When who you are is off-topic

During Open Source Bridge last month, I went to a talk by Brandon Harris about the Wikipedia community. The focus of the talk was going to be on reasons why the number of people contributing to Wikipedia is declining. During the talk, I was reminded of why I don’t participate in Wikipedia anymore.

There’s a Geek Feminism Wiki page about what happened when I was nominated to be a Wikipedia admin in 2006. Until now, I haven’t mentioned in public that Catamorphism is me (though it’s easy enough to guess, since I still use that username on some other sites, and it’s also part of my primary email address).

In short, though, I’d been contributing frequently to Wikipedia a little less than a year at the time. Someone noticed my work and nominated me to be an administrator on the site. Admins have the power to use rollback (reverting an unhelpful edit with one click), as well as a few other rights and responsibilities. As is the usual process, a page — called an RfA (request for adminship) — was put up where people could either vote for, or against, me being an admin.

For a while, I was receiving almost all “Yes” votes. Then, somebody who apparently had an axe to grind made the claim, as part of their “No” vote, that I “made every discussion about [my] gender”. This person never substantiated their claim. As far as I can gather, it was based on the fact that during one talk page discussion, I asked somebody to use the pronouns I preferred at the time (they/them/their) when referring to me. After that point, I started receiving primarily “No” votes, and those people who gave reasons for their votes mainly said that they thought I would be a bad administrator because I would continue to make every discussion about my gender.

One of the primary values of Wikipedia is supposed to be substantiating every factual claim with a citation to a reliable source. None of the “no” voters asked for citations before deciding that the original claim — that I derailed every discussion to make it about my gender — was correct. They just believed the person who originally made the claim. I can only gather from this the “citation needed” label gets applied selectively on Wikipedia, and that unsourced claims that jibe with the existing beliefs of editors are less likely to be challenged.

Bizarrely, part of the RfA discussion devolved into various people debating what my “real” gender was. At the time I identified as genderqueer, but they were convinced that I must have some “true” gender that was different from that. Based solely on this picture of me, which I displayed on my Wikipedia user page at the time, some parties were vehemently convinced that I must “really” be male, while others were just as convinced that I must “really” be female. The picture was taken when I was 24 years old, before I started supplementing exogenous testosterone. I found it amusing that some people were absolutely convinced that they were looking at a man, when the only thing that made me a man at the time was invisible (and in fact, that’s still true, since the only thing that makes any of us the sexes we are is invisible — inside our heads). It illustrates the constructed nature of the sex binary. But I digress.

The RfA took an even weirder turn when the person who’d originally nominated me — a man using the handle of “Erik the Rude”, changed his vote from “yes” to “no” and announced he’d only nominated me to humiliate me, because he hated “bulldykes”. What follows was one of the only occasions when I’ve experienced serious harassment online because of my gender. A user of the hate site called Encyclopedia Dramatica (now rebranded as the warmer, friendlier site “Oh, Internet”) created an article about me that was solely based on the transphobic comments I received during my RfA. Because its title was my username — Catamorphism — and because Encyclopedia Dramatica had high page-rank at the time, the attack page was one of the first hits when someone searched for my username. “Catamorphism” is a technical term used in my field, so chances were good that potential colleagues or employers — just looking for information on a technical term used in the narrow professional field I work in — they would find a page with a picture of me and someone calling me a “bulldyke”. There’s nothing wrong with being a bulldyke, but it’s not a term that describes or ever has described me; if people are going to hate me, I’d prefer they hate me for who I am rather than what I’m not.

In the end, the “no” votes outweighed the “yes” votes — and again, I emphasize that the only real concern raised by the “no” voters was the unsubstantiated claim that I derailed unrelated discussions to talk about my gender — and I was denied adminship. I decided I didn’t particularly want to expend effort to contribute to a site that would have welcomed me as an admin if I was a binary-gendered person. I didn’t want to work with people who called it “disruption” to request that others use my preferred pronouns to refer to me, but didn’t consider it rude to misgender somebody. So I stopped editing.

