Girly geekdom for girls… only?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Several of the front page posters here are participating in discussions on the Python diversity email list, a list created by Python community member Aahz to discuss diversity problems in the Python programming language community. The initial aim of the list is creating a diversity statement like that of the Dreamwidth community.

Some of the more problematic discussions on the list come down to “this stuff is hard, and hard to talk about, and people get angry and defensive when things are hard.” I don’t want to discuss the tenor or direction of the discussions there in general in this post though, I want to talk about a specific incident. A poster to the list made reference to being “beaten up by a girl” (in a metaphorical sense, what had actually happened was off-list criticism from a woman, not physical violence). A 101 discussion followed, and while it was pretty clear to most people posting that the framing played right into the idea that being beaten by women, physically or in argument, is emasculating, it took a surprisingly long time until it was pointed out, originally by me, eventually also by Aahz in a separate thread, that “girls” is a problematic term. It seems this was a new idea even to some of the more pro-feminist posters.

Now despite the Python diversity list’s innocence, calling women “girls” even in conversations where men are just “men” is not a new problem. As I pointed out to someone on identi.ca, Wikipedia has a prominently placed discussion of how there are few neutral terms for women, especially more informal ones. And the geek feminism groups have run into it ourselves. We have LinuxChix and Girl Geek Dinners. One syllable terms make for snappy names and the “girl geek” alliteration has zing. Reclaiming problematic terminology has a long history, but one of the appeals is that it’s just plain fun, and it’s happened to some extent with the term “geek” as well.

But how much are we playing into the idea that geek feminism is for young women, that once first year CS is gender balanced we’re done here? I’ve seen concerning things. LinuxChix’s name has on occasion drawn young women who explicitly say they only want to interact with other young women. LinuxChix and Girl Geek meetups are often just as inconveniently timed and placed for primary carers as LUGs and gaming groups. When Julie Gibson interviewed me for Ada Lovelace day, she talked about how LinuxChix turned out not to be for her, she’s too far removed in time from having enough geek hours in her life to learn Linux. An older woman””in her late forties, perhaps, well outside the Australian LinuxChix demographic””at our LinuxChix miniconf in 2008 said that she’s careful to avoid becoming a “face” for women in IT: she thinks no teenage girl wants to grow up to be her. It reminded me of Lauredhel’s post at Hoyden About Town, Monica Dux thinks I’m bad for feminism’s image, about the trend to say it’s great to be a proud feminist, as long as you aren’t a marketing problem for the feminism brand. Is it only great to be a woman geek if you’re exactly what the guys on Slashdot are asking for, 18 and single and heterosexual and able to fix your own computers, thus making time for everyone’s two favourite leisure activities, gaming and sex? Of course not. But I’m worried that we’re talking about ourselves as though it is.

This is hard for me. I’m in my twenties. It’s a lot easier for me to think about what my fifteen year old girl geek self would have wanted from geek feminism than what the sixty year old woman I hope to be will want. But we should. What does geek feminism look like, for women who aren’t girls any more and don’t want to be?

“Girl stuff” in Free Software

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This is an edited repost of a blog entry of mine from February 2009.

In January 2009 I gave a talk at the LinuxChix miniconf held as part of linux.conf.au 2009. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and used women developers and community leaders as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) email interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others.

One thing stood out and kept coming up all week: Terri mentioning that she had resisted at times working on things perceived as ‘girl stuff’. In Free Software this includes but is not limited to documentation, usability research, community management and (somewhat unusually for wider society) sometimes management in general. The audience immediately hit on it, and it swirled around me all week.

This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women. (In the case of software, disproportionately occupied by women still means male dominated of course, at least in the English-speaking world.) It’s difficult to disentangle the extent to which women and/or their mentors and teachers self-select for the lower status roles (and I would hardly argue that the self-selection occurs in a vacuum either) versus the extent to which they are more or less barred from high status roles versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. Other well-known examples, are, for example, the concentration of women in biological sciences as opposed to, say, physics, the different specialisation choices of male and female medical doctors and surgeons, and so on. Sometimes, as in the war between sciences, the status of a field is somewhere between a joke and real, to the extent that those can be differentiated, but often it isn’t: there’s a correlation between the male to female ratio of a medical specialty and its pay.

In all of these cases, a woman who is conscious of this problem tends to face a choice. Do the ‘girl stuff’, or not? (Of course, ideally one rejects the dichotomy, but no individual woman is responsible for constructing it.) And some, although I don’t know what proportion, of women feel guilty about their choice, especially if they do choose to do girl stuff. Just go ahead and imagine your own scare quotes from now on, by the way.

