The Price of Anonymity: Our Principles?

I’m blessed with many friends in the Bay Area and incredibly grateful to count Caryl Shaw among them. It was pretty horrifying, then, to see the Digg “commentary” on an article which she wrote for PC Gamer. Luckily, much of the worst of the lot are being modded down as time goes on, but seriously, who really thinks that blatantly sexist comments are passable in 2008? That those kinds of comments occur on high-volume sites like Digg or Slashdot, sadly, doesn’t surprise me.

It’s really hard to know where to start in pondering the deep-seated misogyny that leads anyone to think that comments along those lines are OK, particularly in a public forum. That’s perhaps part of the issue: while public, Digg (and Slashdot, etc.) comments are anonymous enough to give voice to the kinds of behavior that any society must excise if it hopes to achieve anything near its potential. We have shared principles that govern our society because we agree (together) that they’re best for everyone and not just some smaller set of people. Anonymity suppresses the social enforcement functions that usually keep this kind of stuff from dominating the discussion by removing the sense of public shame that should be felt when saying vile things about others. Typing away at a keyboard allows one to feel alone but act in public in a way that creates an all-to-common dynamic online.

That got me thinking about OSCON and the talks that get proposed on the topic of gender balance nearly every year (I serve on the program committee). I usually find myself conflicted about such proposals, in part because I think the Open Source world has – in the main – been incredibly dishonest with itself to date regarding gender disparities. Jennifer and I seem to discuss it as it comes up every year, always ending up at the frustrating conclusion that this is the outcome the community allows. Surely this kind of objectionable behavior wouldn’t show up so frequently if we were closer to gender balance in the OSS world. But the larger tech world seems to be addressing the topic badly if at all and OSS is no exception. Organizations like LinuxChix, SFWOW, and the Anita Borg Institute seem to me as much as defense mechanism against pervasive misogyny than a viable path forward. Segregation can’t be our answer. Luckily there was a great talk this year by Emma Jane Hogbin (good notes here) which got to a lot of the meat of the issue (also, see Pia Waugh’s talk summary). I find the discussion about the offhand comments which are tolerated by OSS communities to be particularly spot on: many of these communities have very strict rules about how they build and discuss code but are completely tone-deaf to how they alienate 50% of the world. Under the surface of both gaming and OSS is much the same dynamic at play when it comes to the treatment of women and, well, anyone else who’s not a young white male from somewhere in the midwest. I’ve certainly seen my share of deplorable IRC conversations in rooms ostensibly dedicated to Open Source projects. Small or highly-focused communities might not put up with the crap that passes for discussion on Digg, but as communities grow without a strong set of norms in place and enforced, it seems inevitable that the semi-anonymous nature of the medium begets a hostile environment.

This is about the point where folks jump in to note that anonymity on the internet is a great tool for freedom; a way for the oppressed to express themselves and organize to further causes which are actually worth rallying to. But this argument breaks down quickly here: degenerate behavior in support channels or on discussions about popular links serves no principle, rises to no higher cause than prurient interest, and builds no “community” other than those who tolerate the objectification and denigration of half (or more) of the world’s population. Frankly, that’s not a community I want any part of.

So what, then, is the lesson for Open Source? Having just spent the week at OSCON, I’ve been slapped in the face once again by the complete lack of gender balance in Open Source contribution and computer engineering disciplines in general. It’s kinda painful to walk around the expo hall and just imagine that for every 5 guys there are 4 women who were insulted, condescended to, or in some other way diverted from the path that would have landed them at OSCON. Simplistic arguments about graduation and enrollment rates are the dismissible results of completely antiquated cultural biases (via a new large-scale UW-Madison study). The UW study makes the case plainly: when we stop expecting differences and behave as though they are abnormal, they go away. Yes, yes, there are evolutionary differences in the physiology of men and women, but nothing that in any way explains anything like the complete dearth of female participation in Open Source. So we are left with just ourselves to blame.

