Marginalisation remains in Google’s ‘more inclusive’ naming policy

In a post on Google+ today, Bradley Horowitz announced that Google+ have revised their handling of names in order to work “toward a more inclusive naming policy”. In itself, this sounds great, but I was right to be hesitant in my celebration.

Previous problems

There were many issues with Google+’s original ‘Real Names’ policy. Put simply, Google tells users they must use their real names on Google+ and, if it is suspected users are not complying with this, they may have their account suspended – unless they happen to be a high-profile celebrity, of course. Disregarding the obvious profitability that comes with accurate user data, we heard the typical arguments about how real names create accountability and make people play nice with one another. (I’m still far from convinced this is the case. Boing Boing has a nice, recent discussion on this debate if you’re interested.)

The Geek Feminism Wiki page, Who is harmed by a “Real Names” Policy?, which I keep linking everyone to, highlights the issues better than I can. Along with the simple technical issues – ‘Um, I don’t have exactly two names so I can’t fill in my real name in your system?’ – comes a long list of people who can not or do not want to use their real name for valid reasons such as safety, avoiding harassment, or not wanting their voice marginalised due to assumptions others make about them from their name.  This is a real issue for a lot of people directly, and for the rest indirectly – we lose their voices in the conversation.

So any improvements on the policy should be positive, right?

The changes

As well as facilitating more languages (this is great!) Google has allowed users to include a desired nickname along with their full, ‘real name’.  To be absolutely clear, there is no indication that users will ever be allowed to hide their real name from others. This is simply a feature that allows users to include additional information.


First and last names are still unable to be hidden on Google+.I admit, this is a step forward, but it certainly is, as Horowitz states, “a small step”. They’re helping people use more complicated real names and they’re helping people be recognised next to their more common pseudonyms. But the people for whom major changes are more urgent are not assisted at all here. Those victims of assault who don’t want do be located by their abusers? Those people who dare to prefer that their social presence is not easily searchable by banks and potential future employers? Citizens who want their words heard for what they say rather than for the gender or colour of the hands that type them? They still need to be comfortable listing their full, legal names or not use the service at all. In short, they’re still not welcome.

Statistics and justifications

And this is where it pains me to read the justifications for this system change. It is claimed that because users submit three times more appeals to state a nickname than to use a pseudonym primarily, this is a reasonable response. However, if people do not want to declare their real names in the first place, then they would not fall under the category of ‘users’. They are not included as part of this statistic that wants to be included. However, if it’s simply referring to users attempting to create a new account (the wording is a little unclear), this isn’t including those who are aware of the real names policy and do not bother signing up as a result, or join using a fake name that the system happens to let through. They go unrecorded.

Of course, there are other issues with the wording as it stands – just because someone doesn’t submit a name appeal (I haven’t!) it doesn’t mean they have no opinion on this issue or would not be negatively affected by Google doing nothing – but the suggestion that allowing pseudonyms is an unimportant feature request because of some careful number gathering appears to be an indication that they’re just going to keep on avoiding this legitimate concern. They’ve “listened closely to community feedback” but decided to only implement those changes that don’t question the original real names policy.

In short, I believe the stated 0.02% of users who submit a name appeal to use a pseudonym is a strong under-representation of the number of users who would actually prefer this option – not to mention those who would simply like it to be available, even if they don’t change their own name to a pseudonym.

Every time I see Google implementing a new feature, I see ever more clearly who they really are.

I read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta this afternoon while thinking about social media service exclusions. The following verse from V’s sardonic, “This Vicious Cabaret”, struck me as relevant here:

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore, there’s sing-songs and surprises!

There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!

There’s mischiefs and malarkies . . .

but no queers . . . or yids . . . or darkies . . .

within this bastard’s carnival, this vicious cabaret.

So, I admit it may be a stretch to suggest Google is comparable to the fascist, post-apocalyptic governing body in power throughout most of the story, but the point is, if these services do what they (as corporations) intend to and gain a strong user base, while also refusing service to significant demographics and important voices, they begin erode those democratic elements of communication we were promised at the dawn of the Internet.