Although I created a new account eventually and I still edit once in a while, I avoid editing that is potentially factually contentious. I just don’t have the energy to argue with aggressive people anymore. What’s more, I don’t have the energy to explain, over and over, that cissexual and heterosexual people’s points of view are not automatically more neutral and objective than the points of view of trans and queer people. I used to believe in the concept of “NPOV” (neutral point of view) that is one of the governing principles of Wikipedia, but I don’t anymore. The old saying is that history is written by the winners. Likewise, in practice, a neutral point of view seems to mean the particular point of view of whatever political groups have the biggest cognitive and emotional weapons. As a concrete example, I repeatedly ran into resistance and even ridicule when editing articles about trans people that used the phrasing “was born female” or “was born male”, to use the phrasing “was assigned female at birth” or “was assigned male at birth” instead. While the latter phrasing makes fewer assumptions, editors insisted that it was “POV” to say that people are assigned a sex at birth, but “neutral” to say that someone who may never have affirmed himself as female was born female. I can’t conceive of “NPOV” as being anything but a tool of domination anymore. Rather than striving for neutrality (which doesn’t exist), I would rather strive to mark opinions as opinions and provide citations for facts. I think it’s easier to distort the truth in an atmosphere of false neutrality than it is to do the same in an environment where it’s the norm to acknowledge your biases and the social position from which you speak.

Because of my experience, I found it hard to listen to the Q&A section of the talk, because what seemed missing to me was an acknowledgment of the fundamental brokenness that resulted in a group of cis people deciding to exclude me from volunteering in a certain role solely because I asserted myself as genderqueer. On the whole, though, I appreciated the non-technical talks I went to at Open Source Bridge because the presence of those talks made the conference feel like a place where nothing was off-topic.

When I first started reading Usenet newsgroups in 1995, one thing that was drilled into me by all the documentation I read was that you had to be on-topic. If you posted an off-topic post, you were wasting hundreds or thousands’ of people’s time, which was the worst thing you could do. Over time, I’ve come to enjoy online fora better when they’re community-based rather than topic-based. In 2006, though, being rejected as an admin felt like such a slap in the face largely because of the shame of being off-topic. Though it was baseless, I was being accused of bringing up something that wasn’t relevant, and of course, as someone who wasn’t unambiguously recognized as a white cis man, I wasn’t allowed to decide what was relevant; other people got that privilege.

I guess that’s why it was so gut-wrenching for me to be voted down. Later on, I experienced retaliation for reporting harassment that forced me to leave the graduate program I was in, and at the job I went to next, was threatened because I spoke out in favor of having a code of conduct that reflected awareness of power dynamics. Despite not putting my education or job in jeopardy, the Wikipedia incident was more painful for me than my experiences at either Portland State or Mozilla, because of the shame of being off-topic, and perhaps also because of the misunderstandings that lay at the heart of the RfA discussion. I was never heard in the Wikipedia discussion, and any attempts to make myself heard just elicited more refusal to listen.

I no longer seek out places where I’m required to stay on-topic, though, because I want to be my entire self wherever I am, as much as I can. Staying on-topic feels like having to leave part of myself at the door — whatever parts of myself the group I’m in doesn’t like very much. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” I appreciated Open Source Bridge because it felt like a broader acknowledgment that even programmers don’t live single-issue lives. At the conference, I went to talks on impostor syndrome, empathy, labor ethics, depression, and other topics that weren’t just about how to do thing X with software package Y. It made me feel like caring about the human side of computing didn’t make me a less qualified software professional, and like all of a sudden, it was the norm to have and acknowledge feelings rather than something that made me marginal. There were other little things about the conference that made me feel like I was the norm for once, too, like the all-vegetarian and mostly-vegan food at breakfast and lunch, and the “Intersectional Feminism Fuck Yeah!” stickers on the swag table. Going to the conference brought back a little bit of what my experience with Wikipedia erased: belief that there is a place for me in open-source culture and that what I have to contribute will be better because of — not worse because of — the ways in which I’ve experienced marginalization.

