Joseph Reagle is a scholar and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. He is currently an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. He previously taught at and received his PhD from New York University, and has been a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. His work explores a broad set of topics surrounding our relationship with technology, from privacy and intellectual property to collaboration on Wikipedia. His most recent book, Reading the Comments (2015), asks us to consider what the virtual comment section can tell us about human nature and social behaviour.
This interview took place via Skype on November 18th, 2015.
Cathleen: Much of your work has addressed aspects of the free culture movement, particularly how rhetorics of freedom and openness can create informal but significant barriers to women’s participation. What do you think it is about the “open space” egalitarian concept and discourse at the core of the standard hacker/hacktivist space that allows for the subjugation, under-representation, and frequent harassment of anyone who does not fit the unspoken mold (i.e. male, white, cisgendered, and straight)?
Joseph: When you are open to anyone, that can include, to use the vernacular, “assholes” — people who are going to challenge and alienate others who might want to participate and not have to put up with that. Similarly, the rhetoric of freedom, as you alluded to, can be used to paper over the absence of women and other marginalized groups. So, if you have a group that is open source and they’re producing free culture and there are no women participating, and you say, “how come there are no women participating?” they can just say, “well we’re open and free so women simply must not choose to participate.” I think that can be naive to what is actually going on.
In your writing on hacker culture, you bring up the idea that there are especially difficult individuals, which you refer to as “bad apples, misogynists, and trolls,” who can be especially alienating to women. How do we address such problematic behaviour?
So, this is one of the things with my views on free speech — I used to be a fairly libertarian free speech maximalist. I just wrote a book [Reading the Comments] on commenting culture. I now view a lot of spaces online, which aren’t run by the government, as more like communities and more like gardens. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who facilitated a very popular blog on The Atlantic, used to comment on what managed to make his blog successful when he’s talking about difficult issues like racism. He said that he sort of pruned the weeds. So I’m much more sympathetic to notions of code of conduct or, “let’s create a particular culture where we say poisonous toxic behaviour is unacceptable, unwelcome,” and I think free speech is often thrown up as an, “oh my god the sky is falling,” but there are still plenty of other venues where people can exercise their right to speak. They can create their own blog, and say whatever it is that they’d like to say. So my more mature point of view now is that we have a responsibility to create spaces that are conducive to the kind of behaviour that we actually want to see. And in Reading the Comments, Chapter 5, I talk about the harassment of Kathy Sierra, that started on a Mean Kids blog, where it was supposed to be satire and snark. The very name [of the blog]…even if the people who created it didn’t intend for that amount of harassment to arise, it sort of set the tone, and they didn’t do anything to stop it. And then they were surprised when horrible mean harassment arose. So I think that’s problematic and I think we have in a large part moved away from the idea that if you have a blog or a forum you have to allow anyone to post anything they want. I think that was the ethos back in the 90s and in part through the 2000s, but I think in the new millennium we now appreciate that you have to moderate your comments a bit more. And even on a real face-to-face basis, I think the promulgation of codes of conduct is a similar sort of notion, that we’re going to define some behaviours and we’re going to act on those particular behaviours if we find them objectionable.
What role do you think anonymity can play in either silencing or strengthening marginalized voices in online communities?
It’s a double-edged sword. Marginal communities very often use anonymity to be able to speak and connect with people they wouldn’t be able to otherwise contact. But also, lots of people have been studying the role of anonymity with respect to sociological, psychological phenomenons such as deindividuation and dehumanization. One of the things that has surprised me more recently though, is that people are actually willing to say quite horrible things even with their names identified. So I think, again, that insight from the past five years challenges the idea that, “oh well it must be anonymity.” And I don’t know if we necessarily have a great answer to that. I give two very high-level theories in the book about why people act poorly and do terrible things online. One is that lots of times, relatively good people just are acting poorly — like they’re having a bad day. Or some of the computer-mediated communication effects are kicking in. There are all these theories about how the actual medium affects how we respond and give cues, and don’t give cues and how things can flame up. But I think ninety percent of what we see online is normally good people acting poorly and then a minority, a very small minority, are people with personality disorders or people who are toxic or bad apples or however we might characterize them.
