Saturday, September 21, 2013

Communication, Free Software, EMail Lists, Diversity and Social Justice

Email discussion lists are a fascinating communication phenomenon.  Not only have they barely changed in decades, they actually pre-date the Internet[1].  Email has light storage requirements and other relatively low barriers to adoption (relative to other Internet applications).  Perhaps this is part of why mailing lists have remained central to various on-line communities while newer, multimedia and social networking technologies attract popular attention.

I was threatened with banishment from a mailing list for the first time around 20 years ago, just a few years after using email for the first time.  It was emotionally trying even though I had never met anyone from the list in person and probably never would[2].  The rejection[3] hurt.  The list concerned a band I was a fan of and I was emotionally invested, more so because the list was active and I had invested a non-trivial amount of time keeping up with it.

Back here in the current century communication styles and ways of managing conflict on mailing lists is an important issue in Free Software, although harassing behavior at conferences has probably gotten more attention over the last year.  The Diversity in Open Source[4] (DIOS) workshop at Ohio Linux Fest (OLF) this year ended up being largely about communication.  This is all very timely as civility on the Linux Kernel mailing lists has been a public issue this summer[5].

Diversity, civility, email, past, present, future--what am I talking about here?  Power.  I'm talking about power.

The way we communicate with each other doesn't just carry the explicit content we are sharing.  Anybody who has ever been "shut down" in a meeting or casual conversation has experienced the intertwining of communication and power dynamics.  

Now for the part people choke on-privilege.  There are patterns to those dynamics, who gets "shut down," and where the power is concentrated.  Those patterns favor those who already have power.  Those patterns are self-perpetuating and also perpetuate prejudice, privilege and injustice.

Those of you who know me personally, and those who have read a select few of my more personal blog posts, know my family is racially mixed and that I have numerous LGBT family and friends.  You also know that I identify as a male feminist and freely acknowledge the privileges I live with as an educated, white, heterosexual, male, middle class, Protestant, English speaker with no visibly obvious disabilities.  Being so privileged and being aware of those so close to me who live without one or more of my privileges makes it all that much more personal.

Because of my social status I can get away with things one of my daughters who is black can not.  She has to be much more careful how she speaks so that she is not perceived as strident, shrill or angry.  I can raise my voice, interrupt people, be casually critical of others and people are very accepting of it[5.5].  She does not have this luxury, this privilege.  If she is not polite and cheerful people will recoil or verbally retaliate[6].  The same behavior from me is perceived as a white man being assertive, decisive and expressive.  

If you don't believe me...

A) Look up the interpersonal and group communication research on gender, class and racial differences.  I'm not up-to-date on the literature, but I took multiple undergraduate classes with an expert in the area, Victoria Pruin DeFrancisco.
B) Pay attention to the dynamics in any even slightly mixed group you are in.  

So, a dozen or so of us met for the OLF DIOS workshop on Sep. 15, 2013.  The evening before we had heard Kirk Mckusick talk about the FreeBSD development community, and his pride in not only the world-class operating system they produce, but the positive, respectful culture they have produced.  Like the Linux Kernel, a lot of the communication around FreeBSD development happens on email lists.

So, you get a bunch of people who care about both social justice and Free Software in a room together and we start racking our brains, trying to answer the question "What can we DO?"  The answer, it turns out, is metacommunication.   We started making lists and charts about what happens when somebody (typically, more privileged) interrupts somebody (typically, less privileged) in a meeting.  We then moved to constructive ways of handling it, talking about it and encouraging alternative behaviors.  

There are limits to what you can do in a workshop of just a few hours, but we built up a surprising momentum.  We have a brace of documents that came out of the workshop and I'm very interested to see what happens with them.  There may even be a project name, but I'm not going to share it here in case it changes.

Now that the workshop is over it looks like most of the communication between us will be via mailing list.

[1] It's true.  E-mail is older than the Internet and mailing lists go all the way back to e-mail's early "pre-interconnected networks" stage.
[2] I was the lone Iowan on a list primarily populated from the British Isles.
[3] I wasn't actually booted from the list, but I had been put in my place--marginalized among my fellow fans.  I quit the list voluntarily not long after.
[4] Yes, I just said "Free Software" and "open source" back to back.  For the purposes of this discussion let's treat them as synonymous.  I know, technically, they are not.
[5] It's probably over-the-top to call the kernel mailing lists (collectively) the center of the Free Software universe, but if we had to choose one it would make the short list.
[5.5] Of course I try not to make this my routine mode of communication but I have established, over the years, that I can speak to people what way with little or no consequences.  People seem to just assume that I know what I'm talking about and have my reasons.    
[6] Is it her good luck that she is a relatively cheerful person or has she learned it is in her best interest to present herself that way?  I will not presume to know.

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