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Joseph Reagle asks: In ‘free culture’ online, where are the women?

Joseph Reagle

Joseph Reagle explains why women make up a very small percentage of “open computing” fields like Wikipedia, Linux, and Apache.

Though women make up only about 27 per­cent of the com­puting com­mu­nity, they are even more under­rep­re­sented in the “free cul­ture” move­ment, which com­prises users and devel­opers of web­sites like Wikipedia and the Linux oper­ating system. In “Free As In Sexist?,” a paper pub­lished ear­lier this year, assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies Joseph Reagle explained why.

1. What are the consequences of alienating women in online communities?

I’ve been a part of these com­mu­ni­ties for a long time and it’s become quite apparent that there aren’t a lot of women present. I sug­gest that the same things that are drawing so many people into the field of free culture—openness, freedom, and geekiness—are actu­ally keeping women from being involved in free cul­ture groups.

If this is a problem, and I think that it is, it’s one that tends to self-​​perpetuate. Now we have some­thing like a lower quality Wikipedia, because inter­ested people aren’t get­ting involved to make their own con­tri­bu­tions, and that fur­thers a com­mu­nity that may not be all that friendly to women.

2. What is it about the field of computing culture that is so alienating to women?

The geek iden­tity itself can be kind of alien­ating, and that’s not some­thing that all women want to be involved in. So that alone may be keeping women from becoming involved in these kinds of communities.

When I give talks about this topic, I bring up Comic Book Guy from The Simp­sons, who is a char­acter who goes on the Internet and is argu­men­ta­tive, pointy-​​headed, and nerdy. A lot of people, both men and women, say they have a lot they want to con­tribute, but they don’t want to argue with someone for 48 hours about a change they sug­gest. So that, which is pretty wide­spread online, turns a lot of people off.

Studies in the 1970s looked at fem­i­nist col­lec­tives, where groups of women opted to live in groups that weren’t sup­posed to have any hier­archy or struc­ture, which is sim­ilar to how the open com­puting com­mu­nity is struc­tured. But that research found that these groups still devel­oped struc­tures of hier­archy, and in this case, they were often even more cor­rup­tive and unac­count­able. Now you have one jerk, one bad apple, who can alienate whole groups of people who have no real recourse. And that raises this ques­tion: Are you even being open?

In a famous 1970 essay, Jo Freeman noted how fem­i­nist col­lec­tives that had opted to do away with formal hier­archy instead gave rise to a “tyranny of struc­ture­less­ness” where the informal cliques that emerged were not even account­able. Sim­i­larly, a group that is sup­pos­edly open and allows a jerk (or toxic person) is not really open. It’s alien­ating to other people.

3. How can that idea of openness hold back online communities?

A lot of people who started the free and open cul­ture move­ments equate the Internet with a lib­er­tarian, anar­chist ethic. The Internet, they think, is a free speech zone where you can scream and shout as much as needed; even­tu­ally, truth will out and the last person standing wins the argu­ment. Anyone who says you need to calm down or chill out, in this mindset, would be equated with cen­sor­ship. But there have to be ways of looking at Internet freedom as being more than just this max­i­malist ethos where you can say any­thing you want as loud as you want to, espe­cially if you want to create an envi­ron­ment where more people are involved.

When you talk to women, they say they tried to par­tic­i­pate but they expe­ri­enced a lot of sexism, even if it was from a minority of the people there. So there is a real interest in being involved; we’ve now got to find a way to keep women from being pushed away.

Article originally posted by news@Northeastern: 3Qs: In ‘free culture’ online, where are the women?