It also gets messy in various other ways. There’s the extent to which a woman who doesn’t do girl stuff is invested in maintaining the status of her boy stuff role and also the aforementioned vicious cycle where if women are doing something, it will come to be seen as not particularly hard or noteworthy.

Most concretely, I usually see this tension bubble away underneath outreach programmes promoting computing careers (you know what, I have my own status issues and I still resist calling it IT) to women. There’s the people who want to go for yeah we all know coding is populated by weirdos, and male weirdos at that, luckily you don’t have to be a geek and you don’t have to code, phew! I tend to hear about that one only once my outreach friends have gotten involved and staged a coup, admittedly. There’s the there’s so many opportunities in computing, and yes, coding is one of them and its fulfilling and it’s something you can do, but dammit, coders get all the cred and attention and dammit can we talk about something else? Women who admin/write/test/manage rock! And there’s you know, women coders don’t exactly rule the world yet, and furthermore isn’t all this oh-yes-you-could-code-I-guess-and-that’s-a-fine-thing but look! something for folks with people skills! talk basically a soft version of ew coding that’s for boys, also, last I checked, math is hard?

I observe again that there’s no right answer here in the real world right now. Women doing girl stuff have good reasons to feel dissatisfied that their hard-won skills are underpaid and under-respected, women doing boy stuff (scare quotes! please insert!) want other women to know that there’s fun to be had over here, thank you.

One crucial point in my thoughts about this I stumbled on only after the conversation Brianna Laugher recounts, over Indian food on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said”Š”””Šparaphrased”Š”””Šthat she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if we want to code, or do something else we are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which we are good at but in which we’d have competitors, we should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty. However women are justifiably reluctant to enter places where they aren’t obviously welcomed, and what better way to be welcomed than to do work that needs doing and not become just another person doing the coding free-for-all and delaying external validation for potentially quite a long time?

I have no answers. Just the perennial question of distinguishing what other people want, what other people claim they want, the genuine satisfaction of being of service to someone, and the genuine satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job of something hard. Where do you like to stand on that?

The art of the blow-off

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

The primary rule is to consider how much your absence will inconvenience your friend, and how much damage it might do to the relationship. The more of these factors that hold, the firmer you should see the commitment as being:

  1. you have blown off this friend for any reason in the recent past
  2. he has not blown you off for any reason in the recent past
  3. he has invested emotional energy in you in the recent past (eg letting you talk about a breakup or work woes)
  4. the plans involve a small number of people, possibly just the two of you
  5. the plans involve him going out of his way, eg travelling a long distance, making a lot of phone calls, reminding you of the event fifteen times
  6. the plans involve the organiser paying for things, especially in advance (consider this carefully… he may regard telling you that he paid a deposit, or that the tickets aren’t refundable, as crass, so use some common sense)
  7. a number of other people have blown off this event already
  8. it’s close to the event, such that the organiser is likely to have chosen to say no to other things that might have been fun and/or profitable because he had committed to his plans with you
  9. you have expressed extreme enthusiasm about the plans (even if you actually express extreme enthusiasm about everything)

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

  1. make every effort to cancel as early as possible
  2. apologise sincerely and be accepting of and don’t call the organiser on any irritation that creeps into her voice
  3. if money was spent, make several firm offers to repay the organiser for the money she spent on you (about three firm offers is the right number). If you can possibly afford to, don’t ask her to buy back your ticket from you if there was one: give it to her for someone else’s use.
  4. when apologising, don’t explain the excuse in great detail. You probably should mention the general idea (“this big project has sprung a leak”, “John is in town”), but don’t lean on it, even if it’s really important to you, and especially if your motives are money (eg overtime rates).

The only time that you should dwell on your excuse is when your excuse is traditional: that is, you were sick or another friend or family member died or was sick and needed you. Attempts to downplay that come across really strangely (eg “I had this seizure type thingie, oh well, I’m so so so sorry, I’m such a bad person”). Your friend will want to help or sympathise, most likely.

Otherwise, the problem with explaining your excuse in great detail is that it comes across as tantamount to explaining to the nearest cent exactly what the relationship is worth to you (“ok, so I’m less important than the boyfriend’s last minute availability”, “ok, so overtime rates trump my friendship”). More details actually make this impression worse, not better, because they show just how cold-bloodedly you calculate the worth of your friends. This may seem like nonsense—we’re all upfront hyper-rational geeks here who should be happy to have our friendship valued at market rates—but remember, it’s best for her when you over-commit to a friendship. So showing signs that you’re only rationally committed is hurtful, and not only at the conscious level either.

In some cases, eg hard to get tickets or the like, it can be nice to make gentle offers of a replacement for yourself. “Please go ahead and find someone else to take with my ticket. If you don’t find anyone, I know my friend Karen would be happy to go with you, and you’d love her, so give me a call.”

