End of an Era (for me)

On Friday I’ll be leaving my job at Automattic, and my position in the WordPress community. I’ve poured my life into WordPress for 8 years, longer than I’ve ever stuck around at anything else, and it will be super weird to lose a job, a social circle, and an all-encompassing everything all at once. But while this wasn’t a change I had planned on (well, only planned for 3 weeks, anyway) I know that it will be better for me.

For the next month I am going to focus on getting my health in shape under my doctor’s care — it went to hell during my a8c tenure for various reasons — and figuring out what I need to do to go back and finish up the degree I was a month from obtaining before I walked away from it to work on the prototype that would become WordPress 2.7. Also, I’ll finally rip up the invasive plants in my yard and put in a garden and some native plants. And I’ll keep doing acupuncture. I’ll probably start writing again. Practice Spanish. Maybe re-learn how to play the guitar enough for a backyard singalong or two.

After that, we’ll see. Maybe a new ux or product challenge. Maybe something different. Maybe leave tech altogether. I’m not really going to think about it much until a month has passed, because I don’t want to jump into something else right away and perpetuate the same overwork patterns I developed over the last 8 years. Habits take time to break. I might take some of that time to write up some of the thoughts I never got around to publishing while I was on the job or to answer any questions that I get asked more than once. Or I might just sit outside feeding stray cats. Who knows?

My wordpress.org email address will not work anymore. If you want to reach me and don’t have my personal email address, you can use the contact form on this site or @jenmylo on Twitter. If you’re a “But I want proof we are connected!” person, I’m on LinkedIn. If you’re a Facebook junkie, I really don’t use it — it gets my Twitter feed but I don’t monitor comments on Facebook or anything like that. I should really just turn off the Twitter feed, probably. So many things to think about when everything changes! Hey, and now I can update my gravatar when my hair changes color, since I won’t be going to WordCamps where I want people to recognize me from online. Maybe I’ll do that next week. Maybe I should pick a new color first. Or go back to purple. So many decisions!

Anyway, to everyone in the WordPress community who enriched my life in some way over the past 8 years, thank you, and maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime. If you’re ever in Portland (Oregon, not Maine) and want to get a chai or Ethiopian food or come feed a stray cat in the backyard, let me know!

Defending Drupal

The last 7 years of my life have been all WordPress, all the time. In that time we went from powering around 2 million sites to many tens of millions. Today, W3Techs says:

WordPress is used by 23.6% of all the websites, that is a content management system market share of 60.8%.

I wish that sentence had a semicolon instead of a comma, but wow. Drupal, by comparison:

Drupal is used by 2.0% of all websites, that is 5.1% of all the websites whose content management system we know.

Sometimes, people like to pit WordPress and Drupal against each other, as if we are fighting each other, rather than fighting proprietary software. At WordCamps, meetups, or any professional gathering where someone asks a question (or makes a snarky comment) about Drupal, I point out that we are far more similar than we are different. “Open source CMS built with PHP” describes us both, as does any description of the contributor model, or even the economic models — how many times have I heard Acquia is to Drupal as Automattic is to WordPress? (A lot.) We’ve even shared booth space at the OSCON expo.

To drive the point home I often say that if you were stuck in an elevator/sitting next to someone on a plane, how psyched would you be to be sitting next to a Drupal person, who would totally get all your references and be able to have a conversation you’d enjoy? That usually gets a nod or two. Because, yeah, we’re a bunch of open source geeks who care way too much about things like software licenses and commit status and number of props. We are, in short, both ridiculous in the grand scheme of things — we’re not curing cancer or ending world hunger. At best we are powering the websites of those who are, and if we ceased to exist tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the end of the world (just of us). But free software is awesome, so yay! Let’s all be friends!

At conferences, people sometimes have been confused if I’m hanging around with Amye or other Drupal women I know and like. They ask, “Aren’t you rivals?” And then we laugh at them. Cue the more-alike-than-different stuff.

So I was kind of bummed today after all those years of defending Drupal and claiming kinship to see it pissing* all over WordPress today. But I should backtrack.