In the Dojo project forums, mailing lists, and IRC channel, there is a strict policy forbidding offensive and lewd behavior. With that basic rule in place and enforced by long-time members of the community, the hostile environment so common elsewhere hasn’t formed. That leads to a further puzzle: the Open Source world finds itself debating the moral and practical consequences of obtuse licensing aspects on a daily basis. What makes norms of community behavior around race, gender, and other forms of bias so different and loaded that Open Source community leaders then can’t or won’t speak to them? If we’re developing this software with society at large, for society at large, why is absence of half of society from the process not the largest topic of discussion in the OSS world? It’s certainly much more disturbing to me personally than any of the dickering over licenses that consumes so much time and attention.

The gaming world will need to clean up its own act, but the Open Source community doesn’t need to wait for that to happen before acting. Unlike for-profit endeavors, Open Source projects have total leeway to act because it’s the right thing to do and for no other reason. Open Source communities set standards – codes of conduct, if you will – regarding how code is developed, tested, licensed, and distributed. Open Source project leaders are in the business of setting standards for how well-organized communities act when it comes to code. So why are so many projects stopping there? The Ubuntu community Code of Conduct talks about respect but doesn’t mention gender at all and while the OSI Code of Conduct talks about civility, it doesn’t describe the norms which the community is held to aside from a reference to their Terms of Service which bury these expectations in 5 pages of legalese. At Dojo we haven’t laid out our code of conduct in a document to date, but this latest incident has convinced me now that it’s time to do so. Finding ways to modify our expectations around OSS participation by the “missing half” is now something I’m convinced is critical to the future of Open Source and computer science in general.

In that spirit, here’s a first draft of a Code of Conduct for all Dojo Foundation projects which I’ll send for discussion to the main Foundation list today for comment and hopefully adoption. Your thoughts on how it can be improved are much appreciated. It may not change the entire world of Open Source software development, computer science, or for that matter gaming, but we’ve got to start somewhere. We haven’t let the Dojo community be complicit in the kind of misogyny-fueled belligerence that passes for commentary on Digg so perhaps by codifying those standards we can help create a clean, brightly-lit space where everyone can work, not just young white guys with too much time not enough perspective.

Update: Emma Jane Hogbin notes that others are starting to run with this too. The Dojo Foundation response to the proposed Code of Conduct has been very positive while there seems to be a lot of skepticism so far on the FLOSS Foundations mailing list regarding the need for a pan-Foundation statement of conduct principles. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here.

Update 2: as I was listening to my podcasts this evening, I ran across a fascinating On The Media piece from this week that’s pretty much required listening on this topic. Amazing and introspective stuff.

Update 3: What would Digg be like with Yog Rules?

20 Comments

  1. James Westby
    Posted July 27, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Well said.

    Thanks for writing this. There’s a couple of choice
    quotes in there that I need to remember.

    Thanks,

    James

  2. sho
    Posted July 27, 2008 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    That was a very long way of saying “Build it and they will come”. My reply is, “no they won’t”.

    The problem of women participating in open source is not a result of hostile all-male environments. That is more an outcome of the fact that in current society men are far, far more interested in programming then women. The reasons for *that* are, as you say, complex societal issues, not the occasional misogynistic comment on IRC. So I think you’re looking at it from the wrong direction, and furthermore I think these “codes of conduct” you are proposing are needless overhead on a community that works pretty well as is and for whom overhead is death.

    Also, you’ve missed one critical point, which is that there is absolutely nothing stopping any open-source-minded woman from simply starting her own project and enforcing her rules there. If the projects have merit they will be used and gain momentum no matter the gender of the founder. There is *absolutely nothing* stopping women from creating their own communities. In that regard OSS is as level a playing field, and as pure a meritocracy, as you’ll find anywhere.

    The fact that this tsunami of woman-owned “counterprojects” does not, to my knowledge, exist, is a pretty powerful argument against your core thesis, which that it’s only the negative tone of *some* communities keeping the women away.

