The obligation to know: The flip-side of free knowledge

Joseph Reagle

Libre knowldge

Libre Knowledge is explicit knowledge released in such a way that users are free to read, listen to, watch, or otherwise experience it; to learn from or with it; to copy, adapt and use it for any purpose; and to share derived works similarly (as free knowledge) for the common good.”(Wikipedia 2012)

But are their accompanying social obligations to teach and learn?

‘RTFM’ is pretty much the geek way of saying you have a responsibility to educate yourself… I like to think the bright pink takes the edge off the abruptness of the (implied) message. (Laugher 2012)

How I got here Compass Study

Effect of gap?

  • Few women contributors to Wikipedia.
    • Wikipedia dominates Britannica in biographical coverage, but more so when it comes to men. (ReagleRhue 2011)
    • Main page skew (RMJ 2010) and the (infamous) American female novelists category (Filipacchi 2013).

Why the gap?

Free as in sexist?

  1. some geek identities can be narrow and unappealing;
  2. open communities are especially susceptible to difficult people; and,
  3. the ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice. (Reagle2013fas)

What to do?

Geek Feminism

Investigating GF

  • “Fake” geek girls
  • Geek knowing

Geek knowing outline

  • Definitions
  • Lexicons
    • FAQ
    • documentation, RTFM, trolls
    • alpha geek, grok
    • 101; derailing; alienation

Definitions Dictionary

Geek knowing

  • self-documentation
  • sharing
  • self-reliance
  • jargon/cyberlanguage (Gibbs 2006)

Obligation to know

Extant community members expect newcomers to acquaint themselves with well-established knowledge.


The extent to which one groks.

Geek feminism (theory)

A type of feminism – as distinct from liberal, postmodern, and radical feminisms – that acknowledges the concerns of feminism while preserving a commitment to geek identity (Bucholtz 2002).

Geek feminism (praxis)

  • “Female geeks,” Slashdot (Skud 1998)
  • “Geek chicks: Second thoughts,” Freshmeat; (Skud 2000)
  • Geek Feminism Wiki (2008)
  • Geek Feminism Blog (2009)

Lexicon venn


A compendium of accumulated lore, posted periodically to high-volume newsgroups in an attempt to forestall such questions… This lexicon itself serves as a good example of a collection of one kind of lore, although it is far too big for a regular FAQ posting. Examples: “What is the proper type of NULL?” and “What’s that funny name for the `#’ character?” are both Frequently Asked Questions. Several FAQ lists refer readers to this file. (Raymond 1993)


If we do not document, we cannot learn from our history, and are doomed to repeat it. The fact that one must document, document, document is ingrained in my psyche… It is almost impossible for me to understand a world where documentation does not exist… We need short concise information for people starting out, but there are also a lot of finnicky details you don’t even WANT to remember, and which we rather write down to look up when needed. (Bruning 2008)

Our main tactic is to document things. To some extent this grows out of my original (very personal and individual) reason for starting the GF wiki back in 2008: I was making an effort to learn more about women’s experiences in geek communities and to contextualise that within the framework/jargon that feminism had already developed in non-geek contexts. My tendency when learning something new is to write documentation to help cement the idea in my own mind and to (hopefully) be of use to others in the future. And so, I created the wiki, which has been fairly central to GF since then. (Skud 2012)


RTFM is a comedic, though stern, form of social discipline. It pushes other hackers to learn and code for themselves as well as affirms that effort has been put into documentation – an accessible form of information that benefits the group – but in a way that still requires independent learning..… To give too much aid is to deny the conditions necessary for self-cultivation. (Coleman 2013, p. 110-111)

‘RTFM’ is pretty much the geek way of saying you have a responsibility to educate yourself… I like to think the bright pink takes the edge off the abruptness of the (implied) message. (Laugher 2012)

Don’t feed the troll

A concern troll is a person who participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause. In reality they are a critic. Concern trolling in geek feminism communities can result in continual reversion to Feminism 101 discussions in attempts to appease the troll’s concerns, frustrating attempts at more serious discussion. Concern trolls are not always self-aware, they may also view themselves as potential allies who have just, oddly, never met a feminist opinion they liked. (Feminism 2013)

alpha geek

[from animal ethologists’ alpha male] The most technically accomplished or skillful person in some implied context. “Ask Larry, he’s the alpha geek here.” (Raymond 2003)


[orig. from British public-school and military slang variant of `new boy’] A USENET neophyte.


[Usenet: portmanteau, clue + two-by-four] The notional stick with which one whacks an aggressively clueless person.


vt. 1. To understand, usually in a global sense. Connotes intimate and exhaustive knowledge.

Impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome describes a situation where someone feels like an impostor or fraud because they think that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them. Usually, their accomplishments are just as good, and the person is applying an unfairly high standard to themself (and not to others). It’s especially common in fields where people’s work is constantly under review by talented peers, such as academia or Open Source Software. (Feminism 2013)


And sometimes, those of us with conditions that intersect with our ability to do this work end up burnt out, frustrated, or we lose our patience…. There is, thankfully, a solution to this problem: those people who say, or comment, that they realllly want to learn must take responsibility for their own learning. There are several ways that this can be accomplished, among them lurking on blogs for a while before one starts commenting, reading a site’s archives (and most sites have them!), picking up a book (or two), reading some articles online or off. (Annaham 2010)

It’s not just that the conversation is different when I have it with women; it’s different when I have it with people that have bothered to do any reading about the topic at all. It’s like if you went to a Python meetup and all people wanted to talk about was “whoa, significant whitespace!”… At some point it’s nice to have a discussion where those things are a given. (Laugher 2012)


The ironic “Derailing for Dummies” notes:

By insisting you can only learn if they right then and there sacrifice further hours of time going over the same ground they have so often in the past, you may also make them give up and go away altogether, enabling you to win by default. (Derailing 2010)

Unicorn law

The Unicorn Law is a play on Godwin’s Law. For those who are not familiar with it, Godwin’s Law states “as a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In the Unicorn Law it is the probability of a woman in open source talking about being a woman in open source that approaches 1. (Feminism 2011)


The valence of the exhortation to “read the fucking manual” is gendered: men are able “to tell someone to RTFM without ever being accused of PMS” (Feminism 2013).

Venn Lexicon

The obligation to know serves as a defense to simple ignorance and purposeful disruption.

The intersection of geekdom and feminism highlights the obligation to know ethic and furthers the development of the geek feminism identity.


Media credits

Compass Study

"RTFM" for geek feminism Moo cards 1/2