Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

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?