  3. Posted July 27, 2008 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    sho:

    It’s not “build it and they will come”, it’s “create a level playing field”, which is something that OSS projects ostensibly pride themselves on in every other aspect of their development processes. From that perspective, offensive, misogynistic behavior is a bug in the way projects and run and should be ruthlessly managed out in exactly the same way that bugs are hunted down in our code.

    You’re making a deterministic argument about how, because the computer science world is currently dominated by men today, that it should always be so and that we should accept that norm. What I’m saying is that even if it will be that way for some time to come, there’s zero reason to accept or expect that to be true in the future. We’re not going to solve this overnight, but the first step is to enable existing projects which believe in these norms to effectively mediate on behalf of all of their contributors, and that means setting standards.

    Your suggestion that we should have, or should want all-female “counter projects” totally misses the point and is in no way a proof for your argument. In fact, you’re propagating another fallacy of OSS – that forks are healthy, normal, and somehow serve the broader community interest. The passive-aggressive M.O. of OSS community conflict resolution is a different but related problem that I’ll blog about soon, but suffice to say that a lack of forking for non-technical reasons surely can’t be your proof point. Of course, it doesn’t help that you’re also wrong about “counter-projects” not existing: LinuxChix, Anita Borg, etc. are all set up as reactions to the often jarring world of FOSS for female participants. Just look at the list on the LinuxChix website:

    http://www.linuxchix.org/other-groups-women-computing.html
    http://www.linuxchix.org/other-groups-women-free-software.html

    You likely aren’t seeing these counter-projects because you aren’t looking for them.

    More to the point, though, you’re suggesting that it’s the fault of those who would rather not put up with belligerent behavior for leaving, and in that suggestion you are showing that you don’t understand the subtle power of dcsiriminationatory behavior. It’s the rational thing to do for any individual to not participate in an endeavor where they’re clearly not welcome, but it it’s not an instantaneous choice by the entire group. If it were an instantaneous gender-wide, gender-based decision, your thesis would work. But it doesn’t.

    Your mental model of behavior regarding how women should act in response to lewd, sexually charged behavior in a forum which is ostensibly dedicated to purely technical or product-related discussions shows that you don’t understand that the point of meritocracy isn’t to be a pissing contest for who can withstand the most abuse. If that were the bar, OSS projects should be content to just be glorified frat houses. If it doesn’t strike you as a problem that the allegory of frats to the OSS communities you contribute to is deeply apt, then you probably need to think very hard about what it means for OSS to be meritocratic.

    Regards

  4. Posted July 28, 2008 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Bravo for this, Alex.

  5. Bob
    Posted July 28, 2008 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    This needs to be said more often!

  6. Posted July 28, 2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Alex. Also, that was a far calmer and more reasoned response to Sho’s comment than it deserved.

    (Peripherally related, Charlie Stross just wrote about “Bechdel’s Law”, which highlights the matter of level playing fields (or lack thereof) in a different context: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2008/07/bechdels_law.html)

  7. Posted July 28, 2008 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Bravo–thanks so much for this post, Alex!

    if there’s anything that I, or wise-women.org can do to help out, just ask.

  8. ponvoula
    Posted July 29, 2008 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
    You know that reminds me of a recent article I read in the register…

    Recently, to draw attention away from the Debian SSL fiasco, Steve McIntyre (the project leader for Debain) complained to The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/03/debian_death_threats/) that a few men raised objections to the existance of various women’s rights groups that have attached themselves to a number of linux distributions and “community efforts” such as Debian. Steve revealed that “one female coder had been getting the threats as thanks for her hard work”.

    It surely would be strange and unfortunate for a programmer (someone who creates programs by writing computer code… which then does something) to be recieving threats on account of said person writing computer programs. Said productive person may not want to add the feature, or features, that the threatener desires to be in the program the programmer programmed.