For years, people in the WP community have wished there was a way to pay the more advanced contributors to work on core full-time. Sure, Automattic, 10Up, Human Made, and other companies have been contributing some people, but there are only so many donated employees a company can float. We all get that. For a while people talked about the WordPress Foundation as a way to pay people to work on stuff, but that didn’t wind up being possible. So when people started doing things like Jtrip’s Indiegogo, it was a natural evolution, though it seemed not very scalable.

So when I saw Ruby Together a few weeks ago, I thought it was amazing.

screenshot of rubytogether.org

Then came the Drupal 8 fundraiser, and I thought that was pretty cool too. Matching donations and whatnot!

And then I saw this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.49.35 AM

I smiled, recognizing several people I quite like. But that one in the lower left, what?? I clicked through and saw this:

fundraising website for drupal 8 featuring a graphic of the Drupal logo peeing on the Joomla and WordPress logos

I was like, “What?”

Then I was like, “No, really, what?!”

I get it, this person thought this shirt from a previous Drupal event was funny and would fire people up to donate. But really?

That shirt is so completely tasteless I am horrified that the Drupal community endorses it.

And now we’re back to Drupal is pissing on WordPress.

I’ve given so many talks at WordCamps with a component about how it’s important to be nice, respectful, and welcoming — including the use of appropriate language and imagery — to the point that some people would really like to tell me to shut the fuck** up (or have!). I have extended that “let’s be nice” spiel to talking about Drupal multiple times. I would never design a tshirt that showed the W pissing on the Drupal (and I’ve designed a controversial WordCamp shirt or two in my time) because it’s not funny, it’s just tasteless and disrespectful. So that Drupal shirt makes me sad. I know that probably none of the people I know and like had a hand in making it. But it bums me out that as a community they seem to think it is okay, good even, if they’re willing to put it on the front page of the fundraiser.

“You can feel good about our project without putting down other projects, so let’s keep it clean.” I said something similar (s/our project/yourself) to my nieces and their friends when they were in 9th grade and had a habit of putting down other girls to feel better about themselves (as so many adolescents do). I hope more people will remember this in the future, and just because you can think of a snarky/sarcastic/mean/tasteless joke that elevates your side and pushes down the other doesn’t mean you should.

In any case, one person’s misstep shouldn’t be cause to demonize a whole project community. Assume good intentions. Reach out when something is awry instead of devolving into one-upmanship. Competition is healthy but there’s no reason to be jerks to each other. And also? Thinking there are sides is really silly. We’re all ridiculous open source CMS geeks. We’re all one side. Let’s stand together, y’all.

I’ve always hated the Calvin peeing stickers, and so has Bill Watterson.

** Profanity used intentionally to illustrate that it’s not appropriate language in a welcoming community.

Looks Like Diversity (or Does It?)

Over the past two years, some of my work has been focused on trying to increase diversity in the WordPress open source community. This has included trying to get meetup and WordCamp organizers to commit to more diverse organizing teams and speaker rolls, something that has been a bit hit or miss. In some cases, giving some advice about how to reach out to different communities has been enough for someone to go all in and come up with groups of people that don’t all look the same or have similar backgrounds/experiences, while in others it has felt like we were wasting our breath, and that unless it was mandatory, the organizers would just choose from the people who applied rather than doing the extra work to reach out for a more varied slate of presenters to represent the community. It is a bummer when the latter is the case, but there’s only so much we can do when there are relatively few people who get paid to work on this stuff (and they are all juggling way more wp hours than a normal 9-5 would take) and the rest are volunteers.

The thing is, what does it mean to have diverse speakers?

In terms of gender it’s pretty simple — don’t have only men, include women and people from elsewhere on the gender spectrum. At the very least, it should not be hard to find women speakers if you take the time to go looking for them, because there are women doing cool stuff with WordPress everywhere.  Many women who’ve gotten involved with the project have said that seeing a woman on stage at a WordCamp was the thing that made them feel like there was a space for them here. Mel Choyce’s post about women in the WordPress community and her first WC experience echoes what I’ve heard from many women.

