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 wouldnâ€™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 â€œcommunityâ€ other than those who tolerate the objectification and denigration of half (or more) of the worldâ€™s population. Frankly, thatâ€™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 canâ€™t or wonâ€™t speak to them? If weâ€™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? Itâ€™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.