‘She-Hackers’: Millennials and Gender in European F/LOSS Subcultures


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‘She-Hackers’: Millennials and Gender in European F/LOSS Subcultures

  1. 1. SHE-HACKERS: Millennials and Gender in European F/LOSS CommunitiesIn 2002, a European Commission-facilitated survey by R.A. Ghosh showed that only 1.5%of F/LOSS (Free, Libre, Open Source Software) members were female. What is the roleof gender and embodiment for a new generation of young people in these communities?The intent of this thesis was to contribute to existing scholarship in the fields of digitalanthropology, critical theory, sociology and HCI by exploring the combined physical andvirtual experiences of human and machine interactivity, gender embodiment and identityamongst 30 Millennial-aged F/LOSS hackers, coders and hacktivists living in Europe.My analysis was deliberatively immersive because, inspired by the works of Judith Butlerand Donna J. Haraway, I felt that it would be impossible to do justice to these complextopics without acknowledging my own physical (and gendered) role in such spaces.As a result, my methodology was organized using three interrelated ethnographic lenses:1) the drafting of a series of in-depth individual character portraits of key contemporary‘hacking’ archetypes, 2) virtual conversations facilitated through IRC, email, Twitter andimage-sharing forums like 4chan, and 3) participant observation and personal immersivityat physical ‘geek’ gatherings and spaces such as hackspaces and tech cons. Particularattention was paid to qualitative accounts of the effect of Internet-facilitated perceptionsof cyberspace, hacker ethics, cyberfeminism, hacktivist politics, open knowledgeframeworks, the Open Source movement, physical activism and culturejamming ongendered understandings of contemporary habitus.In conclusion, it was suggested that gender identities are now in the process of beingcritically and socially reworked amongst Millennial F/LOSS hackers in Europe due to aspecific, cyberspace-facilitated combination of recursive countercultural and digitalinfluences, and that the subject warrants further anthropological investigation as a result. NOTE: January 2011This dissertation, which at 17,000 words was submitted for my graduation from theM.Sc. in Digital Anthropology degree program at University College London (UCL),has been returned with the grade of Distinction. As a result, I am currently in the processof finding a way to upload all 80 pages in a machine-readable format onto the Web (withmetadata!) under an open CC-0 license, because such things are important.In the meantime, you’re welcome to read my formal introduction below – and if you’d likea copy of the PDF, or have ideas on how I can easily upload such a thing, please say hi!
  2. 2. A. INTRODUCTION A month ago, I fidgeted nervously on stage in front of an impassive crowd of 500 hackers in an East German WWII-era bunker, rife with apprehension at the thought that I was about to present my research to the venerable contemporaries of my informants. As my host, a somber gentleman swathed in cotton candy-pink locks and neon raver vestments, pronounced the topic of my lecture in an accented Berliner monotone, I had a moment of startling clarity regarding the incremental sequence of events that had led me careening down the path towards such a fate – and it all started with my first reading of a certain 2006 study by James Leach and Bernard Kreiger. In this text, introduced to me by Lane DeNicola, Leach and Kreiger provided a series of qualitative updates to a 2002 survey commissioned by the European Commission and conducted by R.A. Ghosh which had found that in tech-based F/LOSS (Free, Libre, Open Source Software)1 communities, only 1.5% of members were female in gender, compared to 28% in proprietary (non-open) software (Leach and Kreiger 2006, Ghosh 2002). Browsing through the details of these findings, I found myself deeply intrigued due to my own gendered experiences of working with Internet-based technologies.

1 An important note regarding naming: For lack of a better term, throughout this thesis I use ‘F/LOSS’ to refer to communities centered around an ethos of open code and free knowledge, including both Open Source and Free Software movements. However, I do not wish to minimize the singular importance of each movement’s philosophies and would like to acknowledge the importance of existing debates regarding ideological differences between the two. As outlined by the GNU/Linux Project, “For the Open Source movement, the issue of whether software should be open source is a practical question, not an ethical one. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution.”
  3. 3. However, it was not until Daniel Miller introduced me to the hacker-focused research ofGabriella Coleman and to his own published discussions regarding the assumptionsmade within the Leach and Kreiger survey that I realized there was the potential forfurther academic contribution to the topic within an anthropological framework.Furthermore, I knew exactly where that contribution would be focused – on theunexplored thoughts and opinions of my own generation, the Millennials.Born between 1982 and 2006 and also known as Generation Y and echo-boomers, mycontemporaries had been largely omitted from Leach, Kreiger and Ghosh’s studiesprimarily due to timing – when these studies were active, many of us had not yet amassedenough years to be considered consenting adults, let alone F/LOSS hackers. However,because of the various tech-savvy characteristics of many Millennials – our deep, lifelongengagement with immersive technosociality has prompted some to dub us the “Facebookgeneration” – I suspected my peers might have important contributions to add to theexisting conclusions about interplays between gender and technology.This thesis is about my quest to find the hackers, F/LOSS coders and hacktivists of mygeneration, and most importantly, to see what they had to say about the role of gender intoday’s contemporary tech-based subcultures. In summary, I have spoken to over 30individuals through online and offline interactions via forums, IRC chats, emails and in-person communications. I have conducted an in-depth series of conversations andparticipant observation sessions with ten informants and engaged in immersive fieldwork
  4. 4. at over fifteen tech conferences, meet-ups, salons, workplaces, hackspaces and media labsacross Europe. I have experienced first-hand what it feels like to be a young woman inthese spaces, engaging on an immersive level as a newcomer and outsider. I have learnedwhat it means to truly practice active listening when understanding the insights ofothers, have scrawled out more pages of notes than I’d like to count, and have changedmy target informant requirements in ways I had never expected to. In pre-emptiveconclusion, I can say with full assertion that it has been an extremely interesting ride.Before I start, a last note regarding structure. In order to give my jumbled thoughtssome semblance of an organizational backbone, I shall organize this thesis according tothe following sequence of written events: intended research questions, terms andconcepts used, research methodologies and fieldwork details, ethnographic results,participant observations and case studies, resulting analysis of key themes, concludingcomments, and bibliographic data on secondary sources.It is my hope that together, these varying slices of data will provide a comprehensivereview of my engagement with the unique and compelling combination of scholarshipand firsthand observation that distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines.