Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2012 Sep 27 | Good Faith Collaboration in Paperback


I’m pleased to announce that there’s one more way to enjoy Good Faith Collaboration. If you still like the feel of paper but $25 is too much you can now have a copy of the paperback for under $15. Happy page turning!

2012 Sep 25 | Gender in F/LOSS

Dawn Nafus has published an excellent paper entitled “Patches Don’t Have Gender”: What is not Open in Open Source Software. When I read it, I did so with some trepidation as I feared it might render my draft Free as in Sexist redundant. However, while we make a similar argument, we do go about it in different and complementary ways.

Despite the title, which is quoting a man on the supposed neutrality of code, Nafus’ argument is better reflected in the subtitle: “what is not open in open source software.” In short:

In Free as in Sexist? I make a similar argument: that geekiness, openness, and freedom – things I otherwise laud – are at the heart of the imbalance. That is, some geek identities can be narrow and unappealing, open communities are especially susceptible to difficult people who are especially alienating to women, and the ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice.

Interestingly, Christina Dunbar-Hester and Gabriella Coleman have posted a rebuttal of Nafus’ piece entitled Engendering Change? Gender Advocacy in Open Source. (Nafus makes use of Coleman’s work on liberalism in hacker culture.) Dunbar-Hester and Coleman argue that:

However, while I have enormous respect (and gratitude) towards Biella, I do not find their response convincing. While I agree that recent advocacy and discourse is heartening (e.g., too of my favorites are GeekFeminism and AdaCamp) this is an (important) beginning rather than proof that substantive progress has been made. Furthermore, as I argue, it only takes a few “bad apples” among a barrel of sympathetic allies to render the environment toxic. Finally, I think the point on gender hacking is techno-utopian. Indeed, both Nafus and I note Eric Raymond’s early musing as an example of this; he made the questionable claim that hacker culture is more gender balanced because of participants’ geeky enthusiasms:

after all, if one’s imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can’t seem very important any more. [Raymond1991jf]

Instead, I – and I think Nafus – share the disappointment of Lisa Nakamura who realized, in the late 90s even, that all the talk about gender irrelevance or fluidity in cyberspace came to naught. While one might have found some ungendered or queered performances online, one was more likely to find white men playing as Mr. Sulu or as a libidinous geisha [Nakamura1998rci].

None-the-less, I find all of this to be important and fascinating and thank Nafus, Dunbar-Hester, and Coleman for the engaging reading.

2012 Sep 19 | “404 Not Found”: Infocide in Open Content Communities

The initial draft of “404 Not Found”: Infocide in Open Content Communities is available. I welcome comments here, or via email.

Abstract: The term infocide, and related neologisms such as cybersuicide, are identified and distinguished as a type of cyberlanguage. The complexities of infocide are then explored in open content communities with respect to reasons, enactment, and community reactions. I find that infocides are often prompted by the exhaustion of maintaining an online life, by discontent towards an online community, and over privacy concerns that one’s real and online identifies have intersected. Community responses are also varied: infocides might be ignored, lamented, sleuthed, and mitigated by preserving content that was taken down.

2012 Aug 23 | Load Out

In 2004 a physical therapist told me that my shoulders were askew and that I should use a traditional backpack. Hence, I would have to surrender my supply of single-strap conference schwag (free promotional merchandise) and return to the double straps of my boyhood. Fortunately, I found a backpack that has served me well in the subsequent years. Like a few other cherished items, this one was purchased at a thrift store. It’s cast-off swag, a promotional item for “Brio Technology” (a software company acquired into non-existence). However, much like my “Cambridge NanoTech” fleece, this product is as good as the brand names, if not better. The bag is comfortable, lightweight, has pouches on either side for a water bottle and umbrella, and the appropriate number of pockets for my gadgets. Most importantly, it has loops for elastic webbing and to which I can attach key rings and carabiners. Unfortunately, such novel finds at a thrift store are not repeatable. Despite my forensic efforts, I’ve never been able to identify the original manufacturer. And as the bag has slowly deteriorated, I’ve been ever more frustrated with not finding a successor. However, sometimes one’s scholarly interests also have private benefits.