Or is gender simple? As more and more people come out as trans, it’s important to make sure they feel welcome and included in the community (well, assuming they’re into WordPress and would like to be part of it), and visible representation is a part of that. But many people, while wanting to not worry about being treated poorly due to their trans status, don’t really want to talk about their trans status all the time, or include it in bios on speaker pages. And why should they? Do other bios say, “John is a man from Idaho?” No, They say, “John is a web developer from Idaho.” No gender reference at all! So if we have do have speakers who identify as trans, but their outward appearance reads as pretty straightforward male or female, how do potential trans attendees (or contributors) know there are people like them on stage, and that they themselves might have a place there someday?

Likewise, the question of invisibility around race/ethnicity/sexuality/etc gets blurry when the average attendee just can’t tell. I was at the Community Leadership Summit last year before OSCON and I was in an unconference session about diversity at open source conferences when one of the participants, a black man, asked if choosing diverse speakers mattered if no one know they were something other than generic WASPs. In his part of the country especially, it’s not uncommon for people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds to pass (unintentionally) as white. So, for example, if they had a gay Cuban man, a trans man, a dude with Asperger’s, and a light-skinned black man on the speaker list (along with other people), but the audience read all of them as generic white guys, what would that say about the diversity of the speaker roll (knowing that references to the various diverse statuses would appear nowhere in the bios or in the presentations themselves)? Instead of looking like people from varied experiences (which they were) it looked like they were more of the same old same old, and he was worried people would complain about lack of diversity, especially since they had set out to create a diverse speaker list. We didn’t come to any kind of satisfactory answer in that session, but I think he raised a valid question about the idea of checkboxes on a census form vs. the way someone is perceived by others, and what representation really means. It’s so hard to figure out!

Privacy is paramount in all things; if someone doesn’t want to put some aspect of their demographic profile in their biography — gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity/race, disability, age, whatever — then they shouldn’t, period. And no one should feel like they have to represent a whole demographic slice because they’re the only one on the lineup (or ever, but that’s a separate issue). This is even more true when the status in question has absolutely nothing to do with their topic. The expertise of someone speaking on “how to choose a theme” is in no way affected by almost ANY of those things (well, maybe disabilities, if they were looking at accessibility/usability). Sure, if you’re speaking at a conference about power dynamics in a multi-gendered world, your gender status makes a big impact on your relevance to the topic, but with WordPress stuff? It really doesn’t, except in the more general “WordPress is for everyone” sort of way. Trotting out speakers with diverse backgrounds — “Ooh, look, not only do we have a pretty even gender balance, but we have an African-American and a Latina, too!” — just to show how progressive you are is just exploitive and sucky.

But! (There’s always a but.)

Given what we know about the sociological mechanics behind people applying to speak at events, it’s pretty basic stuff to know that speaker applications come mostly from the people who are already comfortable in the knowledege that there’s a place for people like them on the speaker roll, in whatever sense they define “people like them” in the moment. That means that to find the hidden gems — or frankly, not really hidden, just not on our personal radar — who don’t have that level of confidence already and/or aren’t so ridiculously overexposed at conferences (usually minorities), we have to work harder to find them, encourage them, help them if needed, and commit to not just looking at applications that came in over the transom.

So when someone says something like, “I can’t help it if 90% of our applications were from white dudes, we said in the post that we encouraged women and minorites to apply to speak!” it makes me purse my lips and remind myself to take a few deep breaths while I remember that part of diversity is having different beliefs and backgrounds, and that many people haven’t read all those studies (or any of those articles summarizing studies), and that other people may have but just really think diversity is not important and/or not their job. Side note: It’s at  those times I briefly think to hell with diversity, the world would be more peaceful if everyone thought the same thing (wouldn’t even matter what we all thought as long as it was the same). 

In preparing to select speakers for an upcoming conference, I have had these thoughts in the back of my mind a lot lately. We weren’t even doing speaker applications in this case, it was all by invitation, but we did take recommendations from some colleagues with good instincts and connections. Perhaps not shockingly, many of the recommendations happened to be upper middle-class white people. Not because of any explicit bias, but for a lot of the same reasons (I think) that have to do with why people from other backgrounds are less represented in our contributor communities as well, tied to cultural norms around being more exposed to and/or drawn to people like yourself, income/time availability, social connections to help publicize their sites/blogs, and let’s not forget the big one — they call it a majority because there’s just plain more of them.