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About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at http://tim.dreamwidth.org/

13 thoughts on “When who you are is off-topic

  1. Lauren Bacon

    As usual, Tim, you’ve done an amazing job of analyzing and critiquing this issue. Amen to this:

    I can’t conceive of “NPOV” as being anything but a tool of domination anymore. Rather than striving for neutrality (which doesn’t exist), I would rather strive to mark opinions as opinions and provide citations for facts.

  2. kaberett

    The talk page for “genderqueer” gives a pretty clear of why I am no longer a wikipedia editor.

    Solidarity. :-/

  3. E. P.

    Wow, slap in the face indeed:( It sounds like it was precipitated by one individual and a bunch of people who grossly neglected to think for themselves; It never fails to amaze me how one bad apple really does spoil the bunch.

    I’ve come to enjoy online fora better when they’re community-based rather than topic-based.

    I find that topic-based fora are fine for reference use, but are too narrow for enjoyable intellectual stimulation.

    Speaking of off-topic…

    “Catamorphism” is a technical term used in my field.

    I looked this up, like y’ do. And goodness, I haven’t seen the word “homomorphism” in years… so many years that I don’t remember what it means. But I do remember the walk home from an abstract algebra test for which I had severely over-crammed. My poor tired brain kept dreamily trying to fit the world into rings and fields and homomorphisms, and rather than resist this special brand of trippy, I spent that walk composing an inane, sleep-deprivation-inspired “proof” that personal relationships as represented by tabletop RPG mechanics are a homomorphism. I even typed it up, but I never bothered to read it after sleeping off the sleep debt to see if it actually made any sense. I’m sure it didn’t. (I did find this write-up in my archives just now! I’m tempted to post it for giggles, but I will refrain. Maybe.)

  4. Nicole

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Tim. As sucky as it is, reading this made me feel much less alone:

    I just don’t have the energy to argue with aggressive people anymore. What’s more, I don’t have the energy to explain, over and over, that cissexual and heterosexual people’s points of view are not automatically more neutral and objective than the points of view of trans and queer people.

    I don’t really know what to say, other than that I know how you feel. Exhaustion solidarity?

  5. Matthew Jude Brown

    I was deeply involved with Wikipedia for many years, culminating in a 3 year term as a member of the Arbitration Committee, and I recognize in the project pretty much all the flaws you see.

    Nicole uses ‘exhaustion’ above, and that’s such an accurate word to describe interacting with the Wikipedia community. Everything except rushing to judgment is really slow and tedious there. Everything is political, in terms of the way that people’s first instincts tend toward ‘Does this help or hinder my pushing my personal agenda?’ rather than the good of the project.

    It strikes me that Wikipedia manages to combine many of the flaws of wider society with some of the very peculiar errors common to online geeks with sometimes disastrous results.

    An example is the thoughtless faith in gender-blindness, race-blindness, etc etc that you tangled with there. It’s an article of faith that the physical doesn’t matter online and thus anyone bringing up such issues must of course be themselves the problem. This is, of course, an easy way to ignore real problems and allow the unexamined biases of the geek community to avoid scrutiny.

    And oh boy does Wikipedia display those unexamined biases. Wikipedia’s deletion policies, particularly ‘notability’, hopelessly bias the site; despite the stated intentions of the policy, it in practice is used to prune the site of anything that young white male English-speaking nerds of a particular bent consider unimportant trivia, or at the very least require those wanting to work in particular areas to have to put in a huge amount of effort to produce higher-quality articles and then defend their existence sometimes repeatedly.

    Wikipedia’s policies on interpersonal behavior, while mostly well-intended in origin, serve not to protect people from harassment but rather mostly as a minefield, used as gotchas against those less experienced in the minutia of Wikipedia’s rules. Generally it is the harassee, not the harasser, who is found to be in breach of the rules when they are victimized by someone who knows how to stay just within the letter of the rules, provoking until they get a reportable response.

    1. Liz

      Great article Tim. And, Matthew, I agree with you and feel quite similarly about Wikimedia’s culture usually favoring harassers. It’s really sad but still worth fighting to change the culture. But like Tim I am super burned out on repeating that fight over and over.

  6. E. P.

    Hi Tim,
    I recently found your blog here and I’m reading the old posts and really enjoying it. The experiences you write about are often very different from mine, yet your conclusions are often very similar, which pleases me (See also: Makes me feels validated. Can’t help it. Human nature?)

