Community, Gender, and Free/Open Source Software

Just came across yet another excellent post from Alex Russell of the Dojo project (and foundation): “The Price of Anonymity: Our Principles?

Russell uses the occasion of some nasty comments in Digg on a Caryl Shaw article for PC gamer (and a series of presentations at OSCON a few weeks back) to reflect on the issue of sexism in free and open source software communities. Ultimately, the issue is really about what kinds of communities we want to be building. As he notes:

the frustrating conclusion [is] 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.

Many have argued, of course, that free expression is the ultimately value above all others, and that keeping the purity of free expression inviolate somehow requires allowing people to behave badly. But it is important to think not only about the positive value of free expression but also the negative impacts of the kinds of comments commonly seen in IRC channels and public forums:

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.

How does this particularly apply to free and open source software? Given the self-forming nature of community, the reliance of our projects on participation, and the attention paid in such communities to issues of governance, one might expect free and open source software projects to be ahead of the curve in this respect:

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.

Of course there were a number of presentations at OSCON which touched on this issue or addressed it directly. Unfortunately I missed Emma Jane Hogbin’s talk, about how she managed to get 50% female participation and speakers at her conference.

I did get a chance to see Pia Waugh’s talk on Heroes: Women in FOSS, which focused on creating visibility for women already in free software and going directly to primary schools to show young girls that technology is an option for women. Danese Cooper’s keynote Why Whinging Doesn’t Work — which was originally focused on women in open source, but was broadened for the “general audience” — also focused on creating and making visible positive success stories, including the directive “teach your daughters to code” as a core mechanism for breaking this cycle. (Whether they go on to become programmers, I’d say, is nearly irrelevant – think of the whole digital literacy and set of assumptions that gets broken in the process of learning to program – changing the kind of “magic” of making the machine work into a tactical, knowable process).

Russell links to a draft code of conduct for all Dojo Foundation projects. I’m sure this will generate lots of discussion – some of it serious and well meaning, some of it snide, sarcastic, and misogynist. (The blogosphere in general loves to attack codes of conduct perceived as too idealistic).

But ultimately the more important thing, I think, is the social norms we all as free and open source software community participants enforce and encourage on a daily basis. It’s all well and good to have a code of conduct or other document which encodes those norms and makes them clear to new participants, but it ultimately comes down to what behaviors we all tolerate or engage in.

It brings me back to the same thoughts I had at and after ROFLcon, in which many aspects of “internet culture” were being celebrated that I hoped would be more critically examined.

If free and open source software is produced by and for communities, what kind of communities do we hope those will be, and what are we doing to ensure that they are communities in which we’d like to live?

I came to software (mostly web) development (and FOSS) from the academic world, in a graduate English department, having done a doctoral dissertation which (in part) was on the reconfigurations of race, gender, and class in US history at the turn into the 20th century, and how “the city” provided both the geographic context and dominant trope for the exploration of anxiety generated by these changes.

In essence what that experience taught me is that the stories which community members tell each other — about what they are trying to accomplish, about what values they share, and about other participants as well as non-participants — are critical to community definition. More critical, ultimately, than even the explicit foundational governance documents.

That doesn’t mean I think codes of conduct are a bad idea – it helps to be able to point to values in an encoded form when bad behavior occurs – but that the informal, social norms based enforcement of a living community is always a stronger and more lasting mechanism.


  1. Social networks provide a model for creating friendly places where good people can get together and not have to deal with trolls. Basically, they just let you block people that you find objectionable. This leads to communities that get better and better because nice people attract nice people, and if the trolls get blocked by everyone, then there’s no one for them to practice their infantile bad behavior on.
    If someone is perhaps an excellent technical contributer, but a bad actor when it comes to social interactions, then the community must choose to do without his/her contribution to keep the group on the civility level it wants.
    This robs no one of their freedom. An individual shunned by one community can join another or start their own community of people who are not bothered by or may actually enjoy jousting with other trolls.
    It’s an interesting question because at the end of the day, there is more at stake than just who-talks-to-who. There is the source that the community works on and the technical questions and discussions that go on. It’s disturbing to think that there are people who can’t have a technical discussion without insulting someone. I’m convinced these are the people with the lowest self-esteem and confidence in their work. What they can’t achieve by merit they attempt to achieve by intimidation.
    Frankly, I am very happy to do without the contributions of someone who is insulting, bullying or arrogant. At some point, someone decides what code gets into the releases and what doesn’t. That person has to decide if they need bad actors in their group of contributors or not.
    I think a good social group that self polices by shunning will attract more good contributors than it loses. It’s sort of the same thing that happened when smoking was banned in bars in my state. Many establishments actually saw an increase in business because people didn’t have to put up with smoke anymore and there are many more non-smokers than smokers now. In the same way, I think there are more well-behaved people than trolls.
    Self-organizing groups of coders have no obligation to admit people who don’t behave. It’s the right of free association, basically. So maybe what open source projects need are more social networking tools, like blocking and befriending.

  2. There was a huge blowup/ discussion of community and gender at MetaFilter last year. That thread was really just the jumping off point for it. Anyone willing to have a discussion about norms for a community has something invested in that community already, so I think there\’s a tendency to fight to keep things \”like they are\”, though \”like they are\” is based on one\’s perspective. Everyone brings biases to the table, so it\’s hard to shake out a fair set of rules.

    (In the interests of full disclosure, I\’m \”yerfatma\” in the discussion linked above, clearly indicating my care for mores and norms, I suppose.)

  3. Tom – sorry your comment got a bit munged, including the link.

    Seems like the 2.2.1 version of the OpenID plugin maybe is the issue? I hate to disable it but may have to if it keeps doing this. (Adding backslashes to escape quotes, killing the href= part of the

  4. The images don’t come from the OpenID provider – basically if there is an hcard residing at your openid endpoint, it will get picked up – but in your case there isn’t one.

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