So we’ve been doing some work over the past couple of weeks looking specifically for bloggers from underrepresented groups. Here’s what I’ve observed so far.

  • There are so many people blogging out there! When there are so many blogs, it is really overwhelming to go looking for new talent, as you have to wade through a lot of junk to find it. There is a reason there are whole organizations and conferences with staffs of people whose sole job is to read blogs and discover new talent.
  • There is some great content housed by really ugly sites. Like, really ugly. So ugly you look at it and think, “This person has no taste.” You know what, though? A lot of published writers probably have crappy taste. It’s not like their publishers let them design their book covers. And look back at your first website. Was it really the bastion of good taste and advanced design you sport now (if you do)?
  • There are a lot of talented bloggers that are on Blogger or Squarespace (and others, but those two came up the most often when I viewed source). I kind of want to have a team that just finds great bloggers — not famous people, or super-high-traffic sites, just good bloggers — and helps them switch onto WordPress. I also want there to be some really nice documentation that explains what WordPress has that those others don’t, with an easy step-by-step guide for making the switch.
  • Blogging is about having something to say. Looking at upper middle-class white people vs people from low-income backgrounds or less academically-inclined lives, the spelling and grammar is in some cases a big differentiator. It’s easy (because we’ve been trained this way) to look at the one with all the perfect sentences and say, “This person is the better writer.” But that person might not have the better story, or be the better storyteller. Let’s face it, the one thing blogging exposes vs. professional publishing is the writer’s spelling and grammar. Anyone who gets published by a magazine or book publisher has an editor that fixes all the errors. Having worked at a publishing house, I can confidently say that some brilliant authors are terrible spellers/grammarians. But we as readers don’t judge them based on spelling or grammar, since we never see it. So suspending judgment a little bit in that area, as hard as it is for me (because I really love good spelling and grammar), might lead to finding some great stories and storytellers on blogs.

Diversity, yep, we’re all different. Except we’re more the same than different, so it’s dumb to feel threatened by diversity. See: The Sneetches. Promoting and exposing people of different backgrounds doesn’t mean less opportunity for the folks in the majority demos. It just means they’ll have to work a little harder to rise to the top, which seems about right. And if the mission is democratizing publishing, then it seems like equalizing the opportunity for exposure and promotion goes hand in hand with that.

How diverse will your next conference be?

Automatticians at WordCamps

Automattic is getting pretty big, almost 200 folks now, spread all over the world. That’s a lot of people we can send to WordCamps. I remember when it was mostly Matt and I splitting up who’d go to which events — how times have changed in five years!

Since we’re hiring so enthusiastically, my team is putting together a little guide for Automatticians on how to be an awesome Automattic representative at a WordCamp. I have a pretty giant list of tips and advice at the ready (you’d never have guessed, I know), but it occurs to me that non-Automatticians are probably the best people to ask about what we can do better when we pop in to a local WordCamp.

Here are some of the things from my giant list so far:

  • Don’t travel in packs. When there are a few or a bunch of Automatticians at an event, we tend to cluster together because we so rarely get to see each other — and we like each other — but it makes it less likely that we’ll meet new community members. 1. Because we’re too busy talking to each other to reach out to new people. 2. Because it’s intimidating for someone new to break into that group.
  • Ask questions. A lot of WordCamp attendees will already know about Automattic, so while we should definitely be a resource for anyone interested in the company, the better use of time is getting to know the community members: who are they, how are they using WordPress, what would help them make their community more vibrant, who are the local independent consultants/themers/developers that we should know about?
  • Help out. WordCamps are a lot of work. Automatticians aren’t visiting dignitaries — we’re getting paid to be there — and we should help out along with the locals, whether that’s taking a shift on the help desk, moving chairs, or passing out shirts.
  • Be identifiable. Wearing the same WordPress t-shirt as everyone else is cool and all, but wearing a shirt that identifies the wearer as an Automattic employee, or a lanyard for the badge or something, would make it easier for people interested in talking about Automattic (especially people interested in jobs!) to find the Automatticians in the crowd.
  • Carry cards. Saying “email me later” works better when the card with an email address is handed over at the same time. That said, getting community member contact info so the burden of follow-up isn’t on them is even better.
  • Tweet It.  Using Twitter to let local followers know Automatticians are there is helpful. They might love to meet in person and talk about working at Automattic or contributing to the .org project and may not realize we’re there, especially if we’re not on the speaker list.
  • Don’t hog the speaker slots. Yes, Automatticians are speakers you can rely on, and we do employ a lot of seriously smart people, but if the speaker roster is filled up with Automatticians, that doesn’t do a lot to help grow the experience of local folks, which is part of what WordCamps are about.
  • Don’t be exclusionary. If planning to go off to an Automattician dinner or something after a long day of not traveling as a pack, don’t make those plans in front of other people, who will feel excluded (or might not understand what’s happening and might inadvertently show up later and crash the dinner); make private plans in private via Automattic channels. Even better, don’t go to private dinners, go to dinner with members of the local community.
  • Be present. In sessions, don’t work on the laptop, just pay attention to the speaker. In the crowd, don’t focus on the phone, smile and meet new people. Be there for the whole event, don’t take off early or skip the second day. Show the local community that Automatticians are respectful and want to be there.

What would you add? In the comments (or in an email to me at jenmylo/wordpress.org if you don’t want people to see what you think) make suggestions for what Automatticians can do to be awesome at WordCamps. It’s also okay to give examples of times when we have not been awesome. Learning from our mistakes is good, too. Thanks in advance for your help!

Appropriate Words

or, Being Sensitive and the End of Wheaton’s Law.

[Note: This post was originally going to be titled Meaning vs. Intent; or, Why Sensitive Language Is Hard but Important, but I forgot I already had a title when I started writing, and I didn’t remember until after I hit publish. This is that post from the the “week of vs” list.]

Part I: Lamer Than Lame

I attended AdaCamp SF two weeks ago, a conference by/for/about women in open technology and culture. I’ve been running in feminist circles since I was a teenager, and with the LGBTQ cause for just as long (though back then the initials weren’t as many), so I’m pretty used to the rhetoric around language and the power it has. I have to admit, though, that while we were going though the rules and processes that would run the weekend, there was a bit about using appropriate language had me rolling my eyes.

I think everyone in the English-speaking world is aware of our complicated slang rules. “Nigger” is a word that we should never use. Unless it’s a rapper? Definitely Paula Deen shouldn’t. Definitely I shouldn’t. I actually think that definitely rappers shouldn’t either. You can’t “reclaim” a word and take away its negative power unless it has, in fact, lost its power in the end. As long as that sensitivity exists, the word should just not be used. They didn’t tell us not to use words like “nigger” or “fag” at the conference; I think they assumed that everyone knows that’s unacceptable language.

Words we were informed at the conference that were considered inappropriate had more to do with dis/abilities. So when we were told to avoid words like “lame,” “crazy,” “idiot,” and “stupid,” I, like many others, rolled the aforementioned eyes and thought we were going a bit far in the quest for sensitivity. I may have started singing Nerf Herder’s Lamer Than Lame in my head. But by the end of the weekend I had changed my tune.

Yes, “lame” technically refers to being “unable to walk normally because of an injury or illness affecting the leg or foot,” not to being “uncool,” but would someone with that kind of disability really take offense when the word has so clearly taken on an alternate meaning in our culture? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact is that what’s happening here is that a word that references a specific kind of person has been substituted to mean something derogatory. The way we blithely exclaim, “That’s so lame!” is not really any different from the way a generation ago it was common to exclaim, “That’s retarded!” or “That’s so gay!” We are mostly caught up to the fact that the latter two aren’t okay. But the reason why it’s not okay is something we are failing to internalize and apply to other words.

Any time we use a person’s physical characteristics (including brain/mental ability) as a negative adjective, or a cultural symbol as a pejorative descriptor, we have done a bad thing. What’s disappointing is that we do it so unconsciously, and out of habit, but we really don’t need to. There are other words, more descriptive words, and most people are capable of coming up with those words. For those without the mental wherewithal to tap into a good vocabulary, there’s always a dictionary or thesaurus (look it up on your phone!). In the meantime, here are a few example substitutions, depending on context.