And I think they really are a minority, but they can have a disproportionate effect. So in [my article] “Free as in Sexist,” when I’m talking about bad apples, one of the first things I found on that was Val Aurora’s “HOW TO Encourage Women in Linux.” She has a how-to manual that’s very useful. She says you might have a group with ten really cool people, but if you have one toxic bad apple that’s going to chase people away. So again, often there are just these interesting structural things where you see the social network actually prompt a sort of cultural behaviour to emerge which can make a community or a barrel go rotten.
In your writing you’ve discussed how hacker/geek spaces can condemn the asking of questions, using acronyms like RTFM (Read The Fucking Manual). On the other side, there’s also the phenomenon of mansplaining. Why do you think it is that the sharing of geek/hacker knowledge often comes with this strange combination of dismissiveness on the one end and over explanation on the other?
Interesting question. One of the important things I think is to distinguish between two different types of geek knowing:the “lord it” and “hoard it” kind of geek — like the comic book guy from the Simpsons — and then the geek who really wants to share and is actually enjoying the fact that they’re helping someone get into the thing that they’re into. So if they are going to engage you they’re going to be very authoritative seeming, and flood you with the information. It’s going to take them time to tell you something very particular and specific. But maybe they don’t want to engage you in that way. So I think it’s that, “If I am going to engage you I’m going to mansplain. But maybe I don’t want to mansplain. I’ve already mansplained in the FAQs.” I think there’s often a geek impulse that when you meet another geek or if you want to connect with them you do that by telling them the things that you know. Again, I don’t know to what extent this is gendered. I suspect it is. So I’m just going to blather all the stuff I know, and then I expect you to blather all the stuff you know, and maybe correct me where I was wrong. Maybe that’s just a masculine style of speaking in these sorts of large stereotypes.
In response, how can feminists working in these communities employ and benefit from obligation to know policies — Feminism 101 or FAQs for example — and use them to build a more inclusive and intersectional online environment?
I think, particularly in a geek space, very often feminism and geekdom are posed as oppositional and distinct. With respect to documenting stuff, I’ve found a significant intersection between those two spaces. I think having FAQs and having 101 type stuff is actually very useful. That said, it can be overwhelming, particularly for people who aren’t quite as geeky as the geek feminists. And so [in my writing] I quote a journalist who had an interaction with some geek feminists and she said I don’t have time to read this huge wiki. For the purposes of geekdom, these practices are actually quite congruent with the culture and expectations of other geeks. But they can be a little bit like a bludgeon in which you’re no longer really engaging with the other person. I call it the FAQ slap when I talk about it with my students, and it’s just like: “go read that, go read that, go read that.” It can be dispiriting. So I think it works well for geeks, but we should also appreciate the fact that it can it can be a little bit alienating. But like anything in this space, there’s always this question of balance — in my online community class we discuss how open we want to be to newcomers versus preserving the time and resources of extant community members. And there’s not necessarily a simple answer. It’s just a matter of having the right balance for what that particular community needs.
In your view, how do we address the (typically male) gendering of subcultures and practices, such as punkdom or hackerdom for example, and encourage more diversity within communities that have, in the past, shown extreme resistance to change?
I think it’s just part of a continuing conversation. So in that paper, I make use of Bourdieu and his notion of habitus and the boundaries of a community and how they’re continually being negotiated. I think the discourse about what is a geek, who gets to be a geek and what is the qualification for a geek — that’s a necessary conversation that just needs to continue. The conversation about fake geek girls was — I wouldn’t say productive and I wouldn’t say useful — but it was important. I didn’t like the way that the conversation went with respect to what I call the boomerang, and some of the double binds, like women were “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” But I thought it is completely appropriate for a community to have a discussion about how are we different from the mainstream and about marginal identities and their role in our particular community. And that’s what subcultures do: they discuss those boundaries and their sense of identity. John Scalzi said something like: the fact that we can be geeks that are welcoming geeks rather than geeks that are lording and hoarding —that’s what geekdom means to him. So I think that we see a larger contestation of what it means to be a geek.