Open Source Bridge 2010: Day Four: Family Fun Finale

Well, now that I’ve had over a full day to sleep and veg after the conclusion of Open Source Bridge, I’m feeling a bit more like my normal, well-rested-but-hypersomnolent self again. I felt like such a zombie at the end of the conference that it seemed worthwhile to wait a bit until writing my entry on the final day, even though there is less to report on, in general. How anybody was able to hop from the art museum to Beer and Blog after everything wrapped up is really beyond me.

So, Friday was the unconference day, and this year I was actually able to really participate in it and enjoy it – last year a work crisis kept me from attending more than one talk before going home and crashing.

One of the things I meditated on during the unconference was the larger theme of building a community that ran throughout the entire event; although the conference has a strong local undercurrent, there were plenty of out-of-towners to make the entire conference attendance a separate community from the Portland tech scene on its own. When I have spoken of the “warm fuzzies” I suppose I’m often reflecting on witnessing this community coming together and forming – as well as my own participation in it. By the fourth day of the conference, I think a certain familiarity had developed that allowed us to do things with the unconference that probably wouldn’t have worked on day one.

The big thing that struck me with the best of the unconference topics was the humor. Over the last few years, there have been a number of incidents at technical conferences where the speaker has tried to be humorous, or be edgy, in a way that falls on its face. In the case of most of these incidents, the humor or edginess had a sexist tone that had a marginalizing or alienating impact on female attendees / members of the community; women were sent the message “you are not a real member of this community” – even if this wasn’t the conscious intent of the speaker. When the speaker was confronted on their behavior, the response was, more often than not, disastrous – general defensiveness and an inability to apologize. I also noticed a common thread in these discussions related to our culture as programmers; the idea that being “politically correct” will force us into restraints that will stifle genuine expression and ultimately ruin the culture.

I think one of the hard parts for a lot of women in these discussions is that many of us are types who love heavy doses of inappropriateness; we’re sex-positive and we enjoy making fun out of the social systems that emerge in our society (especially among non-techies and businesspeople) as much as the next programmer. What the defensive types don’t understand is that we can’t enjoy this humor if we’re being sent the message that we’re not part of the intended audience. Even if we don’t feel excluded, most attempts at humor simply fall flat, especially in tech circles.

Being successfully funny without feeling like one is following a comedy-killing strict set of rules isn’t easy. The analytical programmer in me wants to identify a roadmap for humor, but countless comedians can tell you that’s just not how it happens; there’s a lot of trial and error involved. Last fall I regularly attended comedy nights at the Bagdad where this sort of trial and error was on regular display – and watching the learning process in stark display didn’t make the path to funniness any less murky. I do believe, though, that we can be funny, cutting-edge, and even downright inappropriate without making people feel bad, left out, or insulted. And when we are able to succeed at that, it’s pretty great. When nerd culture in particular succeeds, it’s downright awesome, and some of the best humor I could ask for.

That’s what Friday’s unconference was like for me, but I realize that by trying to distill that magic into a blog post, without the context of the community populating the hilarious talks I attended, I’m not going to capture most of what was so great. But I think it’s worth it to present examples of instances where things are inappropriate, vulgar, “making fun of”, etc. – but are also inclusive. The biggest thing I can draw from this is “know your community”, and I speak in far greater nuance than “programmers are overwhelmingly male and socially maladjusted” (which is how I think “know your community” was mis-interpreted in past sexist incidents). I think these instances of nerd humor really make the experience of being a programmer or technical type that much better, but it’s a subtle art that I am no-where near boiling down to the essentials.

My contribution to the unconference was “CatCamp”, which, as I mentioned on day three, started as a Twitter joke and ended up getting enough of a “no, that’s a good idea” from friends at the conference that I ended up making it a reality. When I look at some of the cat content on the Internet, I *do* often end up starting to have Big Thoughts about how the Internet has managed to create a kind of magic that would have otherwise never been possible, and I do think it could make for a good discussion – backed up with plenty of evidence, of course.

I ended up showing up a bit late to the unconference scheduling session (on account of morning snuggling with my own cat), so most of the spots were taken, but Kristen suggested doing it during the lunch hour and as soon as the suggestion was made I knew it was a perfect fit. I spent the morning before lunch populating the CatCamp wiki page with as many links as I could; then, after everybody had been given a chance to grab their food, we sat down in the conference room on the main floor and got to sharing. Kristen had prepared a lightning talk on Laugh Out Loud Cats, a favorite webcomic of hers starring hobo cats. (Now that I know about it, and being the owner of a hobo cat myself, I’ll have to start reading.) She even brought props, and it was a fun way to segue into the rest of the cat content.