  • Lame — disappointing, bad, uncool, boring
  • Stupid — a bad idea, not fair,  has problems we’d need to solve
  • Crazy — shocking, not well thought out, appalling, acting strangely

Basically, if you’re using a word or phrase like one of these that gets applied to all sorts of things in a negative manner, but doesn’t convey a specific meaning, pick a word that does convey a specific meaning. After a weekend without words like this, I began to realize how often they’re used in our culture, and how much nicer it is when they aren’t. There’s a reason kindergarten teachers don’t let the kids call each other stupid.

So let’s stop using words that can make other people feel like crap.

Part II: Cunt vs. Dick

Thinking also about language people use to talk about women negatively (bitch, cunt, etc) that are not actually descriptions of behavior, I have to wonder why this one is so skewed. Yes, I want people to stop using words like “bitch” and “cunt” to mean “a woman who’s doing something I don’t like, disagree with, or find annoying.” But if “cunt” — the female genitals — is a word that shouldn’t be used to mean things other than female genitals, why is it okay to use “dick” — the male genitals — the same way?

“Don’t be a dick,” or Wheaton’s Law, is a mainstay of geek culture, but it’s ultimately predicated on the same misuse of language that calling someone a “cunt” is. “Don’t be a jerk” would get the same point across, but we gleefully use “dick” instead. Why? I like Wil Wheaton as much as the next nerd — I even bought the Codex and Fawkes poster for the cafe — but just because he’s cool doesn’t mean that this phrase doesn’t perpetuate a bad habit, and a negative one, despite the goal of creating better behavior. Ah, the irony.

From now on, I’m going to try not to call anyone a dick, or tell them not to be a dick. If I want men to stop using the words for my body parts to mean bad things, I should return the favor. So I will.

We Need a New Study

or, Expedience vs. Accuracy

I’m at Open Source Bridge this week — one of my favorite conferences — and less then 2 weeks age I was at AdaCamp SF, which was also great. Both events involve a lot of people I respect who are dedicated to increasing diversity in the contributor pools of open source projects, which I love. Many of them keep referencing a stat that I think is outdated and mostly irrelevant, which I don’t love. Yes, I’m talking about FLOSS-POLS. That 1.5% number (percentage of FLOSS contributors who are women) is based on research that doesn’t represent the open source community today, so whether the current number is closer to 1.5 or 10.5 (and yes, I would guess that overall, especially in the developer segments, it’s probably still on the lower end) doesn’t matter; we shouldn’t be using a number that is outdated when making a case for why change is needed.

The FLOSS-POLS study was conducted from 2004-2006 over a 24-month period. The survey execution was completed within the first year, followed by interviews and analysis leading up to publication that took more than a year. So we are now talking about results based on a survey that is almost ten years old. Things change in a decade. Would we reference stats on mobile browser usage from 2004 to frame a discussion on why responsive design is important? Only in that 2004 would be a point on a graph showing the change in mobile browser usage stats over time. We don’t have that when it comes to assessing the percentage of women in open source projects because we need a new study.

“But, but —” you may sputter, “everyone knows that the mobile browser stats from 2004 would be irrelevant because the iPhone didn’t come out until 2007 and that was a game-changer. We haven’t had a game changer yet when it comes to women in open tech and culture.” True, that example may have been selected as an outlier where change happens so rapidly that stats from year to year are dramatically different. The number of women showing up on project leadership teams isn’t growing by those same leaps and bounds, but things *are* changing, and without tracking those changes, how can we really speak intelligently about the state of things? Looking at the numbers over recent years in specific programs like OPW, it seems obvious to me that we are in a pivotal time, and we should be collecting data like our lives depend on it so that we can look back at this time with accuracy, and so that future generations can learn from it.