As noted, product reviews are numerous and popular on YouTube. Indeed, high-tech unboxings and reviews are only the tip of the iceberg. One can find product reviews for silly putty, the egg genie, pancake pen, and the double bullet (a sex toy). Via a blog post I was introduced to the reviews of the survivalist “Doomsday Prepping” community [KWillets2012sap]. (There are an estimated three million “preppers” in America, some spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, have their own dating sites, and are now portrayed in a National Geographic series [Brady2012mpu; Ellis2012cpd]). The reviewers are, typically, white Christian American men concerned with big government, gun rights, and the collapse of civil society; their slogan: “pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” As hipstomp’s original posting noted, these folk are “completely obsessed with both gear and the idea of self-sufficiency. They prize durability and functionality in a product because their fervency makes them believe their lives will depend on it.” [hipstomp2012wsm]

Many of the reviews are for Maxpedition products, a reputable but expensive brand that caters to emergency responders and the military. However, their market expanded when their FR-1 medical pouch was adopted by survivalists. A rural survivalist’s bag will likely include maps, cash, flashlights, a handgun, hand sanitizer, a compass, GPS, knives, toothpaste, bandages, food bars, water filters, Neosporin, and parachord – among many other things. (And flashlights and knives are also fetishized objects with many reviews.) A more urban survivalist will also include a battery charger for their varied gadgets. Like any subculture, they have their own lingo. For instance, a “bug out bag” is a pre-packed bag that you can immediately grab out of the closet or car trunk, and serve you for the next 72 hours. (Discussion about what exactly is necessary is extensive.) An “EDC” is an “everyday carry bag.” A “load out” is much like an unboxing, except that the reviewer exhaustively unpacks the bag while discussing his loading strategy and the merits of each item. Many of the reviewers have a military affinity, or experience, and speak freely of PALS webbing and MOLLE compatible attachments.

The bag I purchased, the Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon-II , has dozens of YouTube reviews, some of which are 15 minutes long. My favorite review and “load out” is by a charming young man who begins the review by testing its stability while attacking a martial arts dummy and jumping rope. (He sheepishly admits the rope jumping was not a good idea as the pack is coming down when he is going up.)

During his unpacking he pointedly encounters the Bible, Declaration of Independence and an anti-Obama tract within its pockets [mokyan72011mpf]. These type of reading materials are common across the reviews and is reminiscent of the Crystal champagne rappers often have chilling in their refrigerators on MTV’s Cribs. Reviewers take their task seriously, though sometimes I cannot help but laugh at the bravado. In one odd juxtaposition, an Amazon reviewer reports “this product is well made, I bought this for my 5th grader [and it] works very well.” It even can fit anM4 assault rifle though “It does not get a five star because the drag handle is small if you needed to drag a wounded team mate while wearing gloves and under fire” [Kodiakbear2011rmp]. And while I thought it was only a carrying handle, a fifth grader shouldn’t weigh that much! One can even find the rare humorous review, where rugged survivalism is replaced with domesticity.

I originally bought this for a go-bag. How often do you need a go-bag? Well, so far, never. But it did become my favorite diaper bag…. The adjustable straps make for a comfortable fit, and quick to adjust between my wife (Small) and myself (XL)…. The rear compartment can fit plenty of diapers, a full size package of wipes, and bottle of anti-bacterial gel…. There are 2 water bottle holders, which is perfect for carrying a water bottle for you, and a sippy cup for your kid. [B2011rmp]

My quandary, shared by many survivalists, was what color? There’s black, khaki, green, and foliage green. Like the survivalists, I didn’t want anything too military or “tactical.” For “sheeples” like myself, I want something that fits in at the office. For the smart survivalist, he knows that during a crisis the government targets and seizes the weapons of those who look the part.

