Transphobia in open source
A major developer of open source social networking software has a rather public statement about his opposition to “trans ideology” on his website. I won’t link to the statement, but I want to make my stance clear.
There is no such thing as “trans ideology,” which, as a phrase, reminds me of people talking about “the gay agenda” decades ago. It doesn’t exist. Trans people are not a threat. They are a marginalized, vulnerable group that is often denied fundamental human rights and that is currently being vilified by certain politicians and corners of the press. Transphobia is rife, unfair, and dangerous to this community. Like all bigotry, it’s also harmful and unpleasant to be around.
Trans men are men. Trans women are women. It is not a choice.
Open source software is built as (or, at least, should be built as) a community. While a person’s beliefs should be irrelevant to their ability to build software, they are not unrelated to how they show up in a community and how safe people feel communicating with them. It is essential to use an equity lens to build open source communities, ensuring they are open - structurally and emotionally - to contributions from vulnerable and underrepresented people.
A person’s politics and beliefs are their own until they choose to make them public. I would rather prioritize making the communities I am a part of more equitable, so I will not knowingly work with someone who has publicly expressed transphobic views, just as I won’t work with someone who has voiced racism, homophobia, or sexism. While these forms of bigotry don’t directly impact me because of the disproportionate power white, cisgender men like myself have in society, they certainly affect the people around me. My actions matter, particularly as I have more choices than more vulnerable people.
Some have painted acceptance of transgender people as opposed to acceptance of people with religious beliefs. It is not. It’s perfectly possible to be a Christian, for example, and to be open and inclusive to all people. I’m delighted to know many such Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths. This supposed dichotomy is widespread and worth calling out: it’s fake and is often used as a cover for intolerance that has nothing inherently to do with religion. By helping to make communities I’m a part of open to trans people, I am not closing them to any other group other than the intolerant.
This is not simply a matter of opposing views. It’s a matter of accepting people for who they are and providing safe communities where they can do good work. There’s nothing abstract about it and it’s not a political debate.
Lastly, these statements are sometimes derisively described as “virtue signaling.” In some ways, that’s true. What I’m trying to say to my trans friends is simply this: you’re safe with me, and I care about you. I think that’s worth signaling.
I love the indieweb and what it stands for:
When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users’ data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.
This principle is absolutely true, but on a deeper level, I’m also uncomfortable with the level of wealth hoarding and rent seeking on the modern internet. There’s no need for us all to be pouring our conversations, identities, and data into someone’s multi-billion-dollar for-profit enterprise. By owning it ourselves, we’re decentralizing the value created. While it’s not necessarily an anti-capitalist stance, it’s certainly an anti-monopoly one.
I didn’t start Known to be an indieweb platform: I initially built it, back when it was called Idno, to be a simple way to start a private community on your own terms. My intention was always to add decentralization to these communities, and I was enamored by the vision of the indieweb when I met members of the community and saw what they were building. Turning it into a way for a single person to post using the indieweb just made sense to me, and that’s how a lot of people use it - including me on my own website.
The best way to drive adoption for a web standard is to make it as easy as possible to build with. Any good web technology should be implementable inside of an afternoon, so that a casual hacker can feel like they’ve made good progress. (Too many technologies are built to be used at Facebook scale, which is needless.) HTML works this way; so does RSS. And the indieweb technologies - microformats to add machine-readable meaning to content, micropub to provide a standard way to publish, and webmention as a mechanism for decentralized replies chiefly among them - all follow this rule too. They’re easy, fault-tolerant, and are built using a very similar mindset to the web itself. I love them.
Lately I’ve been drawn into the fediverse through Mastodon - you can follow me at @firstname.lastname@example.org. The underlying technology behind the fediverse, ActivityPub, at first glance seems a little harder to implement. In fact, I was a little scared of it, because it requires a mix of light cryptography and a handful of less HTML-like document standards that seem easy to get wrong. But dig a little deeper and it’s not particularly difficult to get started with, with huge reward: connecting to a network of millions of people who are all actively having conversations.
So I’m newly-invested in implementing ActivityPub and building end-user tools that join the network. I’m excited to build things that people can use to, in turn, build something new. There are a ton of opportunities here: we’re in a particular moment where the fediverse looks like it could be the future, and the more tools and onramps we build, the more likely that becomes. That fits directly into those indieweb principles of owning your own content, and my additive principles of devolving wealth and ownership.
Luckily, it’s not a zero-sum game. I can still keep and maintain my indieweb implementations and participate in its network of blogs and personal sites, while also adding ActivityPub and widening my lens to the fediverse’s interlocking communities. I get to own my content and online identity, which means I get to choose who and what I interact with.
I have one exception. One of the indieweb’s oldest ideas, Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere, is something I plan to retire in my own use. The idea is that you publish on your own site but then mirror that content to a third-party silo like Twitter, ideally with a link back to your site. But with the growth of the fediverse, I’d like to be done with doing that. I’ve already stopped publishing to Twitter, and I think Instagram and Facebook will quickly follow suit. Right now my only real syndication is to LinkedIn, and I don’t know that I want to make that network exactly central to my existence online.
So instead of Publishing on my Own Site and Syndicating Elsewhere, I plan to just Publish and Participate. I want my site to connect to the indieweb; to the fediverse; to people who are connecting via RSS; to people who are connecting via email. No more syndication to third parties. My own website sits in the center of my online identity, using open standards to communicate with outside communities.
That principle wasn’t possible when I started building Known, and I’m excited that it is now. I’m late to the party: micro.blog, for example, does this already. But better late than never. Let’s participate and embrace every open network out there - and do what we came to do, which is publish, reply, converse, and learn from each other. I can’t wait.