    I suppose its bad form to comment on old posts; there are good reasons for closing old comment threads. But, aw heck, I’m going to do it anyway. I hope y’all will forgive this indiscretion.

    Regarding your post on structured organizations, I work in a structured, hierarchical company, and while there are plenty of frustrating drawbacks, there are also definitely perks. The employees are overwhelmingly white cis males with nuclear families. Yet, the company doesn’t hire people who reveal themselves to be overtly sexist, and they have fired at least one person for emailing crass, sexist “jokes” (to the wrong/right person, by accident). The facilities department has responded quickly to accommodate employees for access, etc. When an employee transitioned to female, the company quietly changed her employee profile name and photo, and everyone knew that overt harassment would not be tolerated. Because it was _policy_. Because we know they mean it.

    So, I think that sometimes policy can work. In the course of my work, though, I often interact with employees from other structured organizations who say offensive things that wouldn’t fly here. So I wonder…Are their policies not as good? Are they not enforced? Is it just that no one is reporting them, and is that out of fear of reprisal? Could a strong official or unofficial leader turn them around? I don’t have enough insight into their organizations to know. While these behaviors have not had a direct, traceable impact on me or my colleagues, if its a question of happiness, then I’d be happier if these people were less “authentic” in the workplace.

    Regarding my own workplace authenticism, my workplace self may be different from my friends-space self. But that doesn’t mean my workplace self is less authentic . I conceive of personality as a response to stimuli (including self-created stimuli, i.e. direct or indirect feedback loop). Change the input and the output changes. If the input stimuli is work-related, then my output behavioral response is ideally work-related too. It doesn’t make much sense to me any other way. Not that I never create tangent discussions, but it just doesn’t bother me that I’m expected to keep those tangents within certain bounds.

    Although, to your point about the ability to read social cues, my company is not good about defining those expectations except in the realm of harassment. So, someone who might talk about deep or personal topics in the wrong setting – because they didn’t notice that no one here does that – might be considered unprofessional and never know why. Likely, they wouldn’t be hired here in the first place. We, too, have unwritten codes of conduct and we’re quite discriminatory about hiring people who fit behavioral codes that are appropriate for _managers_, even when we’re hiring _engineers_.

    I don’t have an overall conclusion regarding structured vs. structureless workplaces, but I do believe that “structureless” organizations form their own unwritten structures, which can be as or more insidious. And even structured organizations can have that problem, because the actual cultural leaders that emerge are not necessarily the organization’s official leaders. And, when policy does succeed in becoming culture, that can be very bad if the policy is bad.

    Ok, I’ve rambled enough for now.

    Thanks again for your blog,
    E. P.

  7. Larissa

    I was quite moved by this piece and feel ignorant that I haven’t read your previous work despite knowing you a bit at work and a bit at bridge. Remedying now. Someone recently said to me “it seems like all your work you put the most thought into is about gender stuff. Why? (This person clearly does not know me or my motivations that well.) Thank you for your blog, Tim. I agree so much about Bridge – it has become a “home” place for me. Very special… wish it was not so rare.

  8. Tinny

    This was very powerful and gave me lots to think about. Thanks for sharing, Tim.

  9. David

    Really interesting article, Tim. I’m sorry to hear that you were treated so shabbily at Wikipedia. It’s shocking that a group of Wikipedia editors was unwilling or unable to double-check an accusation about an active member of their community. Either it’s a deplorable sign of laziness and incompetence, or they view the accusation of bringing gender binaries into a discussion as so horrible that they wouldn’t either consider someone whose reputation had been sullied by such a statement. Either way, lots of suck on their part.

    I’m really interested in one thing you said in particular:

    “Rather than striving for neutrality (which doesn’t exist), I would rather strive to mark opinions as opinions and provide citations for facts. I think it’s easier to distort the truth in an atmosphere of false neutrality than it is to do the same in an environment where it’s the norm to acknowledge your biases and the social position from which you speak.”

