Society sucks, but we don’t have to

There’s an argument that comes up a lot in (geek) feminism discussions:

This isn’t a problem with $community, it’s a problem with society

This is used to explain everything from distasteful jokes to someone’s inability to spell, but especially it’s used to “explain” why there aren’t more women in the community or why they have crummy experiences when they do participate. And it raises the question:

Why can’t geek communities be better than society as a whole?

If you reported a software bug and the developers said, “we don’t believe you. Or the other 50 people who reported this bug,” you’d be annoyed, along with 50 other people. If they said “it’s someone else’s problem, XYZ software/hardware sucks” you’d be pretty unsatisfied, even if it was true.

What you want to hear is “thanks for reporting that! I’ll get it fixed right away.” And you still feel like they care if they say “well, that’s because XYZ software/hardware sucks, but we can do this workaround…”

Geek communities are full of smart, inventive people who produce everything from free software to fan fiction. I think we can probably do better than putting an SEP field around issues.

In academia, Hard Problems are the ones that are worthy of further study, research, and discussion. In geekdom, we like to eat impossible for lunch. So stop shuffling your feet and waiting for the “there aren’t many women participating” bug to be fixed upstream. We might need some clever social hackers to find us good workarounds, but know what? We’ve got just the sort of talent in our communities that might manage it. If people could only admit to themselves that it’s not someone else’s problem.

9 thoughts on “Society sucks, but we don’t have to

  1. Asad

    Two comments:

    1. FLOSS. This is a hideous acronym. Who wants to think of the dentist? For me, personally, it elicits feelings of guilt. Guilt at all the times my dentist has told me to floss regularly, but her advice was ignored. Oh, wait, you didn’t need to know that.

    2. More to the point. I read quite a bit of the associated discussion (on LWN, a community with which I am not very familiar) and about three or four of the male interlocutors said something that struck me as being very interesting. They expressed the fear/suspicion that measures to make “FLOSS” work more female-friendly would actually be measures that change the nature of the work and community to such an extent that what they found attractive in it would be lost. By implication: that it is a zero-sum game.

    I thought there were a heck of a lot of interesting implications to be unpacked from the fact that they feel that way (or suspect it is that way), but maybe I’m carrying coals to Newcastle, as it were.

    Still, what exactly do they think would be lost from it?

    1. @thorfi

      Same thing that every privileged group thinks would be “lost” – their privileged position.

      What they all fail to realise is that improving the size of the involved group improves the situation for everyone involved.

      1. Zack

        In a sense open source/free software has become a domain defined simultaneously by its commitment to software freedom *and* being a social haven for a particular subset of the male population *at the same time*.

        I’ve seen this dynamic too. I wasn’t around for the early days of free software, but I think the social-haven aspect may have started as a reaction to the corporate culture you see parodied in early Dilbert. Lots of the early free software hackers had day jobs in companies that were near that level of dysfunction, and (I speculate) they were tired of being unable to call people on their bad ideas, so for their hobby life they set up norms that ensured this would always be possible. What we got from that is an environment where it is very hard to call people on bad social behavior, especially if it’s dressed up so that on the surface it appears to be technical discussion.

      2. Asad

        Sure, but from a social hacking perspective, I thought the details were pretty interesting. Some of them seem to define their identities by characteristics that result in social exclusion, and hence the community of open source developers to which they contribute to be a community of…social outcasts? And consequently, attempts to “civilize” the community are viewed as an external force attempting to colonize their space.

        Yeah, the subtext of this altercation is that women are bringers of social norms and “civilization”, and hence their efforts to gain acceptance specifically elicit defensiveness and resentment, and that is the misogynistic nut in all this psychological convolution.

        In a sense open source/free software has become a domain defined simultaneously by its commitment to software freedom *and* being a social haven for a particular subset of the male population *at the same time*.

        Again, sorry if I’m carrying coals to Newcastle. I’m am a heavy free software user but one of those leechy people who never really contribute anything, and so the social dynamics of this particular community are new to me which I am seeing via this blog.

  2. Eva

    A very good summation of why so many of us get frustrated and disillusioned over time, I think.

    (I find it interesting that the same sort of % vs severity of discrimination problem seems to occur in geekery and with racism in general society. Where there are very, very few women everyone is just kind of bemused to see you there and tends to treat you as part of their boy’s club. Where you’re a sizable minority, things can get much worse until you start to approach parity of numbers.)

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