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"Hospitality, jerks, and what I learned"—the amazing keynote at WikiConference USA

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By Kevin Gorman

Sumana Harihareswara delivered the opening keynote to WikiConference USA last week. Sumana is the current senior technical writer for the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as a member of the Ada Initiative's advisory board, and active blogger for Geek Feminism, but spoke here in her personal capacity. She's also heavily active in the broader world of free and open-source software. A full transcript of Sumana's speech is available, and versions are on Commons in both video and audio form.

Because not all Wikimedians can view these formats, I've gone ahead and uploaded both the audio and video versions of Sumana's keynote to the Internet Archive—if you can't view her speech on Commons, you should be able to view it using one of the formats the Internet Archive has transcoded the files to.

Sumana Harihareswara delivers the keynote at WikiConference USA last week
Sumana Harihareswara at the conference
Video of the presentation

I never feel quite adequate trying to paraphrase Sumana's words: she is so articulate. I highly encourage every person who reads this article to directly watch her keynote—it directly speaks to a lot of Wikimedia's most significant issues, made with great eloquence. We have a serious issue with retaining editors, and parts of her speech could serve as a pretty good partial blueprint towards how we could begin to fix that problem.

Sumana recently returned from a three-month sabbatical during which she attended Hacker School, an experimental school structured to provide a friendly, pro-actively safe environment where people work together in a collaborative environment to improve their programming skills. She applied lessons and observations she had taken from Hacker School and brought them to bear on the Wikimedia environment—with one of the most significant single points she brought up (in my mind at least), being the balance between liberty and hospitality. The difference between an environment where social norms are enforced to some extent (including through exclusion in extreme cases) and an environment where complete liberty is allowed (or to paraphrase Sumana paraphrasing of John Scalzi, "the ability to be a dick in every possible circumstance") is often perceived as a difference between an environment that excludes, and one that doesn't—but that's not the case. Quoting Sumana: "If we exclude no one explicitly, we are just excluding a lot of people implicitly."

Digressing from the direct content of her speech, there was one remarkable interchange between Sumana and an audience member that I think is worth noting—one that highlighted many of the issues she brought up in her keynote. Speaking to a photographer in the audience, she commented that she started more wildly gesticulating whenever she was being photographed, and hoped the photographer didn't object. To directly quote a snippet from the transcript:

Sumana's keynote touched on more issues significant to Wikimedia's community than I have space to mention here, but I highly encourage you to take a direct look at the transcript or video/audio of her speech that I linked at the beginning—I think the ideas she puts forward could represent an excellent first step towards creating a more friendly, open, inclusive Wikimedia movement.


The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. Editors wishing to propose their own op-ed should email the Signpost's editor in chief.
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Amen to that. Being welcoming is not just about civility, though. It's a whole spectrum of behaviour - from taking the time and trouble to understand what others are saying, even when it's not clear or poorly expressed, through to providing assistance to colleagues wherever we can. It is deeply worrying when people predicate their entire wiki-existence on sanctioning other users on- (and off-) wiki, more so when senior editors buy into that. We need to move forward, not back. All the best: Rich Farmbrough04:13, 8 June 2014 (UTC).

A good place to start practicing "no sexism" would be to eliminate this "be a dick" language that equates male gonads with ickiness. I have been told this expression means something like "be a jerk" in some regions of America, but I have never heard the expression myself, and I assure you, there are many areas of America where male body parts are still deeply appreciated. The sub-text of the expression is the assumption that one cannot be male without being obnoxious, hardly a notion that needs any encouragement here. —Neotarf (talk) 09:00, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]