Another problem I have with the FLOSS-POLS study is the methodology as outlined in Deliverable D 16: “Gender: Integrated Report of Findings”

This report primarily relies on anthropological research carried out amongst F/LOSS participants in France and other parts of Europe in 2004 and 2005

Yes, I know there are a lot of open source project contributors in France and Europe. Yes, I know Americans are often ethnocentric and think we rule the world (sorry about that, by the way, many of us know we can really suck and are embarrassed by that). Yes, I know that was the participant pool they chose for a specific reason:

The FLOSSPOLS project aims to support Europe-wide goals, and clearly needs to be conducted at a European level.

from Project Outline

To be fair, the report states that while the offline research was mostly in France:

parts of it were also conducted in other European countries (England, Wales, Germany and the Netherlands) as well as other countries (North America and India)

That’s all well and good, but this study gets referenced as if it’s the Bible of open source gender stats, and it just isn’t, given the geographic focus when many FLOSS projects are decidedly more distributed than their coverage. Also, note: “North America” isn’t a country.

Another issue is numbers, specifically this number: 1541 participants. That number just seems laughable to me. Hell, WordPress and Drupal alone could get more contributor survey responses than that — especially if we extend our definition of contribution to include more than just core development — and we’re just a couple of CMS projects that started in 2003 and 2001, respectively. Oh, look, two really big FLOSS communities that were barely off the ground in 2004. Here’s where that mobile browser comparison starts to not look like such an outlier.

In 2004, WordPress had a handful of contributors. In 2013, WordPress has hundreds of core contributors with each release, and the project as a whole has thousands more when you roll in the developers of plugins and themes at wordpress.org, the mobile apps, the docs and support teams, the event organizers/speakers/volunteers, the teachers, the translators, and all the other people who contribute to WordPress. So I take back what I said before about WordPress and Drupal together being able to get 1541 contributor survey responses… I think WordPress could get that many all on its own.

So, yeah. I don’t think this study is up to date, or particularly relevant to discussing the current state of things. Relevant to discussing trends? Yes! It’s now historical data. Historical data is the foundation of analyzing progress. But we need current data to know what the state of things really is.

I have a lot of other issues with the FLOSS-POLS study being taken as current-day truth, but I’m thinking that a) you don’t want to spend another hour reading this and I don’t want to spend another hour writing it, and b) you get my gist.

So how do we get new information to plot on the timeline of progress?

We need a new study.

Before moving onto what I think we should do about this, I’d like to take a moment to address a point raised in a session the other day by Kronda Adair in her session Expanding Your Empathy, and that we talked about a bit afterward. She was recounting how she’d tweeted that women still earn .50 on the dollar compared to men, and how someone replied asking what her source for that stat was, that according to CAP stats it was more like 96.7 cents on the dollar. Here’s the set of tweets from her slide:
screenshot of tweetsIn the session, Kronda posited that the reply was derailing the conversation, that the important nugget in her original tweet was that there was inequality, and that the respondent shouldn’t try to cloud that message by focusing on specific numbers. She also (rightly) pointed out that while .50 may not be the average in our industry anymore, that some women somewhere were earning at that ratio, some were earning more, and some were earning less, so unless you were going to be very specific about the group being referenced, saying that pay is still unequal was still an important message. I do agree with that. I disagree that the numbers don’t matter.

When you use numbers to make a point, they just have to be accurate, or you’re setting yourself up for your entire statement to be distrusted. If I can’t trust the numbers you’re quoting, can I trust your overarching statement? Oh, you weren’t quoting numbers, you were just repeating something you’d heard without researching it to verify? Okay, but now everything else you’re saying will be judged by that oversight. Just saying, “Women still make less than men 50 years after the equal pay act,” would have made the point. Not as dramatically, but that’s the power of stats, and that’s why it’s important they be accurate.

Just as I keep hearing people talking about how they would like to stop being distracted at work by having to discuss the issue of being a woman in technology and just get to focus on the actual technology, inaccuracy in talking about these issues is a distraction that pulls focus from the central problem, that there is imbalance and bias and discrimination and all those things that we want to correct moving forward. So let’s remember that what we say (not what we think) is what people hear and what they will use to judge our veracity, and try to be accurate in the words — and especially the numbers — we use.

Note: I loved Kronda’s talk and thought it was one of the best so far. Would love to see her give it at WCSF or the community summit if/when we do one again. I also already shared my thoughts on the importance of accuracy with her directly. I hate it when people deconstruct what someone else said without talking to the person directly.