And this isn’t the world I want to live in.

Rewiring a Fender Strat

I have a Fender Squier (the cheapest model they make) guitar that was once a nice sunburst colour until I dropped it a few too many times, named it ‘Chip’ and decided to sand it back completely and put my own finish on it.  That was about ten years ago.

It was difficult to sand.  The annoying parts between the horns(?) required far too much work, by hand, that I put the project off and left it like that.  I put it back together and did a mediocre job of rewiring it with new parts I didn’t understand.

However, one recent Sunday I was feeling bored and decided to pull out this old guitar, finish sanding it, oil it and make plans to rewire it better.  I’d then have one less unfinished job nagging me, a nice guitar to play, and an excuse to share something else on my blog!  I sat on the balcony listening to Escape Pod podcasts and after a few vigorous hours of sanding it was ready.  I finished the body and neck with linseed oil which turned out darker than expected, but I actually quite like the contrast between the colour and the pickguard.

The Squier is quite a nice guitar, but it uses a lot of cheap parts.  Ages ago the pickup selector switch stopped working so I replaced it with a proper one.  While I was at it I upgraded the 250K volume and tone potentiometers (pots) to 500K ones, swapped the standard bridge pickup with a cheap humbucker I got second-hand, and rounded it all off with a new pickguard showing the fancy, three layer (white-black-white) colour scheme.

This time around I wanted to replace the humbucker with a new one and I found a second-hand Seymour Duncan HS4 on ebay for cheap.  My only other purchase was for a capacitor and resistor which, surprisingly, are the only things I had to buy new for this project.

Finished guitar ready to start

Wiring plan

I spent ages looking online for guitar wiring plans for inspiration.  I wanted to see what others were doing and think about how I wanted mine to work.  I’d never really used anything but the bridge pickup with full tone and volume before, electing to simply use an amplifier to alter the sound.  Now I had the opportunity to customise my guitar I’d be more conscious of and experimental with the sound options available when I play.

The Seymour Duncan site was helpful.  It had a wiring diagram that was printable and only required a few changes.  First, I wanted to use a separate tone pot for the humbucker and run the single-coil pickups through the other.  Second, instead of the .022 capacitor in the tone circuit I swapped the old Fender .0473 one I didn’t trust with a .0333 that was in my other guitar.  (I am unsure about units of measurement here!)  And lastly, I elected to include a resistor (100k) and capacitor (1000pF) in the volume pot to reduce ‘treble bleed‘.

An issue I have is that my amplifier is too damn loud for an apartment.  I nudge the volume knob just over zero and there’s a very small area between not being able to hear my guitar in all its glory and the point where I’m inviting number ten to hit their ceiling with broom handles.  But if I make this search for an appropriate volume easier by turning down the pot on the actual guitar, I lose a noticeable amount of quality in the sound.  The treble bleed hack helps retain the quality for the times where you actually need to use the volume knob.  I wasn’t certain about which capacitor and resistor values would be best for me so I chose commonly recommended ones.  If I could be bothered buying more parts I could experiment, but I think these are more than sufficient.

One Issue I’ve always has with (stratocaster) guitars is that when you take off the pickguard you need to use a soldering iron to detach a few cables before you remove it.  Annoying!  To avoid this I wanted to implement some kind of system where I only needed to disconnect a single cable by hand.  I looked around the garage and found a three-wire, CPU fan cable.  Perfect!  (For those wanting to try this, a simple CPU fan extension cable has both male and female connectors – and they’re cheap!)  This would work for the output and ground cables that go to the jack, and have one cable left for the ground connection to the bridge.  (I wonder if anyone has tried this before?)

Putting it all together

After removing all the old wires the first thing I did was solder in the treble bleed hack.  The capacitor was a little big so I had to move the volume pot around a bit so the tone pot wasn’t in the way.  I’d cut the wires shorter later.

Treble bleed hack in a Fender Strat

I then slid the female half of the CPU fan cable through the inside of the pickup selector switch.  If you try this, be careful not to damage the wires in the process, and try the switch once the cable is in to make sure it isn’t actually in the way.  Mine wasn’t, but perhaps I got lucky.  Also, make sure it’s the right way around for ease of connection – I reversed it after taking this picture.

