Journalists don't understand Wikipedia sometimes

This morning I saw some pissed-off twitters that led me to articles about Wikipedia’s sexist bias. Always up for a little early morning smash-the-patriarchy outrage, and well aware of some of the clusterfucks that often play out in Wikipedia admin pages, I forged onwards and read the articles, flaring my nostrils in anticipation. In Wikpedia’s sexism towards female novelists Amanda Filippachi points out that many women tagged with Category: American women novelists aren’t tagged with Category: American novelists. She named several examples. Katie Mcdonough from Salon picked up on this, with Wikipedia moves women to American Women Novelists Category Leaves Men in American Novelists.

Even the most cursory googling shows that this is not a very accurate spin. For example look at Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, and Harper Lee, who are named by Filippachi as missing from American novelists. Here is the Donna Tartt article’s history page going back the last 500 edits to 2004. Tartt was never listed as being in Category: American novelist, not because “Wikipedia is sexist” but because no one thought to put that down amid the hundreds of small edits that incrementally improved the article. Until today when someone added “American novelists” to her page, in virtuous activist response to injustice (which I respect, actually). “Category: American women novelists” was never on Tartt’s page.

Okay, how about Amy Tan. The last 500 edits for Amy Tan’s page go back to 2008. Category:American women novelists was not ever on Tan’s page, but American novelists was added today.

Harper Lee’s history, on the other hand, shows an edit on Feb. 21 removing American novelists and adding American women novelists. If you look at the user who made that edit, they often edit categories, and occasionally makes disputed judgement calls, but they appear to be acting alone and from the pattern of their edits, they do many types of edits in several areas, rather than waltzing around sexist-ly removing women from the category of generic human beings, or even novelists.

Just from these three samples, it does not seem that there is any particular movement among a group of Wikipedia editors to remove women from the “novelists” category and put them in a special women category instead. I would say that the general leaning, rather, is to stop people who would like to label women writers as women writers *in addition* to labeling them as writers, claiming there is no need for Category: American women writers at all and that it is evidence of bias to identify them by gender.

When I add writers to Wikpedia because I love their work or find their lives interesting and significant I often am unsure what the trends in categorization currently are. I may add them as Women writers and also American novelists based on looking at a similar writer’s article. If some of the potential categories aren’t there I hope someone will add them.

mmme_hardy on Twitter pointed out to me immediately that the discussion on this topic amongst Wikipedia editors takes place here: Categories for discussion. There is a proposal here to merge “Category:American women novelists” into “Category: American novelists”. The consensus there is to merge the articles, with some people (including me) mentioning the option to merge and keep the category. Merging the category would remove “Category: American women novelists” from many writers’ pages. That also means the page that lists all the pages in Category: American women novelists would no longer exist.

Thus, a well-meaning attempt to include women in the main categorization for American novelists (where many of them were never listed in the first place) may result in women writers no longer being easily identifiable to those who might want to find them. For example if you are looking for Caribbean women writers and they have all been merged into Caribbean writers that might not be a desirable outcome! Filippache mentionsEdwige Danticat being ‘plucked from “Haitian Novelists” and dumped into “Haitian Women Novelists.”’ But I don’t see that plucking happening from the history! Where did that happen!?

Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing lists miscategorization as one of the ways that women’s work is disappeared over time. In this case I am a bit annoyed at the facile reporting that does not seem to take into account the complexity of how information gets added to Wikipedia. If someone can point me to a Category decision from the past where a bunch of editors agreed to remove women en masse from American novelists and put them in American women novelists, go for it, I would appreciate the help in understanding this.

It is much more often the reverse and it would not be too hard to come up with examples — where someone works rather hard on creating a category for Women activists or American anarchist women and then a bunch of other (often male!) editors step in and say that that is sexist and unnecessary and “ghettoizing”. What would be so hard… or so wrong… about listing writers or other people by gender, race, ethnicity or other factor that people who care about identities and identification may want to browse by? Librarians certainly catalogue writers and works that way, and it is extremely useful! I think that the backlash against identity politics is evident here. Yes Wikipedia editors and admins often have systemic bias. In this case the story has been told in an inaccurate way (that I don’t even have time to debunk thoroughly — I am neglecting my day job right now to write this!) and in a way that both discredits reports of actual systemic and individual bias and that harms the visibility of women writers while trying to help that visibility. The sexist thing we should be up in arms about isn’t labelling women as women! It’s the efforts to delete entire categories (like Haitian women writers, for example) because someone has decided that that meta-information is unnecessary “ghettoization”…. the false belief that we should or can be “gender-blind”, “color-blind”, and so on.

The particular moment of charm

I spent some time this week going through my book wishlist, requesting them from the library in a new surge of conviction that THIS TIME I won’t just eat the very same cost of the books in library fines as I would if I had bought them. But since that still leaves me with the need for e-books on my phone to fall asleep on, I bought a couple of new books. Lately my book recs have come from particular blogging friends (oursin, wiredferret, seelight) and my friend Bryony in England (though I am ignoring her obsession with Icelandic mystery and action novels).

And tonight in the bath I was reading the book I bought, Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed. For a while it felt a bit stumbly and awkward, but lovely anyway. It was easy to let go of whatever hangups bugged me about the writing style and see where the book and its charming characters were going. The lion-girl was a good sign! Sometimes I wait while reading for myself to open up to the experience or the ride and have to let go of… of something. (That’s an important feeling, hard to convey, which people may describe as taking a while to get into, but which I think is often a lack of context on the reader’s part. ) Without practicing that letting-go, omg, the things I would have missed in so many excellent books! And details obviously references someone would make sense of were slipping by, that I knew I was missing,. Rughali = ghali = egyptian? Where is the Soo Republic – Soo = Somalia? Missing it all over the place. Tantalizing! Someone else will get it right off and like it. Good. Anyway, as I was in mid-story in Throne of the Crescent Moon, there was a moment where the book completely charmed me and I trusted the story. That’s what I want to describe!

book cover of throne of the crescent moon

The point of view changes frequently, from Adoulla the ghul-hunter (who feels a bit like the main character so far), to Raseed, his assistant, then to the lion-girl. How the characters think of each other and their relationships is important shifting territory. Adoulla’s friend Litaz and her husband Dawoud, alkhemists from another land, are helping him in a crisis. Litaz is thinking about her (locked/twisted) hair and how her husband affectionately teases her about it at times and how his people do their hair in his country (which is in like West Africa somewhere. Unlike how they do it in her homeland (which is in East Africa). And I was keenly appreciating that they were outsiders in the city yet they weren’t just lumped together like “the alkhemists from Africa”. Then…

Upon waking a few hours later, Litaz made more tea and Adoulla thanked her for it as if she had saved his mother’s life. He was a bit less inconsolable after his rest, grim planning clearly giving him purpose.

“That jackal-thing that calls itself Mouw Awa, and its mysterious ‘blessed friend’—they must be stopped. Somewhere out there is a ghulmaker more powerful than any I’ve ever faced. I fear for our city,” Adoulla said. He took a long, messy slurp of tea and wiped the excess from his beard.

Your city, my friend, not ours, some resentful part of her protested. She’d lived in and loved Dhamsawaat for decades now, but the older she grew the more she pined to return to the Soo Republic. This city had given her meaningful work and more exciting experiences than she could count. But it was in this dirty city that her child had died. It was in this too-crowded city that her husband had grown older than his years. She did not want to die saving this place — not without having seen home again.

She spoke none of this, of course. And she sat complacently as Dawoud said, “Whatever help you need from us is yours, brother-of-mine. Whatever this is you are facing, you will not face it alone.” For a long while, the three of them sat sipping tea…

That was great! And so rare! Here we are in a fantasy novel and someone has thought subtly of her own feelings and motivations. The city Adoullah loves is, to Litaz, also the (exciting, cool, but…) dirty city where her child died. We are treated to a person who helps her friend loyally and is about to be heroic, though she has mixed feelings about it all, and doesn’t see the situation the way he does or the way her husband does.

The “of course”, thrown in offhand, on how she didn’t speak up to discuss this, was nicely done. She doesn’t behave in an out of place woman-fighting-patriarchy way (as so many annoying perky princesses unfortunately and pluckily and fakely do) and she is in control of her situation. And suddenly all the characters seemed to bloom as different from each other and as people, on their own tracks, rather than little representations of “people” who (as if their labor of existence were ultimately exploited by a capitalist machine) serve either the story or the Hero. I hope this conveys something of what charmed me. And I wish that charm wasn’t so rare.