    What do the “Debain Women” do however? What do these fearless womyn Debian Developers and “coders” take part in when they are not pledgeding “to stand together and not to be intimidated”.

    Let us read from their own accounts:

    women.debian.org/profiles/
    [quote]
    * Amaya Rodrigo Sastre
    What areas of Debian are you involved in?
    * Packaging. Maintaining my packages

    * Erinn Clark
    What areas of Debian are you involved with?
    * _Packaging_, the Debian Women Project, torturing my sparc64 with d-i tests.

    * Fernanda G. Weiden
    What areas of Debian are you involved with?
    * ->Packagingpackaging>packaging<>>packages<<>>>>>packages<<<<<<———-_________&&&&&&&&&&%%%%%%% and do a lot of PR,
    [/quote]

    They… package.
    That is not programming.

    Infact what these gaggle of womyn accomplish (other than “advocacy”: self serving pro-women, anti-man propaganda) is to petition whoever happens to be the then current Debian president to kick Men who are opposed to women’s rights out of Debian (such as how Ted Walther was dismissed when the then-current Debian head took a liking to Helen Faulkner, and then she (the pro-women’s rights worthless prostitute) took advantage of that liking to have Ted Wather kicked out of the project.)

    These women do not have the interests of Men in mind. They have the interests of women in mind. They should be removed from these projects, removed from society, and their political position (pro-women’s rights advocacy) removed from existance. It doesn’t matter how this is accomplished, all that matters is that women who do not serve men are not allowed to continue.

    Instead the pro-women’s rights anti-man overseers of the various freesoftware projects have decided to tell the Men that write the software to go fuck themselves while welcoming pro-women’s rights anti-men’s liberty female replacements that… package.

    ALL the feminist women in the opensource movement (and in the entire human race) should be executed brutally: such women do not serve the interests of Men; they are OPPOSED to the interests of MEN and are INFAVOR of the interests of women (which is generally to silence men’s criticism and speech, and take credit for the work of men). The feminist women of the opensource movement should be sent to hell (or heaven, somewhere not here).

  9. Posted July 29, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    ponvoula:

    I must say that I had a very hard time not agreeing with Akismet’s first classification of your post: it’s barely better than most of the other junk that it handily dispenses with. Pulling it out of the dustbin of the “spam” section may have been a mistake.

    I may yet delete it, but I’ll let others weigh in on what I should do here.

    Clearly, I’m Yog on my own blog and I can do what I like with your comment, but as an object lesson in how badly the OSS community is b0rken, it might serve some purpose – particularly for those who don’t think we (collectively) have a problem or don’t need policies to keep attitudes like yours from being given an undisputed forum.

    Your view of the contributions of others (particularly WRT gender) is so wrong-headed and destructive that I pray for the sake of whatever projects you interact with that they all have the sense to kick you out should you act that way in their fora. Your behavior certainly won’t find a home in Dojo Foundation projects.

    Trying to counter your “comment” point-by-point would likely be as futile as it would be depressing, so I won’t. Clearly you don’t even know enough about Debian and the process of building Linux distros to even understand what is a valuable contribution in a project like that. Hint: Linux distros package things. That’s what the whole point of distros, so those who package things form upstream form the backbone of a distro project. You, clearly, are not worth our time. I will just say once, clearly: until you can learn to value all types of contributions to OSS, not just code written by those who by an accident of genetics have outdoor plumbing, go away.

    You are destructive to everything we are trying to accomplish with Open Source. Go find some other community to destroy with your hatred and ignorance.

  10. Posted July 29, 2008 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic stuff, Alex. There’s a great line in Snow Crash (quoted in the comments to that Charlie Stross piece) that sums it up for me:

    “It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists.”

    Engineers tend to idealise the conversations and communities that gather around intellectual/abstract projects (as software projects are often seen) as purely intellectual themselves, and above the ego/insecurity-driven failings that plague other social situations. This is, of course, bollocks. By embracing codes of conduct such as yours, we may have a hope of getting near egalitarian communities of the kind that some poor fools think can be achieved with no dedicated effort.