Next, I separated one of the wires from the male half of the CPU fan cable (mine was yellow) and slid it through the hole in the body.  I soldered it to the bridge area.  This will be for ground.

Grounding a Fender Strat

Back of the guitar

The other two wires on this cable were then attached to the output jack.  I used red as output and black as ground.  The picture below shows the finished preparation of the male CPU cable.  It’s also in the rough position it would be if it was connected to the pickguard.

I can’t stress how happy I am that this hack worked so perfectly.  It will save me some time later on, of course, but I’ll also be reminded of how awesome I am whenever I see it.  It can also be used for stereo output (using a four-wire cable, using a separate cable for the bridge grounding, or ignoring the bridge grounding altogether), but I didn’t want to play with multiple channels just yet.

Simple connection for Fender Strat pickguard

Next job was to neaten up the pickup wires and solder them on.  That’s fairly straightforward (just check the Seymour Duncan diagram) so I won’t go into detail.  The image below shows the completed wiring for the volume pot (the CPU cable and the pickup selector switch have been connected) and we would actually be done now if we didn’t want to use the tone pots.

Wiring of pickups and volume pot

A bit of fancy wiring for the tone pots . . .

Finalised wiring

. . . connecting the cable . . .

Connecting the CPU fan cable

. . . and we’re done!

I was sure to test the circuits were working correctly before screwing on the pickguard, putting on a set of 10-46 gauge strings, adjusting the height and intonation of the strings and then playing for a minute or two to stretch the strings a little.

Here are some photos of the finished product!  (As usual, click on any of the photos on this post to see the large version!)

Finished guitar lookin' all shiny

Obligatory macro Shot

Verdict

It’s amazing!  I know much of this is because I’m now very conscious of how it’s all working (and for that reason alone I’d recommend such a project to others), but I can hear many distinct sounds coming from each of the pickups.  For the first time I’ve found a good setting on the amplifier and then refined it by using the tone controls on the guitar.  I can use the humbucker and then switch to a predefined tone using the bridge and neck.

I’m also quite impressed with the treble bleed hack.  There is a slight loss of quality but it’s more than sufficient until I get down to 4.  Usually it would sound awfully muddy at 8.

I noticed that the only original hardware remaining are the single-coil pickups (I think they’re fine) and the output jack.  The latter may actually need replacing.  There’s a noise if the cable isn’t pushed in at the right angle, even though the circuit connects clean.  I tried two separate cables (four ends) so it’s likely that it’s simply a low quality output jack.  I probably have something in the garage that’s better, but this isn’t urgent.

Another lingering issue is that the Squire Strats, for some reason, use a slightly different set of rules for its placement of pickguard holes.  Out of the eleven holes on the board, only six match with corresponding holes in the wood.  I’ll have to drill five more one day, and get a hold of four additional screws.

Lastly, one thing I liked about this guitar is that it was made in 1996, Fender’s fiftieth anniversary.  To commemorate this, they put a gold, embossed sticker stating so on the back of the headstock.  I had to remove this for sanding, but I wanted to put it back somewhere.  I just don’t know where.  Again, not urgent – like my plan to draw a dinosaur design on the headstock with ink.

Apart from being a fun and educational project, I now have a guitar that sounds great and is easy to use.  (My other one has a locking nut and floating bridge, which makes it nigh impossible to alter tuning, and the pots and switch are all scratchy.)  I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back into playing guitar regularly for years.  I hope this helps get me there.

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Stick-figure sexism and user profiles or: my new favourite xkcd comic

My research became a little more complicated in November.  And by ‘complicated’, I always mean ‘interesting and fun’.

I was having a conversation with Nina Funnell about my work on gendered spaces and how this influences practices of social engagement.  The idea is that enforced gender declaration together with a limited range of response and an imposed prominence of this attribute creates issues for equality of participation.  Users with perceived feminine profiles are often marginalised, their voices weakened through experiences of harassment, whether direct or observed (one study found “female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames”1), and gender stereotyping.