The best way to make amends is to firstly be careful to honour social engagements with this person very highly the next couple of times and depending on the level of trouble you put them to, try and assume the organiser role next time. Take the trouble on yourself, and furthermore organise to do something that your friend likes, at a time and location especially convenient for her, rather than yourself.

Oh, and if the reason you are blowing your friend off is because you suspect that he or she is romantically and/or sexually interested in you, and you are trying to gently signal your own lack of interest, this is a bad way to do it. The good way to do it is to bite the bullet and deliver that awkward “um, so, I’m not sure if I’m right, but just in case… I, um, I’m not interested in dating/shagging you” line and then give him or her a week or two without unnecessary contact so that he or she (a) believes you and (b) can choose to put on a social mask and pretend that this interlude never happened.

On the other hand, if you are blowing off a friend BUT you are romantically or sexually interested in him or her, just your luck, they probably will read blowing them off as a irrevocable sign of your lack of interest. If for some reason the time is not ripe to make a completely unambiguous move, you need to really work hard and express your regret at missing this thing, and furthermore, organise a replacement event almost immediately, ideally one that’s slightly more intimate and slightly harder to organise than the one they organised for you.

How to accept an invitation

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

Traditional etiquette is pretty spot-on about accepting social engagements in the first place. A quick rundown for those who aren’t familiar:

You get an invitation. For geeks, it probably comes in email, unless everyone has moved to Google Calendar without me looking. For big ticket events like weddings, you might still get a written invite. You reply by the same method you received the invite, unless another method is specified in the invitation itself.

You should reply to all personal invitations that come from people you know, either accepting or declining. A personal invitation is one-to-one (or one-to-a-few, in the case where households or partners are invited together). For public events like LUG meetings, you typically don’t reply unless there’s specific instructions to, and usually those will ask for acceptances only. For those, general invitations are issued to the public, rather than specific invites to individuals. In case of doubt though, it doesn’t hurt to reply.

Responses should be timely and brief. Let’s look at those.

If the invitation has an RSVP date, this is the drop-dead date for responding. The date is typically influenced by things like the date on which your friend must tell their caterers the final numbers, or on which she wants to do that giant shopping run to buy all the pizza ingredients. Replying before the RSVP date is the best thing to do and you should aim to do this almost all of the time. If you can accept or decline right away, do that, so you don’t forget.

If you’ve missed the RSVP date by a few days you should typically send profuse apologies and, if you want to accept, non-pushy inquiries about whether a late acceptance is all right. If you’ve missed it by much more, you need to decline the invitation with profuse apologies for being so late. Accepting is no longer in the question, unless your friend tells you that you can do so. Don’t ask; if this offer is going to be made, they will make it.

If the invitation has no RSVP date, you reply as soon as you can make a decision. You can work out a rough drop-dead date, usually: when do they need to start spending money? For an average sized informal party, it’s probably a couple of days before. For a trip overseas, it’s probably several months before. You need to reply before you think they started spending money on guests.

Now, to your brief replies. If you’re accepting an invitation, you say something like “I’ll be there, and I’m really looking forward to it.” There’s special wording for replying to formal invites, basically mirroring the invitation back at them. (If they said “Ms Nerd requests the pleasure of Mr Geek’s company on the 9th June”, Mr Geek replies “Mr Geek accepts with pleasure Ms Nerd’s invitation for the 9th June”.) You likely only need this for weddings and there are lots of websites with full examples of how to word replies to formal invites. Otherwise, all you need to do is accept and express that you’re looking forward to it. Don’t go into any and all sacrifices you’re making to come. (“It’s really a pain to get flights that weekend, and my usual travel agent is
away, and I’m going to miss my new puppy, but I’m coming because I just love you that much.”)

Once you’ve accepted the invitation, you regard this as a fixed engagement and you must either turn up as you said you would, or break your word, a subject we’re going into soon. You never just fail to show up and don’t either warn them beforehand or apologise afterwards.

If you’re declining, the excuse you use in all circumstances is either “I’m so sorry, I have a prior engagement, I would have loved to be there” or “I’m so sorry, I won’t be in town, I would have loved to be there”. Not being in town gets its own excuse because ‘prior engagement’ refers to plans for a particular day. It just sounds weird to call your six month holiday overseas a ‘prior engagement’.

‘Prior engagement’ is what’s called a ‘polite fiction’: it covers everything from a real prior commitment to your need to wash your hair that night. That is, in the event that you can’t be bothered or just don’t want to, the phrase for this is still “I’m so sorry, I have a prior engagement.” (Alternative phrases include “I already have plans”.) Almost all explanation beyond that comes across more as “your event sounds dumb” than “I really wanted to come but can’t”.