    I agree with your goal, but practically wonder how you could begin to go about doing it with an organization like Wikipedia. I mean, any source that claims NPOV on anything but the most technical topics is obviously going to be problematic, but what else could you do, besides either resign yourself to an endless edit-war involving everyone and everything, or completely jettison the idea of a general encyclopedia — of any general source not meant primarily for the consumption of one social/racial/class/gender/ideological group. I mean, it seems like a choice between continuing to fight for a middle ground where “neutral” includes traditionally marginalized groups, or resigning ourselves to complete fragmentation into ideological camps creating ideological resources.

  10. E. P.

    David said:
    “it seems like a choice between continuing to fight for a middle ground [...] or resigning ourselves to complete fragmentation into ideological camps creating ideological resources.”

    I appreciate folks like Tim who have been on the “front lines” (if you’ll pardon the metaphor) of the struggle to improve the neutrality of so-called NPOV. The struggle stinks, it damages, and it can be difficult to tell if one’s efforts have had any positive impact.

    I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for personally removing themselves from this struggle after damaging experiences, and passing the torch to others to carry on. And while I agree with Tim’s comment that NPOV doesn’t exist, I think the struggle to approach this asymptote is important. Sure, BBC, Reuters, Washington Post etc. all have their own problems and biases, but I don’t relish the thought of a world where all news is Fox or MSNBC.

    In other words, I share Dave’s reaction of wariness that giving up the struggle for NPOV altogether will result in ever-more entrenched ideological camps that will never listen to each other or hear each other at all.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      giving up the struggle for NPOV altogether will result in ever-more entrenched ideological camps that will never listen to each other or hear each other at all.

      This kind of rhetoric *sounds* good, but in practice it always seems used to characterize one of those “ideological camps” as the one that says I am a human being, and another as the one that says I am not one, falsely equating the two positions. Neutrality, then, means remaining undecided as to whether or not I’m a person. This might be okay if not for the reality that for a select few (white cissexual heterosexual abled men), personhood is unconditional.

      Similarly, when someone tells me I am “in an echo chamber” because I choose to get information online from sources that accept my humanity, and that I should expose myself to some dissenting viewpoints, I’m going to decline to expose myself to the “dissenting viewpoint” that I’m not a person.

      That’s one of the problems I have with neutrality. I have no desire to listen to or hear the opinion that I don’t deserve human rights, and if that makes me part of an “entrenched ideological camp”, well, I’ve been called worse.

  11. E. P.

    Tim said: ” I’m going to decline to expose myself to the “dissenting viewpoint” that I’m not a person”

    I’m not trying to say that you should expose yourself to that… I’m really not. What you went through I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and I want to re-iterate that I value, respect and appreciate your sharing of your experiences (and your blog in general). I know it can be very difficult to share damaging experiences, and I really don’t want you to see my posts as a lack of support for you or your efforts or experiences. For what its worth, I support you.

    As a community, though, I don’t think we should give up on spaces of interest. I think that, ideally, others should pick up where you left off, voicing diverse perspectives, even in environments with potentially hostile elements. I’m not saying we all go frequent the forums at Fox News, but where there’s spaces of interest, I don’t think we should cede those spaces to the voices of ignorance and hatred.

    I think an important component is to _vocally_ support each other when things start to go bad. To me, the extra tragedy of your Wikipedia experience is that this didn’t happen, or didn’t happen enough to even take the edge off. I see that there was some vocal support posted elsewhere (after the fact?) and I hope that that did help a bit.

    Regarding the people who occupy these damaging spaces, we can write them all off and isolate ourselves from them, but then we’ve cut off not just the truly vitriolic people but all the other people who still frequent those spaces because they don’t know better or don’t have the strength of individuality to walk away. Then we’re isolated not just from the vitriolic sputum, but from all of the unrelated ideas and experiences of all of those other people who use those spaces. Those people may never be ones to earn our highest respect, but they can come around, and their ideas can add value to other areas of our lives. Otherwise, they lose the benefit of hearing our ideas and experiences too.

    Plus, I have to believe that if we continue to engage, progress can be made in reducing the prevalence of hateful attitudes that you encountered. I even think its a historically supportable claim that progress can be made.

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