How Not to write about the semantic web

How not to attract new semantic web readers, especially among the women. Write the following:

I just thought that this is a smart strategy to make video tutorials about the Semantic Web more appealing to female* or otherwise not so super-tech-savvy* audiences: Just put a Lolcat in it!

Though the author wrote that she matches the “stereotype”, which I guess means women who aren’t tech and like LOLcats, by the time I followed the asterisks, I’d already passed from astonishment to loathing. FYI, I wrote the first book on RDF, babes.

A reference to females was unnecessary. Surprising, too, from the same company featuring an interview with Corinna Bath, author of the thesis, “Towards a De-Gendered Design of Information Technologies”.

Correlation

noticed a correlation between my last two posts on the lack of women at Ajax Experience and the seeming lack of RDF or semantic web applications. Both are based on perennial questions: Where are the women in technology? Where are the semantic web applications?

Next time I’m asked either, I think I’ll answer that the women in technology are off building RDF-based semantic web applications. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The women in technology are off building RDF-based semantic web applications. It works better than answering yes, there are women in technology but we’re still not as visible as we should be, and yes there are semantic web and RDF-based applications, but they’re still not as visible as they could be—both of which evidently don’t play well in the dominant technical culture, because the same damn questions keep getting asked, again and again.

What’s the use?

Wayback Machine has copy of this story with comments

Last week I had an email from a person writing an anger management manual, who wanted permission to quote my old posts about using anger as a weapon against helplessness.

In the posts, I wrote about Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman’s research into a cause of depression he termed ‘learned helplessness’–where a person internalizes their inability to control a situation so much so that even if a method of change does present itself, they don’t see it. Seligman has based his entire career on techniques to fight this destructive perception.

As serendipity would have it, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software just released his list of book recommendations for programmers and it featured Seligman’s book on the subject. This list, though, led to an ironic development, because I’ve been fighting my own sense of ‘learned helplessness’, and Joel’s book recommendations just added to it when I noted that not one of the books featured was by a woman; not even a co-writer.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this because not long after receiving the email from the anger management person, I had a chance to see pictures of employees of a company that provides services central to weblogging, and was disheartened to see that of all the pictures shown, over 20, only one was a woman–and she was in a non-technical position. This started me searching among all of the tech companies associated in some way with weblogging. In all, regardless of the nature of the business, there are very few women employees; of those, most are either in business or support positions.

For instance, O’Reilly Publishing has several women in key positions, but if you look at the senior editing staff, there isn’t one woman–at least none that I can see, and I looked, hard. People have said that women at O’Reilly do play a major part in the O’Reilly conferences, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they’re behind the scenes, not up on the stages. And where are the women authors? Where are the women who write the articles, and the books? Are there none of us left? Not at the new O’Reilly weblog–and rarely in the photos.

How many women are engineers at Six Apart? I know that the support staff is primarily women, but how about the engineering staff? How many women engineers with Google? How about Yahoo? The other major companies associated directly or indirectly with weblogging?

(I hope you all return with “lots”. It would give me fresh hope.)

I wrote in an email to a friend last week that rather than empower women, especially women in technology, I’m concerned that weblogging will ultimately prove harmful to women. Why? Because technology companies are looking more to the weblogs and to those who are more ‘vocal’ in this environment for new recruits for their companies. When you consider that most of the people doing the hiring are men in their 40′s or less, who tend to read others of like frame of mind, particularly those who have more notoriety, what happens, then, to the more traditional recruiting process?

Rather than post a job notice to Monster, or to local recruiters or in whatever local newspaper, these same people send emails out to the bright, enthusiastic, vocal, usually younger men who dominate the technology weblogs. The end result is that technology companies associated with weblogging tend to have a male-female ratio out of synch with the demographics of the rest of the country. So what happens, then, if this continues as a trend, as more and more companies enter into the world of weblogging?

This is a chilling prospect, especially to us older women in technology who haven’t secured a comfortable position. I ran from this in fear a couple of months ago when I took what little money I had on a trip to Florida to try and discover a new career in travel writing and photography. I was desperate to find hope, and instead, found a timeshare.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had interviews. Two weeks ago I had a phone interview with a major player in this field, and the interview did not go well. Everything was fine until he started giving me the technology quizzes — the questions that techs tend to ask to see if you ‘really’ know this stuff. As soon as he started I froze and had difficulty answering any of the questions. It wasn’t that I don’t know the stuff — it’s just that I have never been particularly adept at these types of interviews. When I was fresh out of college, true; but not lately.