One geekly explanation for this, if you like, is cognitive load. You care deeply about not liking smoky venues, or not liking events that Boring Dude is at. That’s fine, that’s why you’re allowed to decline invitations and organise your own events which are in fresh air and to which Boring Dude is not invited. There’s no reason to bring it up for a particular event, because that event is already being organised and there’s nothing that can be done about it without the organiser making radical changes, so you’re just adding to her load of things to fret about. If smoky venues and Boring Dude are about to cost the organiser your friendship, you should bring this up separately when a particular event isn’t under discussion.

The only exception to offering generic excuses is when invited to something by intimates who know what you’re doing most days: partners and very best friends. With them, you should be more open. Etiquette by and large is a guide to social relationships, not intimate ones.

Links to Women in Free Software groups

I gave a 5 minute lightning talk at OSDC entitled Women in FOSS groups (meaning groups for women involved in Free Software, rather than about women in Free Software groups, I could have done a better title I know). It was mostly an attempt to jam Adam Kennedy’s lightning talk about Acme::Playmate, which featured lingerie shots of women (and maybe topless shots, I didn’t want to watch it, being quite firmly and viscerally of the belief that there’s a very small amount of sexual desire I like at my open source conferences). So mine featured pictures of women, fully clothed, with labels like Linux user and AI researcher.

For more on Kennedy’s talk, see Richard Jones’ entry about it: Jones was the chair of the session that Kennedy gave his talk in.

I’m not putting my slides up for a few reasons: bits of them only make sense in the context of that particular jam; other bits only make sense if you hear me say the words that went along with them; and finally while I got permission to use them in the talk, I didn’t get permission from all the women whose pictures I used to stick said pictures on the ‘net.

However, the last couple of slides were a list of links to groups for women using and developing Free Software, and Paul asked if I could provide them in a place where people would have a chance to write them down. Fortunately, these were even prepared earlier:

  1. LinuxChix’s list of groups for women in computing generally; and
  2. LinuxChix’s list of groups for women developing Free Software (and Free Culture, in the case of WikiChix).

The linux.conf.au review process

I’ve written already about the type of proposal that is likely to be accepted to linux.conf.au, this is a discussion of how the process worked.

Our process aims to find a good set of talks. Past conferences have asked for written papers too, but we do not believe they are widely read and some authors have simply not sent them in, which is possibly unfair to people who believed the given requirements and wrote their paper. This year we didn’t ask. By not asking for papers, conferences like linux.conf.au are missing one opportunity to actually check that our speakers have had more than a paragraph worth of thoughts concerning their talk. Hence the emphasis on known good technical quality and known speaking ability in the criteria.

I’d like to make a quick comparison here with academic computing conferences. Firstly to clear up a common misconception about academic conferences: people don’t just read their papers out loud; or at least not in computing. I’m told they do in philosophy. It’s meant to be an engaging narrative about a problem and its solution, much like a technical conference talk. (Both types of conferences have speakers that fail at this.) The selection is very different though: for an academic conference you submit an abstract or a full academic paper, usually in the 8–15 pages range, and selection is usually based entirely on the quality of the research as demonstrated in the paper, rather than on your history as an engaging or hugely popular public speaker. And the papers are actually important, in computing they will contain (or ideally contain) enough details to allow people to replicate the research (in traditional experimental science, that stuff goes in journals, in computing journals tend to contain only very serious and really stellar work). People wanting to do serious critiques of the work or to extend it will refer extensively to the paper; the paper matters in the way that code does in Free Software. Reviewers will study the paper in detail: ten conference papers would be a very very high reviewing load for a single conference.

This year all program committee members were asked to review all proposals. We voted on them, literally, on a scale of 1–5, which I personally interpreted as please no through to I will die if we reject this, although other reviewers may have calibrated differently. We did not provide feedback that was intended for the authors. We did not, therefore, do what would be called peer review, which is about extensive constructive criticism of the work suggesting ways to improve it, even if it is being rejected. That’s expensive for reviewers and would require drawing reviewers from a broader range of backgrounds: the kind of expertise required to say this talk is not terribly exciting is not the same as the expertise required to write a letter to the author suggesting technical improvements to their work. I called the linux.conf.au process Am I hack or not? initially, although since our acceptance rate is about 25% this turned out to be unfair to people who were rejected. Many were actually hack.

That acceptance rate does have certain effects when it comes to our criteria. We are not able to take many chances on people without a track record. We do not have the reviewing manpower to make any useful suggestions to people about their work or their talk proposal, although this would be possible with some other processes we could have used. The abstracts length for this conference makes proper peer review impossible (we could offer suggestions about making a better abstract, but not about doing better work as such even if we had the manpower). We can aim to possibly only select good or excellent talks.