A good start would be to change WP:DBAD to WP:Don't be intentionally obnoxious. Nevertheless, I'd be very surprised to meet any adult American who wasn't used to hearing the expression. Smallbones(smalltalk) 12:52, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
My dear esteemed colleague Mr. Smallbones ... you've met me, and I haven't had to put up with people in person who talk like that since I left high school! You might be surprised how many civilized Americans are out there.Djembayz (talk) 16:44, 12 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Nice to hear from you again! I'm sorry if anybody thinks that I am encouraging that language. In fact I was giving an obvious example of where we could remove some of that language. There is considerable variation in different groups and locations on how acceptable this language is, and our use here probably drives away many good editors who we want to keep. So we should clean up our act, hopefully without offending those who don't understand what's the big deal. Smallbones(smalltalk) 19:13, 12 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
So equating the penis with negativity is now a badge of adulthood? I find that deeply offensive. —Neotarf (talk) 17:31, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Interesting discussion. There needs to be a variation of this userbox template: User:Lawilkin/UBX/Trifecta that says "Don't be obnoxious" instead of "Don't be a dick". Also, the "It's really pretty simple" link should be to Wikipedia:Five pillars or something similar. Instead of to Wikipedia:Trifecta. I no longer say "Don't be a sissy". I don't remember ever saying "Don't be a pussy". --Timeshifter (talk) 18:33, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
The term "dick" is being used in place of "jerk". So we should say, don't be a jerk. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 00:46, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
The meaning of the short form of dickhead is clear to most English-speakers. Perhaps add an interwiki link to the Wiktionary entry for those whose first language isn't English. DocTree (ʞlɐʇ·ʇuoɔ) Join WER 02:12, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
My first language is English and I'm an American, and I've never used the word "dick" or "dickhead" in casual conversation or in writing, and I'm probably twice your age. Has it occurred to you that Wikipedia is not a schoolyard nor a fraternity? It's time to grow up and start acting like a professional encyclopedia, not a bunch of children giggling over silly words. (talk) 06:46, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
might as well be honest about this being a schoolyard; all the assholes i've met here were men, so the moniker is accurate. using vulgarity for emphasis is good rhetoric, but without enforcement, it's an empty slogan. the best you can hope for is "lack of understanding" = blaming the victim. when will there be leadership for an "asshole free zone"? Duckduckstop (talk) 17:28, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
"Dick", being short for "dickhead", simply refers to someone who is acting like he or she has a penis for a head instead of a braincase: blunt, liable to make its presence known in awkward situations, and primarily useful only for screwing with other people. I don't see it as a general disparagement of the male member. Powers T 21:18, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
So you wouldn't object to referring to someone as a cunt either. —Neotarf (talk) 23:42, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
More accurately, we say, "Be Bold!" We don't say, "Don't be a pussy!" The way "dick" is being thrown around here is similarly inappropriate. That we even have to debate this shows that the community is inhospitable and unwilling to rise above its institutional immaturity. (talk) 01:10, 10 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
The two meanings of "pussy" are etymologically unrelated. "Pussy" as a term of derision did not originate from an association with femininity or female genitalia. Powers T 01:28, 16 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
That's a more direct insult, serving to imply that the female is nothing more than the sum of her genitals. Since "dick" as a term of derision is actually an abbreviation of "dickhead", it's not directly comparable. Powers T 01:28, 16 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
No way, even for somebody my age, that anti-feminist Freudian psychology is just way too 20th century! Let's start using non-gender specific terms for being obnoxious instead. :P
What I think User:Neotarf and I are both trying to express in the discussion is this: it's perfectly understandable for strong, feisty young (and not-so-young) people to say something off-color now and then-- BUT -- this is not the same thing as using off-color, gender-specific sexual terms to express hostility.
And the other thing I think User:Neotarf and I are getting at is if you are reading this, and your life experience says that being male (or female) is all about feelings of anger/hostility/or abusive stuff, well, we'd like you to be open to making our online community here at least a little happier and more pleasant than what you've seen in your life so far. You're getting access to all sorts of people and knowledge you could never imagine when you participate here ... so why not take advantage of the opportunity and make it fun?
Most folks on this site don't use coarse sexual language with others when upset. We're dealing with a situation where a small number of people in the category "No angry mastodons just madmen" are driving large numbers of potential contributors away. I sure wish we would take a tip from the keynote speech and proactively state that we want to be hospitable, and avoid being sexist. "Avoid being sexist as best you can." Is this really too much to ask? Djembayz (talk) 01:10, 13 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Would it perhaps be a good idea to directly embed the video somewhere in this report instead of simply linking to it? Bawolff (talk) 09:31, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]

No. Wikipedia is not band camp. Int21h (talk) 12:16, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]