Gender, I find, is a helpful example that explains this issue of marginalisation and fairness of participation within communities.  But it is a specific illustration that highlights a broader issue where individuals are not considered equal in practice – whether through silencing or through others internally delegitimising others’ voices through stereotyping – and the level of control individuals have to diminish the negative stereotypes that work against them.

One clear solution is to give individuals more control over deciding what aspects of themselves they wish to reveal.  Removing the mandatory gendering of social media spaces and allowing pseudonyms, for example, is a good step in the right direction.  Users ‘a1’ and ‘a2’ (with no other declared attributes) are arguably far more equal than users ‘alison’ and ‘ben’.  The more attributes added to the basic user ‘skeleton’ the less equal users become, depending on the viewers and their personal understandings of these attributes within a social context and their process of stereotyping.  I argue that digital systems have too much control over the mandatory enforcement of declaring information that becomes publicly attributable to the users.

Putting it simply, publicly categorising users within communities, such as gendering spaces through mandatory declaration, harms equality of participation.

Giving users more control over their public appearance may seem like a simple solution that fosters equality in community engagement.  In fact, this was the direction my argument had been taking for much of the year.  However!, a real solution is much more complex.

Nina mentioned a concept called ‘stick-figure sexism’.  It is where we are shown a simple stick figure and we are asked to describe the type of person we believe it represents.  More often than not, the response outlines a middle-aged, able-bodied, white male.  This, then, is said to be considered a ‘normal’ person (in stick-figure land), and any divergence to it is represented through ‘add-ons’ such as long hair, coloured in heads that represent different skin shades, walking canes, etc.

gethen blog has a fun, short post on stick-figure sexism, which describes xkcd comics as a “serial offender”2.  On a related note, I’d like to share my new favourite xkcd comic, as published on that post.


Remixed by gethenhome from the xkcd original.

Hearing about this concept, I recognised important implications for my own work.  If I’m advocating the removal of mandatory categorical fields within public user profiles, it is conceivable that some communities may be no better off – or be even worse.  If we remove our focus on gender, say, then it could give rise to the assumption that more users fall under whatever gender we imagine is more likely to participate within those communities.  We may assume that all (or the vast majority of) ungendered, pseudonymous users are young, white, male Americans and in doing so destroy the sense of diversity we are led to experience in real-world situations.

All in all, I believe the negative consequences of this (let’s give it a name) ‘profile sexism’ in practice will be small, especially when compared to the positive consequences that would be far more apparent.  However, it’s certainly important for me to address in my work.  To find a reasonable solution we need to look at both the technical and social gendering of spaces.

An early observation I noted was that, through many years’ engagement with communities on livejournal, I have personally experienced many situations where assumptions have not followed this idea of profile sexism.  In fact, many communities lead me to perceive a large variation of cultures (I use the term very loosely) coming together to discuss a topic they have a shared interest in.  One reason for this is that I’ve been participating within these communities for so long that of course it would have sunk in that users are from different locations and account for a variety of different cultural demographics.  This idea suggests the sense of multiculturalism and the acceptance of various views is learned over time.  However, it’s difficult to determine the strength of this because it’s difficult to remember first impressions to compare present understandings to.

Another reason for the sense of inclusiveness I register from these communities is that there is something about them, some aspect of the design – influenced by the livejournal system, the community moderators and the members themselves – that may facilitate this.  It may be possible that some element of these communities’ appearance suggests they are more welcoming and inclusive than, say, the feeling I get reading YouTube and reddit comments, or user responses to articles on smh.com.

In truth, it’s probably a mix of both a learned understanding through previous interaction and particular design elements that help inform a sense of inclusiveness.  In effect, what I’m now looking at (though this is only a small part of my research) is a way to determine better system design for various communities, based on the kind of interaction desired, arguing against the common privacy demarcation between Zuckerberg’s and Schmidt’s “communities are better when everything is public [also: we can make more money from it]” and my previous call for users to have full control over their public profiles and be discouraged from publicising anything that’s not relevant.