I’ll be interested to compare the PyCon process, particularly since they’re pattern nuts and have found a series of patterns around which you can organise your committee meetings. I have to say an occupation hazard of doing these things is that you really want to go to the conference afterwards. I’d kill to go to PyCon now, if it wasn’t that that wouldn’t help me get a ticket to Texas one bit.

In other news, the linux.conf.au programme is available. Here’s talks I’m particularly looking forward to:

  • The Kernel Report (Jonathan Corbet)
  • Fixing suspend for fun and profit (Matthew Garrett)
  • Digital Preservation – The National Archives of Australia, Open Standards and Open Source (Michael Carden) [although unfortunately this is up against Val Henson, who I’d also like to see]
  • The OzDMCA: what it means for FOSS (Kimberlee Weatherall)
  • Tutorial:GIMP Uncovered: Understanding Images and Image Editing (Akkana Peck) [I’ll have to catch either Kimberlee Weatherall or Akkana Peck on video though, another clash]
  • Starting an Open Source business (Paul Fenwick)
  • How to Herd Cats and Influence People (Jono Bacon)
  • Concurrency and Erlang (André Pang)
  • Making Sausage: How the OLPC Machine Was Designed (Jim Gettys)

Andrew has already put his hand up for the cricket match and he doesn’t even have permission to take the leave yet.

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The linux.conf.au review process by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Getting a talk into linux.conf.au

We had a programming committee meeting for linux.conf.au 2007 on Saturday. Decisions were made. They may be revised based on budget. But the general consensus was that it’s the papers that linux.conf.au rejects that makes linux.conf.au the best. And here’s the more cuddly than Rusty guide to being among the best.

First a note. We had in the order of 250 proposals for 60 talk slots. (The ratio is a bit better for tutorials, about 2 proposals for every slot available.) We reject most of what we get, and we reject a fair number of things we suspect or know would be perfectly fine talks. It’s a competitive conference.

  1. Software talked about or that is core to your talk must be available under an Open Source licence. This is not negotiable, with a tiny bit of wiggle room for people who are waiting for their employer to sign off on an Open Source release. Only a little wiggle room, mind you.
  2. It is getting towards being a requirement that you are a core member of a project, or of the part of it you’re talking about. You need to have written a fair chunk of the code, initiated the documentation project, done the benchmarks, whatever. Sweated the sweat. Tutorials are a little different: for a tutorial, evidence of ability to convey enough knowledge well is generally important, and depending on your intended audience might trump not being a major developer of the tool in question.
  3. Project maturity is not essential, but is desirable. If it hasn’t been merged yet, or you are the only user, it will have to be great to be accepted.
  4. Enormous maturity can be a disadvantage, or at least it is if it leads to the the style of proposal that goes here’s the update on my LCA 2005 talk about [some project]. It’s easier to get accepted if you submit a talk focusing on a particular new feature or development.
  5. Being known as a good enough speaker is a big advantage. Standards here are high, but I feel not crazy. You can be accepted without being an amazing speaker. It is, however, essential to convince the review committee somehow that you have had and can convey 45 minutes worth of thoughts about your subject and that people will want to hear it. Being known as a good speaker from other conferences or events is excellent, and a high quality abstract can be convincing in some cases too.
  6. Insane coolness is another huge advantage. In particular, people who’ve built things they can hold in their hands, put their arms around or have a sword fight with, tend to get their papers accepted. Most proposals do not fall into this category, those that do have a high acceptance rate.
  7. Not submitting a kernel talk helps your chances of acceptance. This one is interesting. The problem is that we get a huge number of very good kernel proposals. linux.conf.au accepts a fair number of kernel talks, but is not a kernel conference and doesn’t intend to become one. So to get a proposal accepted into this stream, you must not only be good, but be very very good.
  8. Not submitting a general commentary on your experiences in the Open Source world also helps your chances of acceptance. Again, we accept some of these, but almost everyone has opinions on how to run an Open Source project, and they submit a variety of them. We need some special reason to believe you have something to say that the audience can’t easily think up for themselves or read about.
  9. Having some relevance to a primarily Australian audience is useful. This is really only meaningful for the above mentioned commentaries, for things like kernels it doesn’t matter, and if it’s hella cool, it also doesn’t matter.

For comprehensive information about submission statistics and a list of all the program committee’s blog entries, see John Ferlito’s entry.

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Getting a talk into linux.conf.au by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Planet Free Software

Article originally posted at the IT Kitchen, a now defunct project founded by Shelley Powers.

Free Software developers, who had strong mailing list and IRC based online communities before the advent of weblogging, have nevertheless found their way into it. This post is a summary of how the Free Software world is using blogs for collaboration; largely preferring aggregation of community members’ blogs over setting up single access group blogs, and using them as a community building tool rather than a software development collaboration tool.