Now to read on. I hope Litaz doesn’t die saving the city, and gets to go back to the Soo Republic and have a nice life being the best alkhemist ever.

It was a nice day but a tiring day; I had a very annoying bus driver and was filled with rage and sadness and confusion on the way to work (about which more later); I put it behind me, I worked hard, had a really nice lunch with co-workers, worked more, rode the bus home while working some more, thought fondly of my friends, made dinner for Oblomovka’s daughter (he is in Hong Kong for the circumvention conference), saw her and Taren off to the Exploratorium, listened to all the Perfume Genius songs twice indulging in a sort of luxurious solitary melancholy (instead of reading aloud and responsibly telling a small human to brush her teeth and put her pajamas on and get in bed twentyeleventy times), and read my friend Gina’s book draft (the Perfume Genius songs were in honor of her book, to go with it). I look forward extremely to reading more and the later versions.

File a bug: the missing manual, now with unicorns

At countless conference talks I have heard standard advice on “how to get involved in an open source project”. It goes something like this:

Step 1. File a bug!
Step 2. Submit a patch! (repeat steps 1 and 2 for a while)
Step 3. Now you are ready to write some new features and stuff! Fly and be free!

I always thought that was interesting because it is an attempt to reassure people that you don’t have to leap into immediate coding. Just file a bug, that is the first step. This results in people coming into projects and wondering vaguely how to find bugs.

Part of what I want to do as bugmaster for Mozilla is to put in another step — look at the bugs already reported, since there are a squizillion of them, and see what you can do to improve the meta information of those bugs.

Today on Planet Mozilla I noticed some really good advice from Jason Smith on how to find bugs: WebRTC testing: Try out and file bugs. It is really sensible and practical. Jason’s blog has a few posts like this that advise focus in a particular area, like WebRTC or Desktop web apps, by incorporating use of those tools in your daily life. Our “get involved in open source” sequence now looks more like this,

Step 1. Find some feature that could use testing.
Step 2. Figure out how to use it regularly.
Step 3. Use it.
Step 4. Encounter behavior you think is a bug.

There is a lot of background knowledge necessary to actually file a bug in the complicated system that is (or BMO).

So let’s take the WebRTC example. Say you’ve followed Jason’s advice, used for a while, and found A BUG. Jason helpfully provides a link directly into Bugzilla to the enter_bug form, with the Product and Component pre-filled out to be for a bug with WebRTC (the component) and Core (the product.) Bugs in BMO are categorized according to Product, like Firefox Desktop, Firefox for Android, FirefoxOS, Thunderbird, etc. “Core” is the product for the code that is shared between many other products. If you were looking to file a bug with WebRTC from scratch you would probably not know which product to file it under, though you have to choose one. So it’s great that Jason gives a link to the right product and component!

But wait. There is so much more background, or context, to understand. You don’t have to, but it is very good to understand it!

First of all you have to have a bugzilla account for the link to work properly. If you do that, you will be a new bugzilla user, and some of the bug entry forms will look different to you — you’ll be automatically directed to a “guided bug entry form” which is broken into several steps, rather than the form that shows you the whole “advanced view” with several dozen fields and dropdown menus.

Second, how about looking at the list of all the components in the Core product. This is a good part of the background knowledge – a little piece of the map or geography of Bugzilla. As you can see, there are a lot of components that are part of Core. Scrolling down to the WebRTC bit, you can see that there are several sub categories: WebRTC, WebRTC:Audio/Video, WebRTC:Networking, and WebRTC:Signaling. Click on the general WebRTC component to see a list of open WebRTC bugs. This is where your geography lesson gets useful.

Right now there are 113 open bugs for WebRTC. You might look over them simply to get an idea of what kinds of bugs others have found. More about this later!

The important thing at this moment is: Is your bug already reported? Depending on how many bugs there are in this list, and your levels of interest and patience, you might want to either quickly read through the summaries (the title of the bug) or do a search down the page for words that might be in the bug you’re about to file.