Now, back to FLOSS-POLS and how I think we need a new study.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.  The draft post from when I first started trying to sum up my thoughts on this is from November. Much of the following is taken from that draft.

If we’re going to try to grow the numbers of women in open source projects and want to know our level of success/failure in that regard, we need to have a baseline number against which we can measure. We need good stats. We need reliable data. And we can’t count on a university funding a study once a decade. We need to take responsibility for measuring our own progress.

“Wait,” you’re thinking. “Isn’t that what the Ada Initiative is there for now? Won’t they take care of all that stuff for us?” Dudes — and I say that in an entirely non-gender-specific way — be realistic. Look at the Ada Initiative mission, look at all the projects they have going, look at the fact that it’s two passionate people trying to raise enough money to do awesome things, and think about what it takes to run rigorous academic studies, conduct data analysis, and to do it every year.

The Ada Initiative’s opening action was in fact a survey, the Ada Initiative Census of open technology and culture in March 2011. They surveyed a bit fewer than 3000 people about attitudes and their experience within their open source communities. The oft-cited FLOSS-POLS study surveyed just over 1500 (mostly in Europe). But we all know that if you tallied the contributor lists from all the open source projects, or even just the ones that, say, have participated in Google Summer of Code, we would have a community of many more thousands of people, probably tens of thousands of people, especially once we loop in the project contributors who focus on support forums, design, documentation, QA, etc. So how can we get the most useful data?

I dunno.

I say that semi-jokingly, but the truth is, we should all be asking what data is needed, and what the best way to acquire it is. Many people don’t want to ask contributors to identify themselves by gender (or race, or age, or sexuality, or education level, or socioeconomic status, or any of the other demographic slices in which one group dominates others) because we think it’s the work that matters, not the profile. And that’s true. But if we want to increase diversity — and pretty much everyone agrees that we ought to — then the profiles clearly *do* matter, or we wouldn’t go on about how we need to work for change. You see the conundrum?

My proposal: We form a diversity coalition of F/LOSS projects, with a rep from any open source project that is willing to be involved (hopefully, most of them). We consult with the Ada Initiative, and we consult with some lovely academic researchers who love open source (or who just love one or more of our projects, whatever) who would be willing to put in some time to help formulate a repeatable study plan and ongoing data collection mechanism. We do whatever we need to do to get contributors to our own projects to pitch in and agree to an annual diversity census and/or private, opt-in demographic  information being stored with their contributor profiles. We round up appropriate  researchers (volunteer? paid? either would work) to collect and analyze the data. We release the results to the F/LOSS community each year, so that each project has an accurate baseline against which to measure progress in their own project (if they are so inclined) and in relation to other projects.

This is kind of a giant proposal, I know. It would require working together with a lot of people, and it would require a lot of work in general. I’m basically at the point where I’ve stepped back from core UX to focus on increasing diversity and participation in the WordPress community, so I’m already prepared to say yes to this on behalf of WordPress (unless that statement gets me fired, in which case I’m prepared to say yes on behalf of just me). The question is, do other projects want this information as badly as I do?

Tangent: And could we pool some money to buy floss.org and make it the home of a F/LOSS coalition in general? We should be collaborating on more than diversity. Just think of how awesome it would be if we collaborated on improving the tools we all use, contributing to upstream projects, and ways of making our projects better? It could be like an online cross between OS Bridge and CLS all year long!

WordPress was founded almost 10 years ago when Mike Little agreed with Matt Mullenweg about a need for something, and said so in a comment on a blog post. Could this post be the start of a coalition of open source projects? That would be so ridiculously great I don’t even have a word for it. If anyone from another project is interest in talking more about this idea, leave a comment and I’ll follow up with you. If you’re at Open Source Bridge this week, let’s talk about it in an unconference session on Friday. Maybe we can make this happen!

Footnote: I would like to end this ardent cry for better stats with something my wonderful friend Andrea Middleton wrote to me a very long time ago when trying explaining to me how she, a poet, had fallen in love with a statistician. It sums up most of my feelings about stats perfectly, since I care more about people and interactions than I do about numbers. She said, “Statistics are like poetry, beautiful but useless.”