2012 Jul 02 | Keeping up? Fun or work?

In Nafus’ piece on Patches Don’t Have Gender there is a statement that initially puzzled me. Nafus writes:

New programming languages similarly proliferate at a rate that confounds everyone involved…. We experienced exactly this problem in learning to participate in the F/LOSS community in Paris. What at first was a trade-off between learning the native language of the field and getting on with the ethnography subsequently turned out to be a never-ending spiral of new technical forms of which community members were themselves challenged to keep on top. [Nafus2010pdh, p. G77]

Keeping up is certainly a challenge, and I have encountered evidence this may contribute to burnout and infocide. However, I think for a lot of computer geeks, knowing and playing with the latest and greatest technology is also enjoyable; if it is a spiral, it is a fun spiral. (Especially, if in one’s job entails staid technology.) Christina Dunbar-Hester, in Geeks, Meta-Geeks, and Gender Trouble: Activism, Identity, and the Low-Power FM Radio, recognizes this issue when she writes:

sometimes during downtime between ‘productive’ activities, the geeks were simply playing (as in the example of Simon listening to the data transmission while needed files were downloading). Since Geek Group was a leisure activity, regular participants were likely to be people who found the radio tinkering enjoyable, as opposed to finding it hard, unfamiliar work. Novices may feel intimidated by being unable to fully contribute to not only work but also play; some technical expertise or vocabulary could be equally required to make or get the geeks’ jokes as to diagnose a broken transmitter. [Dunbar-Hester2008gms, p. 220]

Very interesting! And I think this may explain some resistance to attempts to broaden participation by some men: geeking is not supposed to be something one works at or must be encouraged to do; it is fun and seemingly innate. (Of course, this intuition is often made in the context of not being discouraged – even if implicitly – from pursuing the geek path.)

2012 Jun 27 | Is the Internet convincing women not to study computer science?

I recently encountered Beth Andres-Beck’s (2012) interesting note asking is reading the Internet convincing women not to study computer science? I find her affirmative conclusion compelling as she shows:

  1. an increasing gap in interest in C.S. between men and women post-Internet (1996) in the U.S.;
  2. a negative correlation within other countries once the Internet is introduced;
  3. a negative correlation across countries: countries with pervasive access tend to have suppressed CS interest by women.

The one exception is “the group of Mediterranean nations that show a positive correlation.” Andres-Beck surmises these differences are cultural, to which I am sympathetic. As I write in Free as in Sexist: The Gender Gap in the Free Culture Movement

Related figures do indicate that these imbalances are significantly affected by social context. (It is more than a simple choice by individuals.) For example, among Wikipedians who gender-identify in their profile, women are 12% of the Wikipedians on the German encyclopedia but 23% of those at the Russian one (Reagle 2011). Also, 40 years ago there were few women in computing. Eventually women began to enter the field with their share of computer-related positions peaking in the 1980s – but declining since (NCWIT 2007). Contemporaneously, culture and environment can be significant determinants of women’s participation in computing. One can see this in the micro-cultures of a particular college or programming methodology as well as in cultures where computing is seen as a good career path rather than a masculine or personality-driven type activity (e.g., Palestine, Qatar, and Malaysia) (Blum et al. 2008; Lagesen 2008).

Andres-Beck, Beth. 2012. “Is Reading the Internet Convincing Women Not to Study Computer Science?.”

Blum, Lenore, Carol Frieze, Orit Hazzan, and M. Bernadine Dias. 2008. A Cultural Perspective on Gender Diversity in Computing. Proceeding of the 2008 Conference on Current Issues in Computing and Philosophy. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

Lagesen, Vivian Anette. 2008. A Cyberfeminist Utopia?: Perceptions of Gender and Computer Science Among Malaysian Women Computer Science Students and Faculty. Vol. 33. Sage Publications.

NCWIT. 2007. “NCWIT Scorecard 2007: A Report on the Status of Women in Information Technology.”

Reagle, Joseph. 2011. “Comparative ‘Gender Gaps.’”

2012 Jun 20 | FIRST and Vine

I’ve been surprised by the increasing dominance of customer reviews from the Amazon Vine; this program gives select customers free “new and pre-release items” from participating vendors. For instance, of the ten most helpful reviews (the default view) for this laser pointer six are Vine reviews. We might be cautious about accepting the reviews of those who get products for free, but at least it is clearly disclosed. (I also wonder what the vendors pay to participate?) However, are these reviews really the most helpful? Not necessarily, as one of my interviewees notes “the early bird gets the (first reviews (and first review votes)) worms”.