When he asked how he could assess my technical abilities, I suggested he read my writings and look at my resume. He was very personable and very pleasant, but it did leave me feeling even more depressed.

These thoughts rattled around in my brain this last week, and with each new photo published online featuring primarily all men, or each new radio show or company almost exclusively all men, I became more depressed — I was fast approaching an internalized view that women in technology are a dying breed, and there is little we can do to change this–and I was one of the first old dragons being booted out the door.

Normally in times past, I would have written a blistering note about this issue in my weblog, and felt re-energized and ready to battle this particular demon. My anger sustained me and made me strong. Not this last week, though, I just felt quieter. Every time I would go to write something, I would lose interest almost immediately. I focused instead on working on Wordform and playing with Greasemonkey, and other odds and ends; even then, I didn’t feel like writing about what I was doing.

“What’s the use,” I told myself, and therein is the statement that lives in the core of learned helplessness.

The three most deadly words are not, “I hate you”, but, “What’s the use”.

I had a second interview with another major player on Friday, and this time, I felt very good about my answers. Rather than quiz me on specific uses of technology, he asked what I would do in this circumstance or that. Now, these are the types of questions I am very comfortable with, and which are equally good about determining how familiar you are with the field, the technology, and even how much you’ve thought about it and where are your interests. More than that, it was in a specific use of technology that has been important to me and my enthusiasm for the work was such that I probably could have talked his ear off for several hours.

I have no idea if either of these recruiters will follow up after the interviews. I have learned not to get my hopes up too high (being realistic is not being helpless). Regardless, though, I felt good about the second interview and this gave me a boost.

Looking around I see debates on technology and other topics that I want to be a part of, and though I have to fight my growing tendency to say to myself, “What’s the use”, I counter this with noting that if I’m ignored by the players, others are also ignored by the players and that sex isn’t always. the determining factor. This helps chip away at the helplessness when I realize that the ‘problem’, as such, doesn’t necessarily reside in me, as much as it resides among the players and the environment.

I am also getting more requests for help with individual and smaller company sites, so I am gainfully employed (thanks in no small part to the requests and recommendations I’ve received from many of you), and this helps break me out of not only the cycle of worry about money but a growing despondency. Even if I have to find work outside my field in order to make it month to month, this isn’t a sign that I’m not good at what I do or a failure in my field; it is a sign that times are tough. Most importantly, I can’t look at others and their successes and allow this to make me feel a failure–each of us has different times in our lives when things work…and when they don’t.

I actually want to find that point again where I get angry–furious–at what I read. I want to write scathing retorts and blistering diatribes, and sincere though strongly worded commentary. Then I’ll be the bird that burns, and people will be pissed and link and de-link accordingly, and I’ll just smile toothily at the results because anything is better than “What’s the use”.

But I don’t think I’ll ever burn quite as brightly again: over the last few years, I’ve had my deepest confidence in myself and my future shaken; there will always be a part of me ready to throw in the flag, a tiny voice ready to cry out, “What’s the use”. When you’ve gone down this road, you’re marked. It’s now up to me to make sure this was a one-time journey and not a repeat trip. In this effort, I’ll use any weapon, up to, and including, walking away from something important to me if I feel it gives harm.

Now I’ve aired my dark thoughts and my doubts, and time to focus on the light and the wonder, and there are new and interesting debates on the semantic web emerging, and I don’t think I’ve chastized the Men of Weblogging enough this week–and my cat wants me to play. Thank goodness for cats, chocolate, friends who can handle soggy shoulders, cuddlesome moments, nature, small children, music, good books, and new toys we can’t afford–not necessarily in that order.

Guys Don’t Link

The Better Bad News folk did a take on the AutoLink fooflah, which is worth a chuckle, though not necessarily a guffaw. However, what I found more interesting about the page is the *list of webloggers that the BBN folks referenced:

1. Opt Out Petition
2. Dan Gillmor
3.The Scoblizer

4. Dave Winer
5. Cory Doctorow
6. Time
7. Mark Jen
8. Steve Rubel
9. Kas Log
10. Tim Bray

with sonic support from Plastikman

Aside from the Time article, which is actually written by a woman, and the petition, all of the webloggers linked were men. Every single one.

This matched closely what I found at Doc Searls, in his post on AutoLink. He references the following bloggers:

Steve Gillmor
Tim Bray
Dave Winer
Dan Gillmor
Fred Von Lohmann
Craig Burton

ubermostrum at kuroshin

Again, all guys.