I still hold the latter view, of course.  But I seek to determine which elements of system design facilitate healthy interaction between users with different backgrounds and social identifications.  This can’t be answered simply by discussing ‘privacy’.

Oh, look, I appear to have summarised my thesis in a few sentences.

——————–

1. “Female-Name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages”, 9 May 2006, physorg.com, <http://www.physorg.com/news66401288.html>

2. “Stick-Figure Sexism”, 29 December 2009, gethenhome.wordpress.com, <http://gethenhome.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/stick-figure-sexism/>

Some important words for the holiday season

Here is a short but brilliant blog entry on Christmas.

It’s a made-up thing, it only exists because people believe in it. You can imagine that if you had been born into a culture that didn’t take any notice of Christmas, you could have lived a long and happy life and never even missed it.

But here in our culture, Christmas is a big deal. Even people who personally don’t find Christmas enjoyable or meaningful, even people who dislike it intensely, still get sucked into exchanging gifts and cards, going to Christmas parties and family Christmas dinners, and wishing “Merry Christmas” to friends, co-workers, and strangers on the street. In fact, for a person who was really determined to avoid Christmas, the only alternative would be to drop out of society altogether.

Gender is just like that.

Gender” from gethen blog.

Please share on whatever social networking sites kids are using these days =)

Bits, Please – a chiptunes celebration compilation

(Please see my previous post for more information on the process of compiling this playlist.)

Interested in taking a crash course in chiptunes?  This isn’t a bad place to start.

I made a mixed CD compilation of chiptunes for my brothers but wanted to share it online, too, as a sort of ‘my friends are awesome’ present.  This is a style of music that makes me happy and I have chosen a few highlight tracks that I find more interesting, fun, or inventive than the average chiptune.  (Of course, by definition, all chiptunes are awesome.)

The tables below list basic song information and include links to the artist pages at (usually) the 8-Bit Collective, as well as a link to directly download the tracks.  (If any links are unavailable it is because, unfortunately, the pages or files they point to have been removed.  I discuss this in more detail in my previous post.  Sorry =/)

The first table, ‘Bits, Please’, contains tracks that run just under 80 minutes so it fits on a CD.  I have included eight ‘bonus’ tracks in the second table that just didn’t make the final cut – most of them were quite long.

Rather than manually downloading each track, I have also constructed an m3u playlist that enables you to stream the compilation in just about any audio player.  (Download the .m3u file here.)

If you’d like to burn your own CD, here is a link to a printable .pdf album cover I made.  (The awesome font I used is Press Start 2p, available for download at the Open Font Library.)

But enough with the words; on to the music!

 

Bits, Please

Artist Title Link
01 cTrix Booty Plus Plus (Atari 2600) <download>
02 kulor My First LSDJ (MGB Gameboy Pocket) <download>
03 Kubbi RYSKIM! <download>
04 come home_ LigHTr <download>
05 an0va Flow <download>
06 RushJet1 Dark Labyrinth (1-bit) <download>
07 Cuttlefish Long Path <download>
08 Disasterpeace Spirit Square (remix) <download>
09 Mr. Owl Funkturnal <download>
10 Byzanite Hello Seattle Remix (Owl City Remix) <download>
11 IAYD You Will Not Take Anything Else From Me <download>
12 Je Mappelle Moving On. (KAWAII DEMO) <download>
13 Danimal Cannon Polywrath ( LSDJ Math Metal ) <download>
14 Jredd Happy Pants! <download>
15 Bibin Vampire Killer <download>
16 Maxo 01 The Glorious Birth Of Gardenbot9 <download>
17 little-scale My Heart Is Forever Collapsing <download>
18 4mat Black Lipstick <download>
19 mikebleeds Listen To Me <download>
20 Mootz Make it or Break it <download>
21 Mr. Owl Turtle Island <download>
22 -12insomnia- gravity blast <download>
23 Rainbowdragoneyes (P)(U)(N)(C)(H)(Y)(O)(U) <download>
24 TREYFREY Demo <download>
25 RushJet1 Wasteland (1-bit) <download>
26 Zef Livewire <download>
27 Sanditio Anti-Gravity Research Facility <download>
28 swampyboy zero gravity romance <download>
29 Tettix Earth’s Assault on the Central AI <download>
30 Kola Kid spaceman <download>

