i dream of being possible

on the (double) standards of internet discourse

So I had a series of tweets earlier today on the double standards of online discourse and felt that it ought to be expanded into a proper blog post. Mostly because the notion really was something that suddenly struck me earlier and is still sort of blowing my mind.

To start us off, the three rules I used to discuss the rules of posting to tech forums was taken from PKP:

  1. Search the forum.
  2. Check the FAQ.
  3. Post a question, but please, only after trying the above two solutions.

One of the reasons why I picked this forum (beyond the fact that I refer to it often) is because, by and large, all of the posts/interactions I’ve seen have been kind and people are generally helpful to n00bs who mess up and break one of the rules. Keep this in mind as I go along, because I want this to be about the rules more than the content/tone of the posts (despite this forum being generally good).

Not too long ago I blogged about always being at the starting line, the gist of this post was:

We are always at the beginning. In the tech community feminism seems to only now be making its first serious progress. And as more and more communities and conferences establish community guidelines as a means to deal with the widespread sexism, racism, ableism, etc., it makes you wonder.

How much time are we wasting on having to always start at the beginning? How effective or useful is a forum on diversity if most/many participants do not have a basic grounding on the relevant topics?

For my specific community/group this question is particularly pointed because many of us work at research institutions or in higher education. And yet… few appear to be taking advantage of our extremely privileged access to the ‘best’ information and most current research.

All of this to point out a fairly interesting double standard in how online discourse in two realms occurs: tech and social justice. Since it comes up fairly often within activist type communities/circles about how it is toxic or counterproductive or unfriendly or unwelcoming to newcomers who are simply seeking to learn more and become better.

Derailing for Dummies is, in some ways, one of the guidebooks for how to engage in social justice discourse. They have a particular section on derailing using education: “If You Won’t Educate Me How Can I Learn” and “If You Cared About These Matters You’d Be Willing To Educate Me”. Now, interested readers can click through and read about it (or perhaps consult this post or this post for lengthier discussions). What is important here is the there is a great deal of similarity between the basic requirements for engagement, essentially “have you made a good faith effort to solve/understand the issue on your own?”.

Where the double standard comes into play is that many people will remain resolute in their position that any activist, any person who cares about liberation, any marginalized person has a moral obligation to educate any and all people who ask, whever they ask. No one espects this from respondents in tech forums. If someone messes up and they get mocked, few of these people dig in their heels and suggest that the respondents are morally obliged to help them. Instead, they are often chastised for breaking the community standards of engagement (and often will accept this as their due).

When it comes to discussions around oppression and resisting that oppression… if a marginalized person responds negatively to the suggestion that they must drop what they are doing and educate, we start seeing tone policing. There is article after article about ‘callout culture’, about the mob mentality and anger of social justice advocates on line, or (as linked above) about ‘toxic twitter wars’ in feminism.

And yet… mainly silence about the way that spaces dominated by men like tech forums (or other tech centric arenas like IRC) or even reddit operate largely on the same discursive principles (educate thyself before annoying everyone with questions already answered) and respond just about the same to the poor fools who violate the principles1.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some articles on the culture of tech, but they do not have the same moral force that conversation about social justice and its community practices tends to have:

Valerie Aurora (2002) notes that a reason why “women avoid Linux specifically” is that it “is more competitive and fierce than most areas of programming”. In turn, the only (or major) reward is status and approval but “far more often, the ‘reward’ is a scathing flame, or worse yet, no response at all. Since women are socialized to not be competitive and avoid conflict, and since they have low self–confidence to begin with, Linux and open source in general are even more difficult than most areas of computing for women to get and stay involved in”. 2

Where is the outrage? Why aren’t there more articles discussing the toxic flame wars of tech forums?

(And note: I do not mean stuff by so-called ‘outsiders’ criticizing from beyond the community, since it is clear you can find feminist, anti-racist, etc. critiques on tech cultre. The major difference is that many of the discussions about the ‘toxic’ culture within social justice communities originate from within the community – or at least as much as they originate from without.)

So why is it that your average tech brogrammer clearly understands why it is annoying (to put it mildly) to have interlopers within your community constantly asking question that a simple google search could answer but don’t understand why a woman doesn’t feel like having another conversation about why ‘not all men are like that’?

  1. Note, I’m picking out a surface resemblance here. The way motivation behind the enforcement of discursive rules between tech forums vs. social justice discourse are very different. In tech forums it is about the performance of expertise and authority. In social justice groups it is about not further burdening those already oppressed and marginalized. Even if the responses seem similar from a distance, they serve very different goals (gate keeping vs. anti-oppressive resistance). 

  2. I’m suddenly struck in re-reading the section of this article how it reproduces exactly the same kind of sexism it appears to be calling out. One of the things that is interesting about my observation of the double standard is the way that Reagle calls this style of discourse ‘masculine’ in nature. When, if what I’m saying has any amount of truth, this clearly isn’t the case. Rather, the problem isn’t that women are socialized to enter and participate in discourse one way, and men another, but that these behaviours are punished when enacted by women or other marginalized people. In part because it inconveniences the privileged. Absolutely no one wants to waste their time (especially if they aren’t getting paid) answering the same, introductory questions all the time. And it is especially aggravating to do so when you are actively trying to have an advanced discussion or seeking solutions. One must also note the gendered nature of the expectations here: in ‘feminized’ spaces like social justice the participants are expected to be kind, gentle, and nurturing, whereas no such expectation exists in ‘masculinized’ (and man dominated) spaces like tech forums or IRC.