Supporting the Ada Initiative #libs4ada

The best ideas are the simplest ones. Last week I suddenly saw a rash of tweets and blog posts about librarians donating to the Ada Initiative. In library/archives technology (where I work), the Ada Initiative is well known for programs that work to fight systematic sexism in technology, including conference and community codes of conduct, ally training and programs, and AdaCamps. It’s there, it’s a great resource, and it’s worthy of attention and support. But in the last few days the conversation on this topic has reached a fever pitch, due to the outstanding generosity of our community in response to an amazingly simple and common idea – matching donations. Four committed and well respected leaders in this community (Andromeda Yelton @thatandromeda, Bess Sadler @eosadler, Chris Bourg @mchris4duke, and Mark Matienzo @anarchivist) simply announced that between them they’d match up to $5120 donated by librarians and archivists to the Ada Initiative through a targeted campaign, and a mini-movement was born. Nearly $15,000 has been donated so far with four days left.

To me, the Ada Initiative’s most important impact is surfacing the systematic nature of sexism, especially in tech. I know far too many individuals, both male and female, that view sexism as outright bigotry (“women aren’t as good at…” or “women shouldn’t…”), and believe it’s not a huge problem in North America because they don’t hear statements like that. But that’s not all sexism is. First, people do make statements that mean these very things, but they’re much more often subtly coded or cached in care/concern or “explaining” a situation. Second, and more insidious, is the way that women are framed in everyday speech, action, and media that reinforces a power dynamic where women are objects subject to others’ judgment and desires and are assumed to be less skilled or informed. This systematic, deeper sexism also tends to highlight (misguided) paternalistic attempts to “help” as somehow enlightened rather than revealing these actions as extending the unequal status quo.

The well documented and pervasive phenomenon of women being subjected to unwelcome sexual attention in technology communities, both at conferences and online, demonstrates just how blatant this inequality and objectification is, and how speaking up about it results in retaliation and denial of the issues at hand. Microagressions in everyday workplace and personal conversation further re-establish sexist norms and by their very nature typically go un-commented upon and largely (consciously) un-noticed to those who deny this is a problem. Just in the last few weeks I’ve had extremely basic technical concepts explained to me by someone who knew my job title and what sort of skills and knowledge it requires, had an individual in a professional meeting refer to a specific groups of academics we were discussing as “sluts” who “would do anything for money,” and had an extremely well-meaning individual explicitly state that he was acting to protect women from a workplace situation where both men and women were being manipulated and adversely affected. This is deep, ingrained, entrenched, dangerous stuff, folks. It’s largely invisible and is structured to perpetuate itself. We must do better.

The Ada Initiative works to bring these issues to the forefront with the idea that exposure causes people to think more deeply and look more closely. And that leads to real change. Let’s watch, let’s talk, and let’s make some change.

If you’re a librarian or archivist, please consider donating to this targeted campaign to support Ada’s important work. If you’re not a librarian or archivist, please consider donating through Ada’s regular donation channels.

(Ada folks – mine is coming, just waiting on new credit cards to arrive after an unfortunate wallet incident last weekend. C’mon Canada Post…)

Rethinking comments has announced that they’re suspending commenting on their site. Their rationale is a fascinating one–that, based on a recent study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, the presence of trolls and otherwise cantankerous folks on comment threads inherently sours otherwise reasonable citizens’ perception of the work described and by extension negatively impacts public support for scientific research.

I’ve long been an advocate for crowdsourcing, open discussion, and a liberal definition of scholarship. I hear the criticisms of these approaches, stemming from a belief that the amateur has no place in thoughtful discourse of complex subjects, and to a large degree I have rejected this premise. I believe that reasonable people can know their knowledge limits, listen effectively, and, well, reason. I also know there are (to be judgmental) nutters out there, and believe that reasonable people can see through the nutty stuff, see the fundamental points behind the nutty stuff (if any!), separating the content from the presentation, and just use that as input into future thinking.

I suppose I’ve never really equated the amateur with the irrational, mean, or ad hominem. And I also suppose that makes me naíve. This equation is exactly what the opponents fear. A throwaway sentence in the Popular Science post further alludes to an impact of strongly worded comments on public perception. This concerns me as well, as though I do fully understand the impact of tone and approach on perception I always hope that people can rise above that. The Popular Science decision and the (notably, single) study their announcement cites demonstrate to me just how complex this situation is–it’s not nearly as clearcut as either my idealistic hopes would want or as the skeptics’ criticisms would portray.

So where do we go from here? How do we open up scholarship for wider dissemination and engagement, without falling into the traps described in Brossard and Scheufele’s study? As usual, I have some ideas. First, research this area further. I haven’t looked–there may be studies that support or refute the one cited here. More info = more ideas for how to mitigate this effect. Second, seek ways to reinforce the positive popular engagement with this content. Would introducing further input into these systems in the form of positive reinforcement of “good” engagement (oof, define that) have an impact on the outcome? Third, what about comment moderation? This is the hallmark of the skeptic willing to consider public/amateur engagement, and I’ve typically felt the effort required to do this manually was out of proportion with the problem. But perhaps not–now I have a new perspective on the core problem and the balance here might be affected by the emergence of mostly automated ways to approach the moderation task.

What else? How can we realize the benefits of the participatory culture in research while mitigating the deleterious impacts of incivility and (perhaps more concerning) “firmly worded” public disagreements? How do we get the best of both?

New Blog: Thinking it Through

So many things have happened in my life recently, coupled with so many areas of sometimes thoughtful and sometimes reactive discussion in the academic library/digital scholarship world, that I’m inspired to start blogging again. It’s been years since I was in the habit of doing this, and with an upcoming big job change for me I’m seeking ways to write and reflect more. So, welcome. I hope I can live up to my own dreams for this blog of reflection, working through ideas, and sparking discussion.