 

Bonus Bits

Artist Title Link
01 .exe I Pressed Start <download>
02 Downstate Diode hill <download>
03 Dr0id1cus w/ L-tron Ch4sing Gh0sts <download>
04 ant1 Antstep <download>
05 Sycamore Drive Starlight <download>
06 SMILETRON Hypersonic Spazmatron <download>
07 PamTech Florence-Cosmic Love-PamTech Remix <download>
08 Jophish FORWARD (Guitar, Piano, Chip) <download>

Gis’ a chiptune!

One of my favourite communities to lurk in is the 8-bit Collective (http://8bc.org).  Users share songs that they have made through creative engagement with old technologies, and they are given helpful, mostly positive feedback for their efforts.  The comments are clear indicators of a supportive community and I just love reading the occasional, “Hey, I love this song!  Also, I just wanted to let you know I’ve been regularly listening to [x] that you posted last year and it’s one of my favourites of all time!  It makes me smile whenever it comes on =)”

People are quick to offer suggestions (“I can’t hear the bass so much.  I had a similar issue and I find that [complex process to change program settings] works for me.”), they remix each other’s tracks, and they simply offer an inclusive environment for creativity.

And, on top of that, the music is awesome!

The idea

Listening to chiptunes one day, I had the great idea that I should compile a mixed CD for my brothers and give it to them as a present.  I wanted to share some of the amazing songs I’ve been hearing and, growing up with similar media and technologies reminiscent of these sounds, I thought they may be able to appreciate it.  And if not, well, I’ve spent more time listening to chiptunes than I would have otherwise.  Win!

I soon decided I wanted to do more.  To further embrace new technology, I would share the playlist on my blog so my friends could download the tracks and follow links to past conversations about the songs within the community.  The experience of hearing great songs for the first time is, I feel, often more exciting when you’re doing it in the company of others – even if there exists a temporal distance that must be bridged by archival technology.  I quite enjoy reading the initial reactions from listeners, both in the form of ‘traditional’ comment systems (as used in 8bc) or using ‘timed comments’ like they do in soundcloud.

I also decided that it was nigh time to teach myself how to write m3u playlists.  One excellent way of sharing music is to simply provide others with a small text file of information that enables their music player to stream the files directly from various locations on the Internet.  This was going to be fun!

Problems!

I began planning things.  I spent hours upon hours compiling a playlist that would fit on an 80 minute CD and all was going fine, until . . . I noticed some of the tracks had been removed from 8bc.org by the artists.

This doesn’t present a problem for the mix CD I was compiling but a major part of my plan involved linking to the song pages and providing a direct download link for each track.  If some of the songs (and pages) were removed – and there was no reason to expect the remaining songs and pages would stay up forever – my playlist would include broken links, making it incomplete.

I was trying to do everything right by the artists.  I was trying to embrace the interconnected and decentralised nature of data.  What I didn’t prepare for is the likelihood of information removal or the changing of links – also known as ‘breaking the Internet’.

My own artistic remix is at the mercy of its sources.

A possible solution

On each song page on 8bc, it is stated, “Any reproductions of this work must be accompanied by a link to the artist’s page.”  This is a very simple license which I equate to, at least, a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.  So, in effect, because these tracks were posted on 8bc.org at some stage, I can host them on my server and link to any missing files from there, as I will be linking to the artists pages already.

But this makes me a little uncomfortable.  I have read a few conversations about removed files where the artists have said, “I took them down because I just didn’t like the direction I was taking last year,” or I have found other instances of the songs available elsewhere online for a small fee.  While, technically, I would be doing the correct thing legally by hosting these files, it’s taking advantage of the artists who agreed to something in the past, perhaps not through informed consent.  It’s one thing to share these files with my friends; it’s another to make them searchable and available to everyone and potentially removing a small but important income source for the artists.

For now, I’m going to simply share the m3u files and compilation playlist on my blog without fixing the holes.  But I’ll still share all of the files with my friends.

