Like many people with grand ideas, Linda Liukas talks fast. It's as if her bubbling inspiration and enthusiasm is searching for an escape hatch. And lately, the Code Academy alum and cofounder of Rails Girls—a global nonprofit that hosts coding workshops for women in cities ranging from Tel Aviv to Tokyo—has plenty to be excited about.
Last Friday, Liukas's Kickstarter project, Hello Ruby, soared past its initial funding goal of $10,000 in a few short hours. As of writing this, the project just passed the $200,000 mark with 24 days left to go—an eternity in the Kickstarter-verse. Hello Ruby is the kind of project Kickstarter was created to fund—as opposed to a shiny new smartwatch or a solar-powered iPhone charger.
Hello Ruby is way more than a children's book. The series and its accompanying activity guides are designed to spark the collective imaginations of young girls (4 to 7) and pique their interests in computer sciences.
The book, which Liukas is writing and illustrating herself (she only started illustrating three years ago), stars Ruby, "a young girl with a huge imagination." On her adventures, Ruby learns about all the powerful and wondrous things code can do, encountering green-colored androids, ephemeral ghosts, and—naturally—lots and lots of bugs along the way.
The hope is that Hello Ruby's big-hearted adventure narrative will make the big, boring world of code a little bit smaller and a lot more appealing, a hurdle Liukas can attest to firsthand. Liukas says she first got interested in programming at age 13, when she taught herself how to build a fan site dedicated to her teenage crush—a man who, according this YouTube talk, she was "madly, madly, madly in love with": Al Gore.
Back then, there were far more barriers to entry than there are today to publish something on the Internet, Liukas said via phone from Helsinki. You had to roll up your sleeves and learn the nuts and bolts of website-making on your own, or—worse still—sit through lectures.
"[When I first started taking classes], I thought programming was stupid and I didn't want to work in technology," Liukas says. "It was hard not having a computer science or computing background. Why would a young girl care about computers?"
By focusing on the creative possibilities offered by programming (building dreamy fan sites dedicated to Al Gore, for example) instead of brackets and command lines, Liukas wants young readers of Hello Ruby and others to one day view Python or Java the same way they'd view paintbrush or electric guitar—as tools for making awesome stuff.
Liukas argues that our current batch of tools—which she loves—are limited in their creative scope. "Now you just re-pin things on Pinterest or re-blog on Tumblr," says Liukas. "You just end up curating stuff instead of creating." Part of the problem, she argues, is that we don't have enough women building the actual tools future generations will use to create the things they dream up.
The statistics do little to belie Liukas's concerns. According to the Department of Education, women with CS degrees made up just 18% of graduates in 2011—the lowest ratio since 1974. Furthermore, all 10 of the most popular websites in North America were founded by men; even Pinterest was created by a dude.
To say that discrepancy plays a role in shaping the tech industry's perpetual gender imbalance wouldn't be a stretch. According to Pew Internet Research, women account for a disproportionate 78% of the usership on social networks. If the Internet is intrinsically designed by men, the thinking goes, it can have subtle but profound implications in the way we use it. For further evidence, see Amanda Hess's ugly but important essay on trolling and feminism: "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet."
Liukas thinks we can reshape online culture from the ground up; we can and should be working toward a better Internet built on a strong foundation of diverse experiences. "I love what Tavi Gevinson is doing," says Liukas. "Imagine giving her readers the tools to build the Internet that looked like them."
The Internet—or at least Kickstarter—seems to agree. For all their wonders, the public-facing parts of the web can still be hostile, inhospitable places, especially if you weren't born white and male. Perhaps that underlying ugliness seeping through the technology world is part of the reason Hello Ruby saw such overwhelming initial success. "I feel like if we take away the creative power away from women, it's not going to end up good," says Liukas. "These girls [I've encountered] have so much energy and passion. Hopefully, this project will lead to a new kind of Internet."
She pauses, thoughtfully, and adds with a laugh: "A gentler Internet."
[All images provided by Linda Liukas. Used with permission.]