I have to say – it was so much fun to share my favorite cat links with an (increasingly growing in numbers) room full of people. There were probably 20-30 of us by the time CatCamp wrapped up, and it was so much fun to see other tech types getting a kick out of the same cat-related things that I do. I was going to start talking about the things we covered, but I’d be repeating the wiki page, so I’ll just share the link to the page again. All in all, CatCamp was a resounding success, and made my lunch hour a lot of fun.

Before CatCamp and lunch, I’d attended a session on Webcomics – we went through the room and each gave a list of our favorite comics; unfortunately it doesn’t look like the list has made its way to the wiki yet. This was a nice complement to the humor of the afternoon: although humor is never a requirement for the medium, I think comics like Dinosaur Comics and xkcd capture some of the best things about nerd humor while still displaying some awareness of the problems with nerd culture (xkcd’s How It Works is a classic example.) Looking forward to getting re-immersed in some webcomics and comic culture in general before attending Comic Con in July…

The two post-lunch unconference sessions I attended were jam-packed with hilarity: first, Selena and Bart Massey’s Advanced Trolling talk, followed by Audrey and Reid’s side-splitting NSFW.

“Advanced Trolling” was spectacularly well-attended. Bart and Selena’s deadpan tips for successful trolling added to the humor, but it wasn’t all sarcasm; a lot of serious observations about trolling, its impact on communities and its presence in internet culture overall were interspersed throughout the jokes. As Bart said, trolling is a phenomenon that is unique to the internet and its social structures. It’s refreshing to cope with the reality of its existence with humor instead of the typical frustration. I loved the astute observations about the heated battles that arise in our communities: trying to start a battle between emacs and vi(m) (or, OSBridge edition: Mac and Linux) is novice trolling; choosing a less obvious field for contention gets you closer to the “advanced” title. The truly advanced troll plants the bomb and escapes and lets the community participants wreak havoc themselves. It brings to mind the fateful submarine incident near the end of LOST… one could say the Man in Black was an advanced troll ;-)

Trolling Twitter account referenced at the talk: rebastiality.

I also ended up buying the domain during the talk; maybe a silly decision, but I couldn’t help it. Bart was doing a tremendous job of describing a “Advanced Troll Certification Program” much like the many other certifications available in the industry; two days’ instruction available for the “low price of $500.”, as Selena wrote in giant letters on the whiteboard, was where you could find more information on this fabulous certification program, and I was disappointed to see that a site pointing to more information about this joke certification didn’t exist. So eventually I’ll make one, and hopefully employ the assistance of the more design-oriented folks in the community to dress it up a bit better than I can. I realize after the fact that trying to take all the brilliance of that talk and then paraphrasing it into this site all on my own is probably a recipe for disaster. I don’t have to worry about it yet though – I won’t be able to make the site live until I switch hosts, sometime in the next month.

As for the NSFW talk – it was absolutely NSFW. Audrey drew a chart on the whiteboard, graphing the spectrum of “SFW…NSFW” against the spectrum of “Creepy..Fun” (per her talk the day before). We threw out ideas, and a lot of stuff landed near the middle of the SFW / NSFW distinction. Finding “creepy but safe for work” content was remarkably difficult – everything else was pretty easy though.

The SFW/NSFW spectrum is ripe for discussion – for instance, a lot of it is very subjective; a Facebook flash game may not be the best use of one’s time, but does that make it NSFW, as it was deemed on our graph? Related – is a time-wasting site really NSFW, or an indication of some other issues within the workplace, like management or the way workflow is structured? Making the definition of “NSFW” even murkier, a lot of sites that are banned from workplaces are actually banned because they’re bandwidth hogs, not because of their content. Another layer: certain workplaces may include occasionally looking at objectionable content as part of the job; having worked on the AdSense team, and now for a company that provides SEO services, I’ve had coworkers who’ve looked at sites with porn on them as part of the normal task of administering day-to-day accounts. Even as a developer in my current position, I’ve had times where the randomized user data I’ve picked out to validate a change turns out to be for an S&M site or some other sexual content. All this said, I’ve witnessed coworkers looking at NSFW content that clearly has no relation to their workload, and it’s definitely bothered me and struck me as highly inconsiderate. Even though I can spend good portions of the workdays where my brain isn’t at its most efficient looking at non-work-related content – I always make sure to leave the more scandalous clickthroughs, or overtly personal content, for home.

