Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

What Paul Graham Didn’t Say

Paul Graham responds to an interview he gave to the Information — Jessica Lessin’s new project — which was subsequently turned into something of a hit piece by gossip rag Valleywag:

Big chunks of the original conversation have been edited out, including a word from within that sentence that completely changes its meaning. What I actually said was:

We can’t make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

I.e. I’m not making a statement about women in general. I’m talking about a specific subset of them. So which women am I saying haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years? This will seem anticlimactic, but the ones who aren’t programmers.

That sentence was a response to a question, which was also edited out. We’d been talking about the disproportionately small percentage of female startup founders, and I’d said I thought it reflected the disportionately small percentage of female hackers.

Jessica Lessin disagrees with Graham’s assertion of what “these” refers to:

We edited a bit around some of Mr. Graham’s quotes on female founders. Specifically, we edited a “these” from the quote. The reason was simple. The “these” didn’t refer to anything. The paragraph that preceded it referred to Mark Zuckerberg being a hacker and it immediately followed a question about what would be lost if YC encouraged more women to be startup founders.

Lessin also published the full, unedited transcript of the salient portion of the interview.

There are a few interesting takeaways from this encounter which, I suspect, isn’t finished yet. First, if anything, both of these posts make the situation more complex, not simpler. Lessin admits that she removed “these” from the transcript because it didn’t immediately refer to anything; Graham thinks it did refer to something specific. In either case, that edit completely changed the meaning of the quotation.

Second, it seems that Eric Newcomer didn’t bother following up when the murky “these” was introduced in the interview. I’d anticipate that this would have been clarified in a followup question, such as “What do you mean by ‘these’?,” but no such question appears in the transcript.

Third, this is a particularly delicate time for the Information’s credibility to be questioned. The site just launched, using Lessin & Co.’s substantial cachet as its cornerstone.

Finally, Paul Graham appears to be innocent of the wretched things Valleywag accused him of in their post. He may not be the most eloquent speaker, which caused confusion here, and he has said some pretty awful things in the past. But here, in this instance, he appears only a little misunderstood, if anything. All of the false drama that Valleywag has created and all of the insane tweets I’ve seen over the past day are completely unhelpful to improving the standing of women in tech.

Having said that, there’s some undefined territory that remains, and I will revise my opinion as more information becomes known.