The future of sharing?

I had a lot of fun with this project.  Apart from the actual content (which, by the way, I haven’t mentioned is ‘awesome’ for a few paragraphs now – look at the restraint I am demonstrating!), I enjoyed exploring a variation on the established practice of making a ‘mixed tape’.  Technology is allowing us to include more information within the music (metadata) but it is also allowing us to share the connections and experiences of the wider audience – as well as enable direct communication with the artists, themselves.

I’d love to see more of this kind of sharing happen.

Stay tuned!  Coming up in my next post: the actual playlist with download links!

Gnome 3 – early observations

Gnome 3 is “stable and […] could lead to an even better desktop than the one we previously had but which lacks features and flexibility at the moment”. – Linux Mint Blog

Linux Mint 12 was released last week.  I was hesitant to upgrade my OS from the previous version because I knew it was using the new Gnome (3.2, opposed to 2.32), and I fear change, but I’d been having a problem with the window manager for a while (maximised windows would be a few pixels out from of where they should be so when I close them it often doesn’t register properly and closes other windows I have open behind – it’s all very annoying) and wanted to reformat anyway, so . . . I 3.2ook the plunge.

Gnome 3 looks quite nice, but in practice I don’t feel it is an improvement on Gnome 2.32.  It simply doesn’t have enough configuration flexibility anymore.

I previously posted about my clean, simple desktop running on Linux Mint 11.  I had a single panel at the bottom with the few programs I regularly use, and quick access to a menu listing only those programs I may actually click on one day.  It was a pleasure to interact with.  I was productive.  But Gnome 3 (check out a video demonstration here) makes this sort of simplicity impossible.

The focus on simpler interfaces is one I understand.  Make it easy for an unfamiliar user to find what they want.  Streamline the settings so they’re easier to follow.  This makes GNU/Linux more accessible.  But one of the effects of this, in both Gnome 3 and Unity (Ubuntu’s new desktop environment), is the severe limitation on customisation.  I am now left with a permanent panel across the top of my screen that I can’t remove or hide (panels are distracting and take up precious screen real estate) and I can only alter its contents with the assistance of specialised ‘extensions’ that I can install.  For example, there is an accessibility icon in the panel by default, and one of the most popular extensions simply makes it disappear.  Extensions aren’t such a bad idea, but because there are so few of them available, and because their options are usually (always?) limited to ‘on or off’, there’s simply not much you can do.

But it’s not just the extensions that restrict the user; the options for system settings are also heavily ‘streamlined’ – or in some cases entirely absent.  I had to find the command for the old printer settings program (I’m surprised the package was installed) in order to add a network printer because the new interface didn’t have the options I needed to configure it!

I was going to go into a longer rant detailing the problems, but Hitler does a more entertaining job =)

It may seem like power and average users are losing out here in order to appeal to a new audience.  However, my experience makes me a little optimistic.  I can remember a few years ago when Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE instead of Gnome) first shipped with KDE4.0 rather than KDE3.whatever.  The new KDE looked amazing, but there was little users could do to customise the experience.  It wasn’t until 4.3 that it could finally begin to compete with KDE3 in terms of usability.  But this was intentional – it takes a while to build a desktop environment, make it stable and add features.  And it’s better if the wider community is involved during this evolution.

I’m hopeful this is what will happen with Gnome 3.  It has just been shipped with Linux Mint, a distribution quickly making its way to the top of the GNU/Linux polularity contest, and many power users are playing around with it, writing new features and sharing them with others.  One day Gnome 3 may be just as configurable as my old desktop.

(I’m also optimistic because I recognise similarities between the Gnome 3 desktop environment and operating systems on mobile devices.  I long for the day that I can get GNU/Linux on a mobile phone, so I hope this is part of the conscious direction for development.)

I can deal with the new environment for now.  I’m even getting used to the menu.  (I believe this is what is called the ‘acceptance stage’.)  But next time I plan to reformat I might finally give XFCE a spin.  (And not just because it has a mouse mascot – though that certainly adds to the appeal!)