Transforming Tech with Diversity-Friendly Software

Originally presented at TRANSform Tech, April 13, 2017.

This presentation builds on earlier work with Shireen Mitchell, Tammarrian Rogers, Lynn Cyrin, and Deborah Pierce. Thanks also to my colleagues at O.school for the great feedback in the run-through!

Here’s the slides (along with speaker notes). I’ve made some minor revisions in response to feedback — and to include a bit more information.

Read on for links and references.

Best Practices for Diversity-friendly software

Diversity-friendly software (with Shireen Mitchell, from our SXSW 2017 presentation) covers the topic at greater length, and includes links on

  • diverse representation, inclusive culture, and equitable policies
  • setting intention
  • accessibility
  • flexible, optional, self-identification

Muting, blocking, reporting, and content filtering, on the Open Source Bridge wiki, includes links to perspectives from Leigh Honeywell, Amanda Hess, Vijith Ashar, Randi Lee Harper, John Scalzi, Frances Shaw, Susan Herring, and more.

Geek Feminism’s Who is harmed by a real names policy highlights the importance of pseudonymity. The common assumption that “real names” decrease abuse is wrong. For more details, see

Mastodon

The presentation talks about Mastodon as an example of diversity-friendly software based on its early focus on harassment, and the importance of furries and LGBTQ+ people in the early user base and development team. In particualr, key functionality like content warning and user muting has been largely driven by trans, queer, and nonbinary Mastodonians. That said, the Mastodon community currently has some significant diversity challenges in some other dimension (for example, very few Black and Latinx people), an attitude on many instances of shutting down discussions pertaining to identity or systemic oppression as “irrelevant”, and situations where people of color have been harassed. It will be interesting to see how things unfold.

For more on Mastodon, here’s some articles by Sarah Jeong in Motherboard, Amaelle Guiton in Libération, Eugen Rochko (Mastodon’s creator), and Ryan Perrano on the challenges at it’s gotten “discovered”

Thanks to the radically inclusive folks on toot.cat for making it so enjoyable to explore Mastodon,, and thanks to Creatrix Tiara for feedback on the discussion of Mastodon diversity.

Additional references

Mastodon has continued to evolve — and the underlying tensions around diversity in general and a trans/queer focus in particular have come up again and again. Here are some relevant links

April 23: ALLIE ❤ HART’s Mourning Mastodon and Mourning What Now?!?! look in more depth at the power structure and ways in which queer people are increasingly being marginalized (as well as other diversity isssues). “Had Mastodon given queer contributors the ability to make executive decisions regarding the project, the community could have reached a place where it was no longer in peril.”

May 2017: Lessons from Mastodon for independent social networks has more.

October 2017: Creatrix Tiara’s Mastodon 101: A Queer-Friendly Social Network You’re Gonna Like a Lot on Autostraddle is a great introduction.

July 2018: hoodie aida kitten‘s’ Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism highlights the ongoing marginalization of queer people and perspectives — while accurately noting that “queer activism has been the catalyst of change for mastodon from the beginning, and many of it’s most defining features would never have come into existence without it.” Cassian’s I left Mastodon yesterday has interesting perspectives as well. Discussions about power and governance continue, and a fork seems likely.

September 2018: Gô’s Fringe Mastodev — Part I: The Beginnings and Gô’s Fringe Mastodev — Part I: The Beginnings and Part II: Enter Allie Hart provide a detailed look at the author’s personal experiences with development work (research; design; coding) taking place on forks and individual instances of Mastodon. I very much agree that “Acknowledging and recording the troubled history of the Mastodon software is essential to prevent the narratives of these other developers — frequently, marginalized actors doing important work for their communities — from being lost.”

Other examples of diversity-friendly software

Emerging Techniques for Diversity-friendly software

Gender HCI, Feminist HCI, and Post-Colonial Computing summarizes research in these areas, and includes several videos

Diversity-friendly software (with Shireen Mitchell, from our SXSW 2017 presentation) includes links on algorithmic bias.

Morgen Brommell’s 2016 AlterConf talk Imagining Radical Queer Futures Through Tech considers the possibilities of online spaces created by queer and trans people of color.

Threat modeling for harassment

Threat modeling is a technique for looking at the ways a system can be attacked — and what can be done to counter the attacks. As Shireen Mitchell and I pointed out in our SXSW talk, since it’s a popular (and effective!) in the computer security world, you’d think that people would have applied it to harassment. And indeed, targets of harassment have. For example:

“Thinking about threat modeling and where I am “placed” or “sit” in a digital world helps me evaluate situations and figure out where I fall in the landscape.” — caroline sinders in SXSW canceled panels: Here is what happened, Slate.

But when you look at Twitter’s repeated stumbles trying to introduce new functionality to help with harassment, or the way Google introduced Google+ without any muting and blocking support, it’s clear that they’re not thinking this way.

So there still aren’t any great references to link to on this. The presentation has a couple of examples starting here.

Update, May, 2018:“Social threat modeling”: The winds of change are in the air looks at this trend and related research like conflict modeling. “One interesting aspect to this work is that it’s largely being presented outside of the mainstream security and software engineering world. In the more traditional “tech space”, it’s striking how little attention is getting paid to this issue.”

Previous work

This presentation builds on a series of four presentations, with different collaborators, on diversity-friendly software.