Naomi Wu is a prolific “maker” — the word for tech-savvy hobbyists who build creative projects using hardware and software — who has had multiple DIY projects go viral and get picked up by the press. But instead of being celebrated in the community, which revolves around online spaces as well as hackerspaces and events like Maker Faire, she’s being told she doesn’t exist.
Wu, a 23-year-old Shenzhen-based web developer who goes by the handle SexyCyborg, has 138,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than 500 supporters on Patreon. She codes, 3D prints, gives tours of Shenzhen hardware markets with a 360 camera, and builds fashion wearables that she open sources. Her LED-lit mini skirt, 3D printed bra, and platform “Hacker Heels” that contained a hidden kit for finding weaknesses in a network, are just a few of the projects that have gotten her attention across the web.
But for many months, something else has been going viral: an online conspiracy theory that she isn't really a “maker,” but being used as a mascot for her white engineer boyfriend. One Reddit post claims that she's not the “tech genius she claims to be. She is a puppet that was created to garner views and free stuff for her engineer husband.”
The conspiracy theory spread via Reddit, anonymous blog posts, and finally through Dale Dougherty, considered the father of the maker movement, and the leader of Maker Media, which runs the Maker Faire shows and the magazine, Make. The term “maker movement” comes from a column he wrote back in 2005, an idea to bring together hobbyists and hackers under one branded banner. The idea caught on among everyday hobbyists, but it was also quickly taken up by everyone from personalities like Brit Morin to corporations like GE.
Last weekend, Dougherty acknowledged and supported the conspiracy that Wu was merely a model and not a true maker. “I am questioning who she really is. Naomi is a persona, not a real person,” he said in a now-deleted tweet. “She is several or many people.” He then asked followers to DM him for more details; one did, and Dougherty told him to Google “Naomi Wu liar and fake,” admitting: “I am trying to get more direct evidence.”
That effort to “get more direct evidence” apparently included emailing an American hacker who knew Wu — and then ignoring his response. “What is personally disappointing is that Dale reached out to me on November 2nd with an email asking what I thought about an anonymous post that accused Naomi of being a fake,” wrote Andrew “bunnie” Huang, an American member of the maker community and the author of Hardware Hacker. “I vouched for Naomi as a real person and as a budding Maker… Yet Dale decided to take an anonymous poster’s opinion over mine... and a few days later on November 5th he tweeted a link to the post suggesting Naomi could be a fake or a fraud, despite having evidence of the contrary.”
“She is a puppet that was created to garner views and free stuff for her engineer husband.”
Dougherty has since posted an apology on Make's website: “Naomi, I apologize for my recent tweets questioning your identity. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” Dougherty did not respond to a request for comment; Make said it would send a statement but never did. It’s unclear exactly what Dougherty was questioning. Wu doesn’t claim to have any special skills; in fact, she is insistent that her projects don’t require special skills and that she is still learning. “My projects are still very simple but I enjoy working on them and people seem to find them fun,” she writes in her FAQ. She frequently says she needs more training and claims to have no more skills than a high-school student, and often asks for help — that's the whole point of the maker community, after all. If Dougherty was suggesting Wu doesn’t possess even the modest skills she claims to have in order to build things like an LCD-screen bikini, 3D-printed necklace, or makeup palette for hiding tech tools, that is easily disproven by watching her her drilling, soldering, sawing and using other tools with a comfortable ease in her many videos. If he’s suggesting that she isn’t the sole creator behind her projects, well, no one said makers can’t have help. And anyway, who cares?
In addition to being attacked by petty tweets, Wu claims she's been kept out of the pages of Make magazine and off the stage at her own local Maker Faire in Shenzhen in part because of the way she looks. Wu often wears short skirts and skimpy tops to show off her tiny stomach and large chest. On her FAQ she calls herself a “transhumanist” and says she likes body modification — in her case, breast implants — because she wants to look unconventional. “Visible body modification, weight issues and odd (or even inappropriate) taste in clothing are pretty normal for technical and creative types,” she writes. However, she told me over DM on Twitter that she was willing to dress to suit if it meant she could participate in Make’s events and magazine.
But it is more than just her clothing, Wu believes, that prompted Dougherty to take a shot at her. Last year, Wu tells me she complained to organisers about the lack of women at the Shenzhen Maker Faire, pushing for better representation; a few women were added, but they were only allowed to speak “in more appropriate administrative and teaching roles, not hands on tech,” she told me via DM on Twitter.
For this year's show, set to start within days, the situation is similar, and Wu again complained, she told me. Women are slated to speak at the show, but they aren't being shown in any of the promotional material, she argues. As part of Dougherty's apology, he promised her a spot at the show, but she only plans to take him up on it if other women are given a higher profile, too. “I would have taken it if they agree to advertise the other women,” she said over DM on Twitter. “But I'm not going to help them marginalize other women.”
Indeed, Wu is not accepting his apology at all. Alongside losing coverage in Make and at Maker Faire — important for someone relatively new to the maker community — Wu said she's already lost a sponsor and gotten interview requests asking for her to “make something in front of us.” In other words, prove you can — which again seem ludicrous given the dozens of videos she’s already uploaded of herself making things.
Make and Maker Faire are important to Wu's work, but they aren't the only gatekeepers in the maker community, and she's received support from Adafruit, MakerBot, and Huang’s BunnieStudios. Huang wrote about how he sees Wu as the victim of four unique forces: prototype bias (the idea that an attractive Chinese woman with fake breasts and short skirts doesn't look like an engineer), idol effect (that while Wu has never exaggerated her abilities, some of her fans did), power asymmetry (Dougherty’s influence meant his accusation did real damage), and “guanxi bias,” which refers to the tendency of Chinese people to trust a Western face and famous Western brand over a local.
One of Wu’s recent videos.
“Unfortunately, when the CEO of Maker Media, a white male leader of an established American brand, suggested Naomi was a potential fake, the Internet inside China exploded on her. Sponsors cancelled engagements with her,” Huang wrote. “Followers turned into trolls. She can’t be seen publicly with men (because others will say the males are the real Maker, see “prototype bias”), and as a result faces a greater threat of physical violence.”
It's the classic cry of “fake geek girl” — spotted in gaming and the rest of tech, too — but it's particularly problematic for the maker movement, which claims to be trying to increase its diversity and encourage girls in particular to try to build things.
While there's plenty of trash-talking in the comments beneath many other YouTube maker videos, it's generally a welcoming community. Asked if she's seen anyone else accused of being a fake, Wu tells me no. “I've never heard of such a thing. Men just show a finished project in their hands and no one questions it.” Meanwhile, “some people from the art side just come up with the idea and have someone else build it” and no one objects, she said.
In other words, none of those flinging conspiracy theories at Wu actually cares if she can solder or not — they only care that she's a Chinese woman in heels.