  11. Posted July 29, 2008 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Update: I have “down modded” ponvoula’s comment, but not deleted it there. It seems essential to the conversation, such as it is, but I won’t hesitate to down-mod or delete comments in the same vein in the future.

  12. Tim
    Posted July 30, 2008 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Makes me wonder what sort of world this would be if the entire human race were blind, and only the important things, like what people think and feel, mattered.

  13. WC
    Posted July 30, 2008 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    “Go find some other community to destroy with your hatred and ignorance.”

    Ooh, pot meet kettle!

    I can’t read ponvoula’s post (it’s not there, despite not having been ‘deleted’) but your reply to it was just as damaging to the community as his post was. People could have read his post and said ‘oh man, is HE misguided!’ and continued on, but then you reply and act as spokesman for the community… And you’re just as nasty.

    I agree with Sho, btw. If women were interested in open source projects, they’d join them. Some are, and do. Heck, the majority of most males techies aren’t interested in them, either.

    Is there a barrier to entry for women in OSS? Yeah, I’ll admit that it’s a higher barrier than for men. But it’s not high enough that it would keep out anyone that was actually interested. The entire ‘tech community’ on the internet is male-biased… Just head to Digg or Slashdot and you’ll see many comments about how ‘there are no women on the internet’ and constant jokes claiming anyone obviously female is actually male.

    As for starting their own projects, he’s right about that, too. Just like you can delete any comment from your blog you don’t like, the leader of an OSS project can remove any member they like as well.

    No, the playing field is not level… But it’s not so tilted that it would force people out, either.

  14. Posted July 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I could say, “I made the mistake of reading ponvoula’s comment”, but on reflection I think I am better off having read it, because it is so utterly shocking. It’s a perfect example of the kind of _poison_ that can be casually dropped into a conversation under the veil of anonymity, and clear evidence (if any was needed) that codes of conduct and community standards are not just welcome, but _vital_ components for healthy online discourse.

  15. Posted July 30, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    WC:

    The post hasn’t been deleted. A link should appear (if the script is working right) to give you the chance to open it up (works for me on FF, Safari, and Opera). Furthermore, there’s nothing even slightly hypocritical here: I’m suggesting that moderation and setting the tone is a good thing in the face of “comments” which do nothing but drive away some very large percentage of our potential contributors. ponvoula doesn’t qualify as a “very large percentage of our potential contributors”. He’s a small minority which is doing great harm. Societies which can’t find ways to police small minorities which abuse their power and position don’t deserve success and power.

    But don’t misunderstand me: I’m not making a purely moral argument. There is a practical consequence to letting folks assume that the Open Source world will gladly tolerate blatantly sexist behavior in order to serve some jaundiced idea of “fairness”. The OSS world is losing out on much of its potential community, a community which is essential to our long-term, wide-spread success. I don’t want OSS just to succeed in the lives of the men of the planet. On a practical basis, I’d rather the OSS world have the participation of the many women (and others) who feel disenfranchised than feel hostage to the hateful tirades of the ponvoula’s of the world.

    More to the point, to take your suggestion to it’s logical conclusion, why don’t the sexists in the OSS world go form their own projects? I’m not saying I’m in favor of that (it would be far better if everyone behaved as adults), but it does seem a better and more just solution than the one you propose.

    Regards

  16. Posted July 30, 2008 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    WC: “Is there a barrier to entry for women in OSS? Yeah, I’ll admit that it’s a higher barrier than for men. But it’s not high enough that it would keep out anyone that was actually interested.”

    So you admit that there is a higher barrier to entry for women than for men, and you imply that this is acceptable. Three questions for you:

    1) What do you consider to be the barrier?