If you find something in that list that you think is your bug, take a closer look at it. Read it and the comments and try to understand what they’re talking about. If it is the same as your bug, you may want to leave a comment describing what you saw happen.

But let’s say you don’t find your bug on that list. Aha! Here we use the File a bug link from the original blog post, link to file a bug with WebRTC. If you are me, or a user of Bugzilla who has made more than 25 edits or comments to bugs, you will see the advanced bug entry form, which is huge (you can see it from space) and looks like this:

Enter bug webrtc advanced

If you are a relatively new user of Bugzilla, you’ll come first to a guided entry form, broken into several screens. (At any point, you can switch to the advanced entry form with a link at the bottom of the page, if clicking through multiple screens annoys you.) The first screen for guided bug entry would normally be for selecting the product and component. Since you have these already chosen in Jason’s convenient link, you start on Screen 2, where you can enter the summary for your bug. In this case I am reporting a sort of unicorn invasion:

Enterbug webrtc screen2

After you enter a summary you will see a list pop up underneath the summary field, of bugs that may be similar. It is worth reading through those to see if anyone else has reported unicorns invading their screens in Firefox. In this case, definitely not.

Enterbug webrtc screen2 list

Since no one else has reported this bug, I click the “My issue is not listed” button, and advance to screen 3, which suggests how I can describe my actions or steps to reproduce the issue, exactly what happened that I think is a bug, and what I think should have happened instead.

Enter bug screen3 unicorn jpg

Great, we have filed a bug! Back to that list of “how to contribute to an open source project”:

Step 1. Find some feature that could use testing.
Step 2. Figure out how to use it regularly.
Step 3. Use it.
Step 4. Encounter behavior you think is a bug.
Step 4.5 Make a account.
Step 4.6 Confirm it with the email confirmation.
Step 4.7 Log in to
Step 5. FILE A BUG (which we now know how to do!!!)

But wait, there’s more — or there can be if you want to get your bearings on that map of Bugzilla. Take a look back at the list of all the general open WebRTC bugs. What can we understand from this list?

As I look over the current list it is pretty mysterious. From the language in the summaries, I would guess some of the bugs are notes by the development team for their own to-do list, and some of them look like bugs discovered by general users of the software. My first impulse is to sort the page a few different ways to see what that reveals. Sorting by Status shows the UNCONFIRMED bugs at the top and the NEW bugs listed just underneath. There is one titled getUserMedia freeze all system that isn’t confirmed yet and may be a good example.

Here is an interesting one, No event when remote peer disappeared. My view of this bug is going to be different from yours, if you are new to Bugzilla, because I have more magic powers, ie, canconfirm and editbugs permissions, as well as some extra admin stuff. There is a lot of stuff on the page. It’s extremely “busy” with text! You have to learn to skim it and parse it mentally so that you can see and notice the stuff that is important to you at the moment. Here is what this bug looks like for a new Bugzilla user.

Example webrtc bug2

What I can see from reading this bug is that there is at least one person actively looking at newly filed bugs, triaging them, and working on the project. And in fact as I click around and read more of the bugs for WebRTC I can see Jason is actively engaged with most of them, which is not a big surprise since he is blogging about the subject.

Jason’s blog looks like a quite useful place to find out areas that welcome testers and bug-finders. You can also look at the QMO quality assurance and testing pages which explain how to run nightly builds and participate in QA’s bug test and triage days.

My bigger point here, though, is that to start contributing to an open source project, aside from reporting one-off bugs you accidentally discover, it is super helpful to learn the landscape of the project. Adopt the project and poke around to learn about it. If you are reporting a bug, look at the other bugs. Look at who is commenting and working on those bugs. Join their IRC channel and read their wiki pages and (usually more formal than the wiki pages…) developer documentation. Or simply google the project to learn more about what’s going on with it. In this case I found that is quite new and was developed partly to show off what WebRTC is and what it can do.

It was really apparent, from my morning of poking around, how much transparency there is at Mozilla, and the amazing technical depths you can get to from half a day’s reading and bug surfing. As a society we really have yet to realize the implications for education and educational institutions. It is a major cultural shift I am happy to be part of.