In 2003 I recognized this phenomenon as “the rush and slash effect”: “the best that can be said for the Slashdot system is that it selects the most popular comments within the period most readers are likely to spend their moderator credits, which is probably within a few hours.” In analyzing the statistics of comments’ age I concluded that “Given that I read Slashdot with a threshold of ‘4 or higher’ this means that the average elapsed time of comments I read is just over an hour, and I can not see a comment that is more than 8 hours old!” Hence, and sadly, lower quality comments, especially FIRSTs, get more attention than they merit. When you combine this phenomenon with the possibility that Amazon Vine reviewers are too kind, it’s plausible that reviews are inflated – and that companies are wise to participate.

2012 Jun 12 | Thank you Hater!

Isabel Fay’s and Clever Pie’s Thank You Hater!

Well hello friend Mister Insightful
Thank you for your comment on my little Youtube clip!
Most people say you’re cruel and spiteful,
But you’re right, how do I sleep at night? I am a massive pr-ck.

They call you hater well they’re just jealous
Your constructive pearls of wisdom give me thrills I can’t deny
How will we know if you don’t tell us
We could improve our Youtube channels by “f–king off and dying”?

2012 Jun 11 | The Feedback of “Tiger” Moms and Women in Computing

Earlier I noted that feedback to children is associated with larger cultural debates. Amy Chau, a Yale Law Professor, prompted much discussion when she bragged that her children have never had a sleepover or play-date, do not choose their own extracurricular activities, and are expected to be the best student in every subject, except gym and drama. They must also play a musical instrument, provided it is the piano or violin. Chau notes the following cultural divide:

I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently. [Chua2011wcm]

Researchers have also found differences in the way parents approach the performance of their children. In one study, Chinese and American mothers’ responses to their 4th and 5th graders’ performance were observed in the laboratory. In a break between tests, children were reunited with their mothers. While American mothers spent the time talking about something else, Chinese mothers were more likely to say “you didn’t concentrate when doing it” and “let’s look over your test”. The Chinese mothers did not act harshly or cruel, and smiled and hugged their children as much as the American mothers (and were no more likely to frown or raise their voices). However, the Chinese kids’ scores on the second test jumped 33%, more than twice the gain of the Americans [NgPomerantzLam2008eac, “European American and Chinese Parents’ Response to Children’s Success and Failure”].

Again, what is important is one’s conception of self and performance: is this a matter of innate intelligence or diligent effort? This also manifests in a (seemingly) unrelated issue: why do so few young women enter the computing field? Female participation is much higher in cultures where computing is seen as a good career path and a skill to be learned (e.g., in Palestine, Qatar, and Malaysia) rather than a masculine or personality-driven type activity [BlumEtal2008cpg; Lagesen2008cup].

While I cannot speak to Chau’s larger parenting philosophy, I am especially hesitant about “being the best” as only one person can do this in any group, we can have high expectations, provide constructive feedback, and stress that improvement and growth can be had.

2012 Jun 06 | Female Internet pioneers: A history yet to be done

Legal scholars have a saying that hard cases (i.e., unusual/confused) make bad law (i.e., legal decisions). The recent lead in a story about sexual harassment in IT venture capital is probably a poor case for me to write something sensible. But the claim that “men invented the Internet” prompted an interesting discussion on the AIR list that is worth pointing out. Among the many excellent posts:

  1. Deen Freelon notes the lead really has nothing to do with the story.
  2. Burcu Bakioglu, Charlie Breindahl, Jeremy Hunsinger and Meelis Ojasild note the idea of invention is a simplification of complex and interrelated events.
  3. Steven Lovaas notes “the” Internet is actually a network of networks.
  4. Tara Conley notes a number of (now) famous women who contributed to information technology.

While these are valid and interesting points, I confess I find them unsatisfying. If we stick with the commonsensical understanding of the lead, without recourse to unpacking “invention,” expanding what we mean by the Internet, or invoking Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace, what can we conclude? What if we purposefully looked for women pioneers of the Internet and found that only 10%, or 1%, or even 0% of them are women? I would claim this is more a reflection of society than the worth of women. (Though, I admit, this is not the inference most people draw, and is not as potent tactically in mainstream discourse.) In any case, who were some of the notable female contributors to the Internet?

Virginia Strazisar

Sadly, around 10% is a common figure when it comes to women in some IT-related endeavors. (Of the 9 women listed, 56% (5/9) have Wikipedia pages atleast!) In any case, unfortunately, the contributions, perspectives, and history of these women have simply not been captured yet – to the best of my knowledge of course.

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Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle