If you are unfamiliar with the term brogrammer, read Tasneem Raja’s piece at Mother Jones. Actually, read it even if you already know all about them: “Gangbang Interviews” and “Bikini Shots”: Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem | Mother Jones.
Raja’s overview of the “brogrammer,” anchored in a critique of Matt Van Horn’s SXSW talk, provides some insight into the recent rise of this term.
I’m happy to say that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a “brogrammer” in the wild. When I raised the term with my students, they seemed to ridicule and reject the idea without missing a beat. Nonetheless the term makes me uneasy. It seems that start-up or programming spaces that embrace this ethos are regressing into what Raja rightly terms “testosterone-fueled boneheadedness.” Raja frames the brogramming trend as perhaps something that hapless men without Human Resources guidance fumble into. That seems to be letting them off the hook too easily.
I would perhaps push Raja’s suggestion further and argue that the intent to foster and propagate brogrammer culture is hostile to women. Not only is it demeaning to the women who are objectified by brogrammer tactics, it is alienating to the women who may need to share these spaces. It is hard to believe that any of these “brogrammers” could be completely clueless about the impacts of their behavior.
I suspect that the extreme hypermasculinity of the “brogrammer” is relatively scarce when they are considered as part of larger programming populations. However, the inanity and problematic gender politics of the brogrammer may also help focus attention on the often more subtle ways in which women are made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in male-dominated spaces. Raja outlines a few statistics on the issue of female programmers and the number of women heading up start ups, all of which she uses to suggest that the imbalance of women in programming and start ups is a larger problem than the brogrammer.
So while the brogrammer is a shudder-inducing term, the very thought of which makes me grind my teeth, his presence may have the potential to open up wider conversations about gender in tech spaces that tend to be male-dominated. And that is a conversation worth having.
As a woman who strays into many male-dominated spaces, I have reflected a lot on this issue over the years, most recently motivated by discussions that took place on Miriam Posner’s blog. When a local ThatCamp followed close on the heels of Posner’s original post, I took the opportunity to suggest the topic of inclusivity in Digital Humanities as a session topic. The session was well-attended and people seemed genuinely interested in thinking through the issue. Okay, there was the one older man who suggested that perhaps we ladies should just “wait it out,” looking forward to the day when the ratio of women to men in programming in the Humanities magically shifts. But other than him, people seemed to recognize the reality of the issue. Unfortunately, there were no easy solutions at hand. We all agreed that creating inclusive spaces in which everyone was treated with respect and where people could freely express their amateurism (i.e. ask questions without being belittled) would be ideal. In other words, why can’t we strive for an incarnation of Pierre Lévy’s knowledge space, in which all skills are valued and which recognizes that “no one knows everything. Everyone knows something. All knowledge resides in humanity” (Collective Intelligence 14). As far as I know, none of us (myself included) has yet taken the idea beyond that initial conversation.
Which is why I was so pleased to read at the end of Raja’s piece about Adda Birnir’s new project, Skillcrush. Raja describes Skillcrush as “an online resource for women looking to learn code and feel comfortable doing it.” The “About” portion of the site reads is pictured below:
I love the idea of a commitment to making the Internet. Sure, it’s slightly utopic, but I like to think of it in the way that Levy characterizes the utopia of collective intelligence as multiple and unstable: “already present, but buried, dispersed, travestied, intermingled, spouting rhizomes here and there. It emerges in patches, traces, just below the surface. It flickers even before it has had a chance to develop its own autonomy, its irreversibility” (138). Skillcrush and other spaces like it could be emergent patches.
I have some hesitation about the name. The use of the word “crush” and the drawings of hearts on the pictures of their interviewees may frame the site as a bit immature (I almost wrote “girlish,” which is an entirely different conversation: what, if anything, is wrong with being “girlish”?). That said, I also understand the desire to communicate admiration in a way that adds a dimension of affect to the expression of intellectual esteem. I myself used to talk about “academic crushes” to indicate that not only did I find someone’s work intellectually stimulating, but it moved me and inspired me in ways that words like “influence” or “admiration” failed to capture (current academic crushes are Lisa Nakamura and Zizi Papacharissi). So I understand the use of the word “crush.” Maybe just back off on the cartoon hearts?
In addition, I would like to see more social and participatory components at SkillCrush. Right now it seems mostly broadcast oriented with a few nods to participation (it’s powered by tumblr with Disqus enabled; you can email questions to “Ask Ada,” the advice column, or suggest topics via email). If you are looking to create alternate spaces to work around things like brogrammer culture, you need it to be a space that users can actually inhabit in some meaningful way. I admit that I don’t care for tumblr and it is because I think it it less useful than other platforms for sustained discourse and network development. But this is a starting point and I look forward to seeing where Skillcrush will go.
So maybe the silver lining of the (hopefully temporary) rise of the brogrammer is that we end up with more conversations about how marginalized populations can “make the internet.” Even better, we’d end up with more tools and spaces in which those emergent patches of the knowledge space could flicker into being.