One of the big developments was Advogato, which started in late 1999. The creator of Advogato, Raph Levien, appears to have been trying to start up a kind of a semi-formal guild system for Free Software developers, allowing them to rank each other as Master, Journeyer or Apprentice. As a small feature, he added the ability for users to make “diary entries”, the most recent of which were listed at the side of the front page.

While the other features of advogato proved only an intermittant success — the quality of the articles on the front page is widely lamented, and the certification system has been subject to a lot of debate and has not resulted in the development of formal mentoring — the diary feature was a smash hit. Waves of Free Software developers hit advogato in 2000 and 2001 as they started reading their co-developers’ diaries. The buzz even generated a Salon article in mid 2000.

The initial buzz surrounding Advogato occasionally caused users to publicly renounce their former bad opinions of “online journals”: rather than being ‘useless’ things full of stories about children and cats, they were a new space to talk about your code and find out more about your fellow developers. Advogato was known as a friendly place, in contrast sometimes with the development mailing lists themselves.

Eventually the worlds of Advogato and of blogs began to meet. In mid-2002 Levien was discovering the wider blogosphere and started exploring using his Advogato diary as a primary means of communication with other interesting people. By that time RSS feeds of individual entries and of the entire recent diary entries page were probably the single most requested feature: people no longer wanted to drop in on the site to skim through the new entries, they wanted to poll them like they were beginning to do with other websites. (RSS feeds of individuals’ diaries were added in April 2003.)

At around about this time also, some people started to express serious dissatisfaction with the Advogato community as political debates became more common and the community attracted a few diary trolls. Levien added a diary rating feature as requests to be able to keep some users off the recent entries page grew. Others used the Advogato article feature to deplore the decline in the community.

As various blogging tools became more popular around this time, it became increasingly common to see diary entries from an Advogato regular announcing that their diary was moving elsewhere.

As RSS feeds became fairly ubiquitous, the Free Software community started to revert to a more typical blogging community model: you read blogs of people whose names you knew, and you found other people you knew or knew of through sidebars and comments.

However, in mid-2003 Jeff Waugh of the GNOME desktop project decided to create his own version of the Advogato front page, a HTML page with recent blog entries from GNOME developers all over the web (including several on Advogato). He used the Spycroll aggregator software to pull in RSS feeds, and he made them all available on a single webpage, with the cute addition of disembodied "hackergotchi heads" personalising each name.

He was stunned with the popularity of the page he linked from his own sidebar as Planet GNOME and started to field all kinds of questions about it: the three most popular were “why isn’t this at planet.gnome.org?”, “why aren’t I on it?” and (to his surprise) “why isn’t there an RSS feed?”

The Planet idea took off rapidly over the next six months. Scott James Remnant was the next off the mark, creating Planet Debian. Remnant and Waugh forked spycroll soon after that to create the Planet aggregator script. In fairly short order, a lot of large Free Software projects needed to have their own planet: the Planet homepage now lists nearly 40 separate planets.

The planets have evolved a loose set of customs based on the ones in place at Planets GNOME and Debian. They do not require that syndicated blogs talk about Free Software or software development all the time: they encourage getting to know your fellow developers as people as well as techs. (John Fleck, a GNOME documentor who is not only a frequent poster, but is a frequent non-tech blogger, has been a kind of an acid test for this editorial policy: see the John Malkovich post and a later complaint.) The larger planets are starting to have to deal with line-ball calls about who should and should not be on the planet pages: Waugh apparently finds requiring that contributors use a real photo of themself somewhat helpful on Planet GNOME.

The planets have proved to be amazingly good at spreading blogging among Free Software communities. The two planets I host, LinuxChix Live and Planet Twisted are close to being my most popular hosted sites. They also fill an important gap in the usual Free Software communication tools: they don’t need to be as on-topic as mailing list posts, and they are more expressive than IRC. They’ve also had some influence on corporate group blogging: Richard Giles reported that the creation of Planet Sun was part of the explorations that led Sun employees to promote blogging internally, eventually leading to the creation of blogs.sun.com.

See also

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Planet Free Software by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Questions your conference website should answer

This article was originally posted at advogato.org in 2004.

Introduction

This article gives a list of questions that your conference website should answer, if it is to attract speakers and participants who are unfamiliar with the jargon. Most conference websites do a good job of answering some of these questions, but many go unanswered.

This article is inspired by discussion on the LinuxChix mailing lists over the past couple of years about speaking at conferences; specifically, discussion about how to encourage people to make their first ever talk proposal.

