Two Studies of Online Communities

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Two recent papers may be of interest to this community. The first is from Adam Crymble at The Programming Historian a distributed group of digital humanities scholars that has built some excellent tutorials on software tools. Its title is Identifying and Removing Gender Barriers in Open Learning Communities, and its abstract reads:

Open online learning communities are susceptible to gender barriers if not carefully constructed. Gender barriers were identified in The Programming Historian, through an open online discussion, which informed an anonymous user survey. The initial discussion pointed towards two barriers in particular: a technically challenging submission system and open peer review, as factors that needed consideration. Findings are put in context of the literature on gender and online communication, abuse, and online learning communities. The evidence suggests that open online learning communities such as The Programming Historian should work actively to promote a civil environment, and should listen to their communities about technical and social barriers to participation. Whenever possible, barriers should be removed entirely, but when that is not feasible due to financial or technical constraints, alternatives should be offered.

Its findings are that the tools they use—that we use—may be a significant barrier to contribution: “Initial comments in the open conversation made it clear that the choice of venue (Github) was a gender-barrier, as Github is associated with male geek coding culture.” On the other hand, “…both men and women were overwhelmingly positive about open peer review (29 like, 6 neutral, 3 dislike, 9 skipped - no gender difference), with the caveat that moderating by an editor who stepped in to prevent ‘nastiness’ was crucial to a successful system of open peer review.”

The second paper, by Ford, Smith, Guo, and Parnin, is “Paradise Unplugged: Identifying Barriers for Female Participation on Stack Overflow”:

It is no secret that females engage less in programming fields than males. However, in online communities, such as Stack Overflow, this gender gap is even more extreme: only 5.8% of contributors are female. In this paper, we use a mixed-methods approach to identify contribution barriers females face in online communities. Through 22 semi-structured interviews with a spectrum of female users ranging from non-contributors to a top 100 ranked user of all time, we identified 14 barriers preventing them from contributing to Stack Overflow. We then conducted a survey with 1470 female and male developers to confirm which barriers are gender related or general problems for everyone. Females ranked five barriers significantly higher than males. A few of these include doubts in the level of expertise needed to contribute, feeling overwhelmed when competing with a large number of users, and limited awareness of site features. Still, there were other barriers that equally impacted all Stack Overflow users or affected particular groups, such as industry programmers. Finally, we describe several implications that may encourage increased participation in the Stack Overflow community across genders and other demographics.

It found five barriers to contribution that are seen as significantly more problematic by women than by men:

  • lack of awareness of site features
  • feeling unqualified to answer questions
  • intimidating community size
  • discomfort interacting with or relying on strangers
  • perception that they shouldn’t be “slacking”

Surprisingly, “fear of negative feedback” didn’t quite make this list, but would have been the next one added if the authors weren’t quite so strict about their statistical cutoffs. The authors are careful to say, “…we are not suggesting that only females are affected by these barriers, or that these barriers are primarily due to gender, but rather that five barriers were seen as significantly more problematic by females than by males.”

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