Linux and Chix

I’m heavily involved in LinuxChix, an online group targeted at women users of Linux. The whole point of LinuxChix, originally, was that there are a lot of online Linux groups that have a… quite high standard of entry.

Or more to the point, they prefer the entry standard to be too high rather than too low. If there’s a choice between encouraging someone who doesn’t even know the words to ask the question with, and roasting them alive (eating their liver with some fuava beans and a nice Chianti, if that’s to your tastes), roasting them alive is healthier, because it preserves the technical, or possibly, inflammatory, standards of the group.

So LinuxChix is expressly anti all of the usual straight out derogatory stuff. Certainly, it’s not the place to turn up and say, "maaaan, I wish there were more chix using Linux, cos I could use more cute butts in my lab." It’s also not the best place to tell someone to come back once they’re out of diapers, and certainly not the place to try and fool someone into deleting the contents of their hard drive.

But, on the other hand, this means it is almost unfailingly nice. It means that on the (quite rare) occasions when someone gives the wrong answer, they give it at such long and reasonable and informative length, and they’re so nice about it, that they sound right. And then you need to double their word length, and apologise heaps, when pointing out that they’re wrong.

It’s actually quite a female way of interacting, at least, according to your average analysis of female ways of interacting. It places a lot of emphasis on ‘positive face’ (in the socio-linguist’s terminology) – that is, doing as much as you can to make other people feel good and maintain their status in the community. Most Linux groups are very much about ‘negative face’ – maintaining status by destroying others image in the community.

And it’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with all the time. I don’t always favour making people feel better about themselves over teaching them the right way to do things, if there is one. I’ve gotten past the ‘oh my god, there are indeed other women who use computers’ experience I see on LinuxChix everyday – although the fact that we do hear that a lot is an excellent reason for its continued existence.

One of the things I do not like about ‘positive face’ stuff is needing to apologise for correcting people. This isn’t an unambiguous position, as there have been times when I’ve been very embarrassed and upset to be told that I’m wrong, or that I’m not doing things the best way. But I feel, sometimes, especially in all-female groups, like correcting people is a socially unacceptable thing to do. I also don’t mind if the correction becomes a mutual correction, and you get a better answer than either individual answer.

I learn in a very collaborative way. I like to be in a group tossing ideas around, throwing things into the mix and seeing what happens. I don’t mind being the least experienced person in the group.

I dislike learning by continual correction right up until the point where I reach perfection – "wrong, wrong, still wrong, um, still wrong, wrong, ok, now you’re done". But I also dislike learning by continual affirmation – "good try, good try, oh you’re working so hard, everyone finds this hard, you’re making a good try, oh don’t worry, you’re doing fine, ok, now you’re done".

So in that sense, the prevailing atmosphere on LinuxChix sometimes irks me. I crave polite technical discussion. Sometimes I don’t want to have to end the whole discussion when the inevitable new subscriber turns up and says "wow, you’re all so smart, guess I’m really dumb hey?" and the inevitable old subscriber (sometimes me, when I’m in a better mood) says "no, no, you’re the reason why we’re here, don’t worry about it".

But, at the same time, a woman who works for a large software company told a story today about how their software went through usability testing with five users, and the programmers were shown the videotapes. The users were given tasks to do, and the programmers watched the tapes of them doing it and spent lots of time thumping their heads against the wall and saying "oh god, I had no idea someone would think to click there", which is the point of usability testing.

But, the one woman in the five users ended up in tears, and was recorded crying and saying "tell them I’m sorry I suck". And I’ve been there, not as a guinea pig in a usability study, but many times when I’ve tried to learn some computing skill or other. And, purely anecdotally, it seems to be the primary reason that high achieving women in my university’s computer science course walk away from computers forever after three years and high marks – they’re sick of the endless frustration and damage to their self-esteem.

So LinuxChix is doing something really good, I just wish it didn’t have to start afresh every single day. I guess that’s the goal.