Point of fact, if you follow the thread of this discussion, you would see something like Dave linking to Cory who then links to Scoble who links to Dave who links to Tim who links to Steve who then links to Dave who links to Doc who follows through with a link to Dan, and so on. If you throw in the fact that the Google Guys are, well, guys, then we start to see a pattern here: men have a real thing for the hypertext link.

Well, huh. How about that. Not being a guy, I couldn’t understand this male obsession with the link, so I decided to call on an expert on gender roles about the issue: Lawrence Summers, Harvard’s current President.

“Larry,” I said. “What is is with guys and links?”

“Well Shelley, statistics–now, don’t worry, I won’t show you any actual values because being a women and all, we know that you can’t do more than count your ten fingers and toes–anyway, statistic show that guys are linked more than women, and link to each other more than they link to women. And when one guy links to another guy, a whole bunch of other guys come along and link them both, and then start linking to each other.”

“I’m aware of the behavior, Larry. But what causes it?”

He beamed at me, patted me on my head and chucked me under the chin. “Why honey, it’s because the male brain is wired for linking!”

I’ll have to admit, I was taken aback by Larry’s response. I mean, it didn’t make sense that a guy’s brain could better handling linking, especially since women also use the link.

“Larry, are you sure that linking isn’t a pattern based on cultural and social similarities, rather than gender-based differences in the brain? Guys are linked more because our current society and most cultures still see men as ‘authorities’, regardless of demonstrated capability?”

Larry just smiled, somewhat sadly and shook his head.

“All too often we think that guys are linked more than women because of social patterns, but that’s really not the case. Look, there are three reasons why men are linked more than women, and I’ll take them in the order of importance.”

He held up the index finger on his right hand. “The first reason men are linked more is based on interest and time. Women just aren’t interested in weblogging as much as the men, and don’t have the time for it, even if they are interested. You ask both men and women the question, ‘What’s more important: your families or your weblog?’, and I bet you’ll find that women, overall, will pick their families over their weblogs.”

He held up the middle finger on his right hand. “The second reason is aptitude — men and women’s brains are different, and men are more equipped to handle the complexities of the link, as compared to women.”

Larry then held up the third finger, almost indifferently and said, “And then there’s the social issues, but I don’t want to get into this because anything having to do with social issues means folks like me have to change, and we don’t want that.” He quickly lowered his third finger. “And I don’t want to get into time and interest, because I’m running out of time and the topic has little interest”, and with that, he lowered the index finger, leaving only the middle finger raised.

“And that leads us back to men and women’s brains being different, and men being better equipped to handle linking.”

At that point, Larry noticed the stunned look on my face, my mouth opened in astonishment. He said, “Seriously, I think it’s important to focus this topic on the hard wired differences between men and women, virtually to the exclusion of any other discussion.”

“To take an example I discussed previously, when I gave weblogging tools to my twin little girls, and they are Daddy’s good little girls might I add, it wasn’t long after I showed them what a link was that they were calling them ‘Daddy links’, ‘Mommy links’, and ‘Baby links’. Leaving aside that all the television they watch features ads with little girls playing house and pretending to be mommies, how else can you explain this behavior other than the female brain perceives the link in a different way from the male brain?”

The conversation continued from that point, but I don’t remember much of it as my brain was in a red haze–I imagine that Larry would say it was because I am a woman and we were, after all, discussing links. Later that day, though, not feeling overly satisfied with his answers, I sought out the one fountain of wisdom I always returned to, again and again, whenever I was troubled about gender issues: Mags the bartender down at the Bushels of Beer Bar & Grill.

When I got there, business was slow and Mags was wiping down the counter. Her hair was steel gray, though strands of golden blonde appeared here and there–she always did miss a few when she colored. Peering out at me from behind thick, fake glasses, she smiled broadly, easily re-cutting the lines long creased into her cheeks. She was a lovely woman, though she spent a great deal of time trying to live this down.

“Shelley! What are you doing here on a fine afternoon! I thought you walked during this time of day?”, she said, reaching under the counter at the same time to get the mixings for my usual margarita.

“Skip the drink today, Mags.” I said, heavily, as I plopped down on the stool. “What I want from you is advice, not booze.”

I then proceeded to tell her all about Google’s new AutoLink, and my own findings on men and links, and the conversation with Larry the Harvard President. She nodded from time to time, as if nothing I said was unexpected. When I was finished, she looked at me a moment and then did something she rarely did — come out from behind the counter to sit on the stool next to me.