One problem with almost all Free Software conference web sites is that they aren’t very helpful to a novice speaker. One participant in the discussion recollected reading that she would need to send in a "paper" if her talk was accepted and asked what would be required of the paper. Was it an article? How long did it have to be? How did it have to relate to her talk? The only response from the organisers pointed her to mbp‘s (excellent) article on getting a conference abstract accepted, which, alas, helped her not one bit in finding out what it meant to send a paper if her abstract was accepted.

Many Free Software conference websites assume a lot of background knowledge of the conference process. This assumption is a strange one: many Free Software developers work outside academia, and if they were ever inside it, never got to the stage where conferences become part of academic life. And the Free Software conference procedures are subtly different from academic conferences in ways that aren’t obvious, mostly because Free Software conferences are generally more informal events than academic conferences. People used to the peer review process may not be sending in abstracts because they’re used to a very high workload of writing and revision for each conference.

In other words, your conference might a first conference for a lot of people — some of whom are qualified to speak. You need to write parts of your website assuming that potential speakers and attendees know very little of the conference process. This is doubly important since conferences vary in lots of respects: do they pay for travel? are they for users or developers?

Simple general questions about your conference.

Almost all conferences websites answer these simple questions already.

  1. Where is your conference?

  2. When is your conference?

    Give times as well as dates when answering this question, so that people know to book an extra night’s accommodation if your last event finishes at 8pm.

  3. What is the target audience of your conference?

    Are you focused on a particular project, are you a general Free Software conference or a tech conference accepting talks related to Free Software?

  4. Would a user of Free Software benefit from your conference?

  5. Would a developer of Free Software benefit from your conference?

  6. Would a Free Software advocate or someone involved in community projects (like LUGs) benefit from your conference?

Questions everyone wants answered

Many conference websites are doing a good job of answering these questions somewhere, but not all are.

  1. How can I get to your conference?

    It’s worth listing the airport, train station, and bus station nearest your venue and giving some idea of the carriers that travel to that station. If you’re not in a city with a major international airport or transit hub, it’s also worth suggesting a hub for people to travel to, and then a route to your location.

  2. Any visa tricks or traps in your part of the world?

  3. Will international attendees need a visa? Will it need to be a tourist or business visa? Will they need a letter from the conference organisers to get their visa (this is not unheard of)? Will they need to have anything to present to border officials?

    Something conference organisers in the US in particular are apparently still neglecting is this fact: if you are not a citizen of a country whose citizens the US will admit without a visa, it can take months to get a visa to enter the US and it requires considerable time spent gathering documents and visiting consular officials. Accepting speakers closer to the conference will result in your international speakers being unable to come. If your conference is elsewhere in the Americas, it is important to warn attendees that even transiting through a US airport now requires a visa.

    Similarly, visitors to Australia are frequently shocked to find out that the Australian government has no visa waiver program, except for citizens of New Zealand. Nor are the US and Australia the only two countries that trip visitors up with their entry regime.

    In most cases, being denied entry to a country will require your attendees to immediately return home at their own expense. If your conference website addresses the basics of getting permission to visit your country and points to the relevant authorities, you can avoid a lot of pain for them.

  4. What sort of accommodation is available nearby and what is the approximate cost?

    Some conferences are doing excellent work organising conference accommodation. Even if your conference isn’t doing this, you could provide pointers to a few types of accommodation nearby: budget hostels and mid range hotels will be the most useful for your attendees.

  5. What kind of social events are you holding during the conference?

  6. If I bring partners, family members or friends who won’t be attending the conference, is there anything they can do or see while I’m at the conference?

    Free Software conferences tend to be slightly bigger events in the lives of their participants than academics ones. Frequently, attendees combine a big conference with a holiday, and might want to bring their family. Kudos to linux.conf.au 2004 for providing activities for partners and family members who didn’t attend the conference.

    A few more questions: Is the conference providing any kind of childcare? (I’ve never heard of that happening.) Is there short term childcare in the area? Can family members too old for daycare attend the conference social events?

  7. What’s there to do in your area?

    A not insignificant number of attendees will want to combine your conference with a holiday, or at least with some sight-seeing, or a visit to the pub. Give them some information about your area. Link to tourist web sites and nightlife guides.

    Something I’ve very rarely seen done which would be extremely useful is a list of restaurants that are likely to be able to serve large groups of people at short notice late in the evening. Everyone who’s been at a few conferences knows the experience of trying to take fifteen people out to dinner in a strange city.

Questions attendees want answered

There’s going to be even more neophytes amongst your potential attendees than there are among your potential speakers. Try and put yourself in the position of your greenest attendee: has an interest, heard your conference would give him or her an opportunity to meet some hackers working on interesting stuff, but has never ever been to a conference. Aim your attendees section at them: a little extra info won’t hurt anyone else.