I mention the potential of this interesting discussion because, for the most part, it didn’t happen. We were a little distracted by the ChatRoulette instance we had projecting onto the overhead screen… Reid set up the webcam so that it was pointing at Creepius Bear initially, but when we realized the potential for awkwardness and bewilderment to someone on the other end of the camera viewing Creepius with a room full of people behind him, we changed the view accordingly. That led to pretty much every new chat partner causing the room to crack up. I honestly think we could have kept up with this for hours, although the humor in the erections had long since passed by the end of the first hour. It really is true; ChatRoulette is half masturbators, if not more.

There were a few bits of connection that were cute, though. A couple of girls clearly got a huge kick out of waving at us and having an entire audience wave back at them. Another pair of girls went offscreen and brought back their own teddy-bear as a companion to Creepius. And then there was the guy who threatened to kill Creepius if he didn’t see any boobies anytime soon (although, best moment with that guy: him apologizing to us for spelling “boobies” wrong earlier in the conversation and hearing the audio of us calling him out on it as a group. His insistence on cleavage in light of our presence as a mostly-male group of computer nerds was impressive.) That last one wasn’t necessarily cute, but it was a treasure in itself.

Reid also showed us another set of ChatRoulette treasures he’d created – he superimposed a thought bubble that said “Hmmm” over the screen on the video feed and then mirrored it back to the other person in the chat. As a result, he ended up getting people who’d take the time to pose with the bubble – including some people dressed as “fake terrorists”. He showed us the screencaps he’d taken of assorted people during the experiment and it was definitely one of those “Internet is Magic” moments buried amidst the creepiness.

I have to reiterate what I said earlier about humor and this very careful line – the idea that a roomful of people, mostly male, would be able to sit together and watch ChatRoulette erections as a group without anybody getting deeply uncomfortable (especially the women) sounds far-fetched. But I think it speaks to a lot of carefully-laid variables, most particularly the establishment of the community ahead of time as a safe place to explore such humor, that made it work instead of making it into the next incident reported on the Geek Feminism website. And I think that says something about the humor we’re capable of as a group if we’re willing to be open to feedback, although I hope it doesn’t always need to be as coarse as our NSFW talk was.


Some final thoughts.

First, Open Source Bridge is returning next year – Selena confirmed during our closing session, where she solicited feedback from an audience that clearly had enjoyed a great time throughout the event. I’m really hoping to involve myself in a far greater capacity next year. My on-site volunteering efforts fell the way of my pre-event volunteering efforts (i.e. desire but no follow through – although the on-site was due to legitimate lack of need for my help in the hacker lounge at such late hours), and despite the extra sleep I got, it was hard for me to feel like I hadn’t given back enough – I really wanted to do more for an event I have come to care so much about. Goal before the next round of planning starts is to get the stuff in order that prevented me from volunteering more readily. There’s a lot.

Second, I achieved what I wanted out of this conference, which was a re-connection with my technical self, and with the community at large. Every time I engage with these people, it’s a rewarding endeavor, but it’s easy to forget this when caught up in the busyness of the rest of my life. It was really wonderful to dust off my Twitter account and re-discover the joy of interacting with technical types throughout the event. I feel more “plugged in” to what’s going on and where I want to be, and that’s exciting.

Following through with the technical excitement is, as ever, going to be trickier, because of all of the other things I’m trying to juggle in my life right now. I’m a hobbyist with too many hobbies and a crippling love for sleep, and it’s funny how quickly my extracurricular technical goals go out the window in light of other priorities. I was disappointed to not do more legitimate technical work during the conference itself, but not surprised – there wasn’t exactly a lot of time or mental energy left in the schedule to do such things. I’m hoping I don’t get sucked too quickly back into the craziness of day-to-day life and can take the time to outline the projects I’d like to be working on in the next few months and identify my biggest priorities and the skills I need to learn. I’ve never had so many non-work-related technical projects in my mental queue before, and that’s really exciting, but I’d actually like to cross a few off the list instead of letting it grow indefinitely.

Third, I’m hoping to use the momentum of this re-connection, and the discipline I’ve used with blogging the entire conference, to keep writing here. I was excited when Sumana told me that my blog posts were really valuable to her, because from my admin’s perspective, my only readers so far appear to be spammers (and oh, are they prevalent). I enjoy keeping a technical blog because the women in industry that I admire all seem to be doing so effectively – and I like using this medium to better establish my technical presence online. I think confidence and discipline are the two core issues here, and both of those are a bit easier to manage in the short-term in the aftermath of Open Source Bridge. So, with that said, more soon.

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One Response to Open Source Bridge 2010: Day Four: Family Fun Finale

  1. gabrielle says:

    My reasoning behind visualizing it as a magnet rather than a filter: a filter traps all the gunky stuff, and you have to find some way to dispose of it later. ;)

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