Social networks in the media and the erasure of women

I’ve seen mentions of Diaspora* popping up all over my feeds this week.  It seems like a great project, but I have a few issues with the media attention it’s getting.  The New York Times piece I quote below is only one example out of many.

Working with Mr. Salzberg and Mr. Grippi are Raphael Sofaer, 19, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 20 — “four talented young nerds,” Mr. Salzberg says — all of whom met at New York University’s Courant Institute. They have called their project Diaspora* and intend to distribute the software free, and to make the code openly available so that other programmers can build on it. As they describe it, the Diaspora* software will let users set up their own personal servers, called seeds, create their own hubs and fully control the information they share. Mr. Sofaer says that centralized networks like Facebook are not necessary. “In our real lives, we talk to each other,” he said. “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

A teacher and digital media researcher at N.Y.U., Finn Brunton, said that their project — which does not involve giant rounds of venture capital financing before anyone writes a line of code — reflected “a return of the classic geek means of production: pizza and ramen and guys sleeping under the desks because it is something that it is really exciting and challenging.”

I’m really excited to see Diaspora* in action, especially in light of this missive on why gender is a text field on the service.

That being said, I think we should be clear about some things.  These 4 boys are not the only ones creating open source, non-hierarchical social networks.  Dreamwidth has been offering an alternative to Livejournal for quite a while now.  The Organization for Transformative Works, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of fan culture, is doing the same thing around a very different type of interaction with the Archive of Our Own (and other projects still in the works).  Both of these are run and coded primarily by women, many of whom are invested in teaching other women how to code.

An open source alternative to Facebook is likely destined to get more media attention in our present moment, with The Social Network still on the radar.  But that doesn’t mean that what women do is less deserving of press time.

Let’s not lose sight of these immense achievements made by women in light of 4 cute computer boys from New York.

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