  1. What kind of talks can I expect to see? What will their topics be? How long will they be?

    It’s a good idea to get your program up as early as possible. If nothing else, attendees have the same or even more difficulties organising transport, accommodation and visas as speakers do, so you should make it possible for them to decide whether or not to attend as early as you can.

  2. How much will your conference cost for attendees?

  3. Can I get any kind of discount for being a student, unemployed, young, old etc?

  4. Can I volunteer to help out in return for cheap or free admission?

  5. Are there any sources of funding for attendees?

Questions potential speakers want answered

Now to the problem of neophyte speakers. For this section, imagine someone who has some experience speaking to groups, but nothing of abstracts, or proceedings or anything like that. There’s no reason this person can’t speak at your conference, so don’t make it hard for them to submit a talk proposal. In particular, don’t make your talk proposals or the talk process sound any more mysterious or difficult than they actually are.

  1. What do all these words mean?

    Explaining what is expected from an ‘abstract’, a ‘paper’, a ‘presentation’, a ‘tutorial’, a ‘workshop’ and a ‘BOF’ are is crucial if you use those terms. Not only do some people not know them, but they vary reasonably widely by conference anyway.

    Providing links to abstracts and papers from previous years is invaluable if any are available. You might wish to draft a sample abstract or paper if you cannot link to previous papers. If not, you should certainly describe requirements in detail. Place the links prominently with the call for papers.

  2. What kind of talks or presentations can I give? How can I tell which one I should give?

    The answer to this question should provide detail. For each type of talk, specify the length, the size of the audience, and the expected depth of the content if you can. Is it going to be a lecture, or interactive discussion, or something in between? Will most speakers be using slides, giving demonstrations, or running a Q&A session? Are speakers going to be showing the code? What kind of knowledge level can the presenter expect from the attendees? Are the attendees going to be peers or are they going to be people new to the topic? Are there any different "tracks" devoted to different topics?

  3. How do I get a talk/paper accepted?

    When answering this question, be detailed. Provide approximate word lengths for abstracts (or papers if you require full papers at this stage). Specify what kind of information needs to go in the proposal. And then tell people about the process: when do they submit? how (roughly) is their abstract going to be judged? when will they hear back from you?

    Ideally, you would give examples of a few accepted abstracts here, with a short discussion from the selection panel of what made those abstracts appealing to them.

  4. If my talk is accepted, will I still need to pay the admission fee for attendees?

    Norms on this vary: conferences where most attendees are also speaking will often not waive the admission fee for anyone. Be very clear about which way you’re going with this.

  5. If my talk is accepted, will you cover travel and/or accommodation expenses? Will you cover international travel?

    Be very clear about the limits of what you can cover. It’s very disappointing to have a talk accepted and then find out that the organisers can only pay for local attendees, but not for international flights.

  6. If my talk is accepted, will I receive any payment above expenses?

    I’ve never heard of a Free Software conference doing this, but as there are other conferences which may do so, and some of your speakers might come from that kind of world, best to disappoint them early.

  7. What do I need to do once my talk is accepted?

    If you’re asking speakers to provide papers, describe whether you need slides, recordings, or written articles from accepted speakers, together with any administrative extras like due dates for the final paper. Describe any editing processes that will take place.

    Your answer to this question should be detailed. It should explain what you require from a full paper (if you require one) including length and format. How should the paper relate to the talk? How formal should the paper be? If it doesn’t matter, say so. If its optional, say so. If all that is required is a talk, say so. All this talk of ‘papers’ is scaring people. To many first time speakers, especially ones with a passing acquaintance with the academy, a "paper" sounds like something bristling with citations and withstanding the full force or peer review. If what you’re actually doing is getting people to send you their slides tell your speakers this.

    On the other hand, if you are a fairly formal conference hoping to attract Free Software developers outside the academy, you will probably want to link extensively to style guides and citation guides for your potential speakers to use. You will need to assume that they are not familiar with the peer review process also (and it varies enough within academia anyway), so give a detailed guide to it.

Conclusion

If you’ve tried to answer these questions as you went along, you probably answered "well, it depends… small conferences can’t pay travel… Free Software conferences don’t focus on citation so much…"

This is precisely the reason your conference website and publicity needs to answer simple questions like "what do you mean ‘paper’ anyway?" The answer varies. Some potential speakers will submit anyway, and assume they’ll hear from you if they don’t do something. Judging from the discussion that inspired this article, others will not.

Further reading

This article formed one part the basis of the OSDC FAQ, which has other questions that conference websites might want to answer.

Credits

Thanks to Jenn Vesperman, Telsa Gwynne and Terri Oda for input into this article.

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Questions your conference website should answer by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.