making a valid point. I block people who are just, you know, calling me a douchebag. That’s not necessary. I'm going to block that. And I never get that kind of content-free vitriol on any other topic. If I touch a controversial topic, I'll talk to people and go back and forth and say what I mean, but with that it tends to be vitriol, so.
Do you think the tech world has a woman problem?
I think the tech world is just kind of — it doesn’t have a woman problem. Women in tech are great. There's just not that many of them because tech is just a kind of thing that a lot of women aren’t that interested in, I think. I mean, I don't think it has a problem. I'd worry more about taking away what makes tech great. The freewheeling nature of it is what leads to innovation. And my fear is that if we’re all going to police what we say, maybe we lose that innovation. And tech is important, it’s really important to this country and to the world. And I'd hate to see us kill the goose that lays the golden egg by turning it into a politically correct wasteland.
But doesn’t the freewheeling atmosphere also lead to things like Titstare and other things that are sexist and make women feel uncomfortable, which leads to the fact that women might not want to be in tech?
Sure, and men need to be careful of that. We need to be careful about doing those things that make women uncomfortable. I spoke out against Titstare. I thought it was crass and sexist and stupid. It was the dumbest thing in the world, and what I was attempting to point out is that, yes, Titstare is crass and sexist and stupid, but it’s not misogyny.
Real misogyny is, you know, hatred of women and violence against women and all that. Those are terrible things, but let’s not devalue those things, let’s not make those things, let’s not trivialize them by using the same words for things like Titstare. I mean, Titstare is harmless. It’s crass, but it’s harmless. but men need to be more careful. I wrote something on BI about this a while back in a comment, and it was about that men need to be more careful, and women need to understand that when men do some of these things we’re just being men, we’re just letting off steam. We’re not trying to make you uncomfortable, we’re not intending to be sexist. We’re not, you know — mistakes get made. We all need to just try to communicate a little bit, I think.
Putting yourself in a woman’s shoes, would you want to work for Pax Dickinson?
I've worked with women, I've worked for women, I've had women working for me. And it’s fine. I mean, obviously. I work in New York City, you know, diversity capital of the world. I don't have any problems with anybody. My career would never have gotten to this point — the point I was at, before — if I was that kind of person. So it just seems obvious to me that I'm not the guy they’re portraying me as. But you know, the media is going to be what the media is going to be. They didn’t want to get my point of view, they wanted to frame me as a monster.
This has gotten you a lot of publicity at the same time you’re launching this other venture. Has it all worked out in your favor?
Um, I dont know, we’ll see. I’m trying. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll be blacklisted, maybe I won’t be able to get funding. We’re going to see what happens. I think it’s an interesting experiment. I think that this is certainly an interesting moment in the country, in history, with regards to, you know, women in tech and this kind of witch hunting, and what’s going to happen? I don’t know. I’m having fun with it.
Are you going to change how you tweet at all?
Not planning to, no.
What would you say you learned from the episode as whole? What do you take away from it?
What I take away is that the media isn’t very professional. Yeah, I made a mistake. Being at a large company like Business Insider has certain demands, and I certainly made mistakes. But I think that everything’s going to be okay. I think that this is maybe not going to help me, but it’s going to definitely lead to a new phase, and I’m excited to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s been a roller-coaster ride this week.
Do you consider yourself a "bro"?
I’m really not. Yeah, I have a brogrammer photo on my Twitter — that’s a joke man, come on. I don’t pop my collar! Like, this is so silly. People are putting up Halloween pictures of me, you know? It’s insane. I’m not even — I’m a nerd! I don’t know where the bro stuff comes from. Yeah, okay, I’m pretty cool for a nerd, but I’m still a nerd.
Do you have a girlfriend?
I’ve been married for fifteen years.
So, yeah, exactly. See this is what I’m saying. You didn’t expect to hear that.
People have not been getting the right impression of me, and it’s unfortunate, but no one tried to get the right impression of me.
So what did your wife think about this whole thing, people calling you a misogynist and stuff like that?
She thinks it's bullshit! She knows me, this is ridiculous. The worst part about it is, for me, the people who love me are very upset. And they’re really hurt and upset. To me, you know, you wanna call me names, I don’t care. I have thick skin, I can take it. Say whatever you want. I know who I am, and it doesn’t matter. What strangers say doesn’t matter. My friends and people that know me have all been uniformly supportive. Their fear is the media and a witch-hunt atmosphere, and, well they should be, but I’ve got to keep truckin’ and I’ve got to handle this this way. I feel like if I try to back down and crawl in a hole then that’s the end for me. So I have to keep pushing it.
You have anything else you want to say that we didn’t touch on?
I just want to talk about my start-up, that it’s going to be amazing. Ed Snowden said that strong crypto still works, and it’s the only thing that you can count on. And I really want to bring strong crypto to the masses, I want to really take on the NSA and be the guy that brings privacy back to the Internet. And I’m the poster child for this. Things haunting people on the Internet, you know, you could put me on a poster. And I think I've shown that with my stubbornness and my refusal to bow that I’ll be the same. If the NSA comes to me and says, “We’re going to put you in jail if you don't let us know everything that people are doing on your site,” well, I’ll be moving to the dacha next to Snowden, if that’s the case.