“Shelley, I’m not surprised by anything you’re saying. But you might be surprised when I say that I sort of agree with your Harvard President — men do think differently about links than women.”

I was surprised, and showed it.

“Oh, I don’t mean that men and women’s brains are wired so differently that men are naturally more adept at linking then women. No, the difference between men and women lies in how men perceive links, not their ability to use them.”

She leaned closer to me, even though no one else was in the place.

“You see, guys see links as an extension of themselves. “

Extensions of themselves? Extensions? Slowly, understanding dawned.

“You mean…”

“You always were a bright girl, mores the pity.” She said, winking at me. “You got it in one. To you and me, a link is just a link. To a guy, however, a link is something special, a part of himself. The most,um, important part of himself.”

Time for plain speaking. “Mags, are you telling me that guys equate links with their dicks?”

Mags just smiled, patted my hand one more time, and then got up and moved back behind the counter.

“Shelley, to a woman, a link is a way of connecting and being connected. To hearing and being heard. But not so for a guy. Guys see links as power, and therefore something precious, and to be protected. They hold on to their links as tightly, and as lovingly, as a thirsty drunk holds onto a bottle.”

At that moment I had a mental image, of a male weblogger I know, carefully adding a link to his post, bright, feral grin on his face, manic glaze to his eyes. But instead of typing into a keyboard he was…oh, that’s disgusting!

I shuddered, world twisted upside down. “Surely, Mags, not all guys think this way!”

Mags shook her head. “No, this attitude isn’t universal among men. There are many guys who see a link as nothing more than a way of inviting a conversation or passing along useful information. They link without regard to the consequences, and the most they hope for is that it might spark an interesting discussion.”

She stopped wiping the counter and leaned closer to me, lowering her voice. “The power-link guys have a word for men who link just to link,” she whispered. “They call them linkless.”

At that point, a couple of people entered the bar and Mags hurried off to do her job, leaving me to think on our extraordinary conversation. The more I thought on Mags words, though, the more I could see the truth in them. Much that has confused me about this environment is explained if one considers for a moment that some men think of links as some form of virtual penis.

For instance, ‘nofollow’ wouldn’t just be a misuse of HTML and a way for Google to solve the weblogger pest problem: it would be way of increasing the power of one’s link– literally a hypertext version of Viagra. As for Google, it becomes both the hand and the condom, enabling and protecting at the same time.

Sites such as Technorati become the internet version of a locker room, where the guys can hang around, comparing themselves to each other. Those that come up short look at their better endowed brothers with both envy and admiration; sucking up in order to increase their own stature.

When we women ask the power-linkers why they don’t link to us more, what we’re talking about is communication, and wanting a fair shot of being heard; but what the guys hear is a woman asking for a little link love. Hey lady, do you have what it takes? More important, are you willing to give what it takes?

Groupies and blogging babes, only, need apply.

And the phrases, “circle jerk” and “Google juice”, take on new depth and sudden meaning in light of this discovery.

I wandered home from the bar, in a daze of comprehension so strong, it literally staggered me. I thought back on what started this all: the AutoLink. Now, I could understand the concern: it was all about protecting the Link.

What I see is functionality that can only be used in one browser, in one operating system, and only when the weblog reader pushes a button; when pushed, the tool only autolinks a few items: addresses and ISBN numbers and a few other innocuous odds and ends. To me, this is no big thing, but to those who run afeard of this technology, if we treat this service indifferently, other tools will take this as a sign of easy compliance and do truly evil things with the link.

We could then have ‘neocon’ and ‘progressive’ linking toolbars, that automatically link words such as ‘patriot’ to either Michelle Malkin or Atrios if the reader pushes a button. Or syndication toolbars that convert the word “Atom” to a link to the RSS 2.0 specification. (Resulting in such fine combinations as: “RSS 2.0 and Eve” and “Water is made up of two RSS 2.0 of hydrogen and one RSS 2.o of oxygen.”)

Why, some toolbars might even link terms to Wikipedia entries, and modern civilization, as we know it, would collapse into tattered heaps of folksonomic trash.

But not all guys saw AutoLink as the damnation of all mankind. No, a few anarchists in the crowd are always looking for opportunities to rip open the constraints and just let it All Hang Loose.

Yes, so much is explained now. Where I saw AutoLink as a relatively uninteresting and innocuous innovation, to some guys it was a way of dropping their pants and swinging what they got, while to others, it was a big metal Zipper, just waiting to catch the unwary.