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Software Soapbox

Okay guys, let's help you out here: people do change their names.

What is it with platforms that make it hard to change your name, if not impossible? This continues to be a bee in my bonnet with the latest happening last night. I wanted to buy some art supplies at a store online, which I have shopped in the past, but since then I have changed my name. I could update the site itself, but they made my deadname stick to the the main address, no way to change it. So, when I tried to check out, it deadnamed me. When I tried to change the delivery address to be me, it moved my deadname to "billing" instead. What?

I know what happens here. This plays out time and again in the software industry: bias. Specifically, the really bad bias that many cis men have and totally aren't aware of.

Another example, on Twitch, where a D&D group I follow, Women of D&D, tried to create an account with the handle WomenOfDnD that was rejected as "May be offensive" and yet they were able to create MenOfDnD without issue. The fact that they were blocked for women, but allowed for men, is what is offensive here. As I write this, Twitch is apparently dead air on the subject. Again, cis male bias at play: they fed the machine learning algorithm a very badly biased learning corpus. 

In the first situation, the problem is that men are not thinking about the need to change your name. It's not unheard of, of course, but is far and away less common for cis men than it is for women and trans people. Then, when they do conceive of the need, they seem to not realize that leaving the old name hanging around might be harmful and offensive. This is not just a trans deadnaming issue, there are a lot of reasons why people might want to leave the past behind and not see a name anymore. 

In the second situation, men are not thinking about the wholistic testing of the algorithm. They feed it data that starts to bias terms like "Women" with phrases and names that are bad and the algorithms further build up filters for them. It's very similar outcome to successful Bayesian poisoning that spammers might have attempted to corrupt the Bayes anti-spam filters for emails. In this case, the people at Twitch managed to poison their filters because they never account for positive use cases. Why? Because men, it didn't occur to them.

This is endemic to the software industry and it actually harms us all. So, hey guys, newsflash: people change their names. Catch up.


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