    2) Can you explain _why_ it is acceptable for a primarily online community whose very existence is predicated on the ideas of freedom and “openness” to exclude a group of people based on their physical characteristics?

    (Think carefully about this one. Would you find it similarly acceptable if the higher barrier applied to, say, fat people, or people with ginger hair?)

    3) Why are you commenting anonymously?

  17. Posted July 31, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much for this.

  18. janus
    Posted August 3, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I find the conversation interesting, but while im not the guy upstairs, let me make a point on what he was saying

    1) What do you consider to be the barrier?

    I consider the higher barrier basic distrust. I for one can answer for myself I distrust everyone new – no matter who they are. I will also “test” them, by poking fun a bit at them for a week or two. Note I do this to everyone. The point is “why is it worse for women?” Take this as a generalisation – partially correct, partially incorrect – they tend to take offense more personally. If you dig into me once, I hardly notice – and so do my male friends. I noticed that women, and girls, tend to take offense easier. Why? I dont know. So they feel offended by jokes – specially sexist ones – worse than we do. I’ve been made fun of when I met a couple of my girl friends in a group going down town. It wasn’t nice, but by next day I put it out of my mind. Yet two weeks later(when by guy standards) it was gone and forgotten, two of them came separately each and apologized. I didn’t understand why – its the only reason why I still remember the incident.

    2) Can you explain _why_ it is acceptable for a primarily online community whose very existence is predicated on the ideas of freedom and “openness” to exclude a group of people based on their physical characteristics?
    (Think carefully about this one. Would you find it similarly acceptable if the higher barrier applied to, say, fat people, or people with ginger hair?)
    I do NOT exclude these people – they choose to exclude themselves on a personal offense that they percieve – I consider it a mix of obnoxious riff raff that happens on a large scale (noise in a big full room?).

    3) Why are you commenting anonymously?
    I cannot comment on this for a third person

  19. abi
    Posted August 4, 2008 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    quoth janus:

    The point is “why is it worse for women?” Take this as a generalisation – partially correct, partially incorrect – they tend to take offense more personally. If you dig into me once, I hardly notice – and so do my male friends. I noticed that women, and girls, tend to take offense easier. Why?

    - o0o -

    I can answer that.

    Because for me, it’s not “just once” that people dig into me online. In the past, it has been frequent enough, and frequently with malice enough, that it became a pattern. Many women online experience this. Sometimes it’s someone “testing” us, but sometimes the person on the other keyboard actually is out to get us. Sometimes it’s funny, but sometimes it’s just vile.

    And it can be hard to tell the difference.

    This is probably also why your female friends apologised to you. I bet they know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the third good verbal kicking in a week, and how an isolated playful dig can add to that damage.

    Rather than taking your experience as a bloke online as the default, maybe you could learn from theirs, which is just as rational as yours, but stems from different experiences. Do you ever wonder how many people you have genuinely hurt with your testing humor?

    Without meaning anything by it, you may be raising the very barrier you cited, making others distrust you further. Is this a good thing? Do you really want to contribute to that kind of atmosphere?

  20. William J. Chapman
    Posted September 21, 2008 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Alex,
    The following url it supposed to take me to the dojo api documentation:
    http://api.dojotoolkit.org/
    Instead it is redirecting here:
    http://alex.dojotoolkit.org/

    Alex, I enjoy you site very much! I also own your book! So how can I get to the dojo api documentation page?

    Thanks,
    – Bill

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] know I should be glad men are writing about sexism in tech (and I am) but stuff like this always kinds of annoys me too. The person who marked it for me in del.cio.us (btw, I can’t [...]

  2. [...] The Price of Anonymity: Our Principles? | Continuing Intermittent Incoherency Here’s what zopemaven said: “Hmm. Good article, but I find myself not wanting to link to Yet Another Man Discovering the Issue (sigh). Still, the code-of-conduct proposed seems pretty good, and at least he links out to women in his post.” (tags: toread opensource tech women communication sexism) [...]