I'm not sure I understand this "liberty hospitality" spectrum idea. What about those who feel at liberty to be hospitable? Many are encumbered by undesirable Wikipedia experiences. And the longer they stay, the more they risk enduring more such experiences. The same can be said about life itself – the longer we live, the more we risk having to endure tragedy. There are those who simply do not handle tragedy well, and they see their place to be taking their bad experiences out on others. Yet there are so many more who have learned not only how to handle well their bad experiences, but also to be able to forgive themselves, to deal with whatever guilt they may feel. These are the hospitable people. They can forgive themselves, and they don't feel the need to take things out on others. These are the stayers. These are the ones who are most at liberty to continue to educate themselves and help others do same. – Paine Ellsworth CLIMAX! 19:43, 8 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Those who feel at liberty to be hospitable would presumably not be affected by efforts to increase hospitality. However, I think it's disingenuous to ignore the fact that many contributors here use 'free-as-in-speech'dom as an excuse not to be hospitable... and even more relevantly, that many contributors use it as an excuse not to chastise or even ostracize those who are inhospitable. Clearly the two virtues are at odds -- not exclusively, and not in every individual, but certainly for some. Powers T 21:18, 9 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • We're here to build an encyclopedia, not to attend cloistered conferences of "nice" upper-middle class twenty-somethings for purposes of networking and self-congratulation. Damned right that edit count matters. For the record, as of this moment the New York Conference keynoter's En-WP numbers are 1279 total and 229 to mainspace (22.8%) — for both accounts combined. I note that prolific content and copy editing volunteers tend to be old grumps and am not ashamed to argue that "liberty" should trump "hospitality" if it advances our mission of building the encyclopedia. Carrite (talk) 21:44, 10 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Besides the Editcountitis there, I think that's a very unfair criticism of Sumana, who's primary contribution to the Wikimedia movement is not as an english wikipedia editor but as a member of the developer community. Sumana was not talking solely about en wikipedia in her Speech (I believe). However even ignoring that, the way I interpreted Sumana's speech was that allowing liberty to trump hospitality causes some (many?) people to not participate, reducing the number of contributors, so that in the long run it does not advance the mission, but hurts the mission. Bawolff (talk) 01:13, 11 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
When it comes to spectrums, I usually find myself close to the extreme end of the liberty versus anything else, so I was surprised when I found myself agreeing that Wikipedia, on the liberty—hospitality spectrum, could work on moving toward the hospitality end. They aren't always in conflict, but I think we pay lip service to hospitality, while not delivering. Regarding edit counts, that surprised me. I've attended many conferences in my lifetime, and I usually expect the keynote speaker to be from the outside, so Sumana has roughly 1279 more edits than I would have guessed. I expect many session speakers to be prolific contributors, but not keynote speakers.--S Philbrick(Talk) 02:47, 11 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
My confusion lies in Sumana's pitting of "hospitality" against "liberty". Rather than liberty, it sounds as if she meant something more like "bullying" or "intimidation". To me, "liberty" stretches all across that spectrum of hospitality intimidation. Call it what it is. Those who feel at liberty to intimidate seem to be expressing a natural tendency to lead. They don't seem to realize that we are all volunteer contributors here. When someone attempts to lead by intimidation, many volunteers will just feel that they don't have to put up with it and leave. Those aspects of leading by intimidation that are becoming deeply engrained into the way some administrators (a few – most I've seen lead by friendliness) treat volunteer contributors should be seriously reassessed. There are better ways to lead – methods that won't make people feel that quitting Wikipedia is more attractive than staying and continuing to improve this encyclopedia. – Paine Ellsworth CLIMAX! 15:11, 11 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
The liberty lovers want all of the freedom and none of the responsibility. Hospitality is responsibility, which is why we have so little of it here. Geek culture does not value responsibility, hence the problem. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 20:11, 11 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
It always amazes me that those who can participate in the creation of an encyclopaedia (learning, and opening the mind to ideas) then don't have the ability to see outside of their enWP shortsightedness ... really? Let us see ... Wikimedia Foundation ... there is the infrastructure; here are many language WPs, and you may even be surprised to find sister sites out there too, and those too in different languages, and surprisingly all part of the Wikimedia Foundation. WHODATHUNKIT!
It is a universal message, and failure to see that, may more reflect on the reader, than the message. Similarly the failure to look at a person's broader contributions in a staff and a personal context, than down the scope of some people's impossible measures. Anyway, as the messenger, probably my turn to get shot.
We create our culture, and we change it as we wish to. Ignoring something hoping that it will go away, may work once, but if we don't like it in our culture, then we need to work to change it. In that we are no different from our real life, and in that we have our responsibility. — billinghurst sDrewth 08:18, 12 June 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Stories from distant lands - yes good things and bad things happen on the other projects, and we can potentially learn from both. As EN:WP editors, though, our primary responsibility (if indeed we have one) is to EN:WP, and Sumana's message is certainly ringing bells here, even if some of them may be Pavlovian. All the best: Rich Farmbrough15:26, 12 June 2014 (UTC).


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