Twitter engineers replacing racially loaded tech terms like 'master,' 'slave'

Exclusive: The site's move toward inclusive language formally began in January, months before the current Black Lives Matter protests.

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A camera flash shows a switch to change between master and slave modes.

A camera flash shows a switch for changing between master and slave modes.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

For Regynald Augustin, a Black programmer at Twitter , the impetus for change arrived in an email last year with the phrase "automatic slave rekick."

The words were just part of an engineering discussion about restarting a secondary process, but they prompted Augustin to start trying to change Twitter's use of words with racist connections. Augustin was used to seeing the term "slave" in technical contexts. "But with 'rekick' -- I was madder than I ever thought I'd be in the workplace," he said.

First on his own and then joining forces with another engineer, Kevin Oliver, he helped spearhead an effort to replace terms like "master," "slave," "whitelist" and "blacklist" with words that didn't hearken back to oppressive parts of United States history and culture. He recounted his thoughts at the time: "This has to stop. This isn't cool. We have to change this now."

No one expects that changing technical terms will end centuries of racial injustice. But some people at technology companies, including Oliver and Augustin at Twitter, are pressing for the changes that are within their reach. That includes the effort to replace racially fraught technology terms like "master" and "slave" that describe things like databases, software projects, camera flashes and hard drives.

Managers at the social network formalized the two engineers' effort in January, endorsing work to address the issue systematically across the engineering division and expanding it to terms linked to discrimination on the basis of sex, age and disabilities -- replacing "man hours" and "sanity check," for example. Oliver and Augustin detailed the effort in an exclusive interview with CNET.

Accelerated by Black Lives Matter

Such efforts have taken on new importance with the new push against racial inequality in the United States triggered by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Minnesota man killed in May by a policeman pinning him to the ground with a knee on his neck. The event triggered Black Lives Matter protests around the country, legislative and policy changes, and shifts within companies.

The new Black Lives Matter energy boosted the vocabulary change at Twitter. "Everything that's happened recently has made awareness spread blisteringly fast around the company," Augustin said.

Related efforts are occurring at Microsoft's Github and LinkedIn divisions, Apple, and Google's Chrome, often as bottom-up changes rather than official positions. 

Earlier, in 2018, developers of the widely used Python programming language dropped "master/slave." In 2014, the team behind the Drupal online publishing software replaced the terms with "primary/replica." In 2003, Los Angeles County asked suppliers and contractors to stop using "master" and "slave" on computer equipment.

It's complex to root out terms embedded in documentation, everyday speech and interlinked programming code and configuration files. Twitter's goal is to finish its Twitter engineering project by the end of 2021, and to publish details about what it's learned for others trying to make the same changes.

"Our code must reflect the people we serve," Oliver said.

Words matter

Changing words doesn't necessarily change the underlying concepts -- for example, in photography, what some companies still call a "master" flash still controls a "slave" flash. And sometimes people pick new words in an attempt to start fresh with neutral vocabulary, only to find the new term picks up the baggage of the old. "Water closet" becomes "toilet," which becomes "bathroom," which becomes "restroom."

But picking words carefully can make a difference when avoiding subtle or unconscious acts of discrimination called microaggressions, argues Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group.

"Words may mean nothing to the sender, but to the receiver it may mean something," Brooks said. "If we can become more mindful about the words that we're using, we can work to mitigate microaggressions," she said.

Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest

One common objection to changing vocabulary terms is that it's insufficient to drive real change. At Twitter, it's part of other moves to improve diversity and inclusion.

Other diversity efforts

Those efforts include donations to Black Lives Matter causes, offering advice on allyship for those who want to help, making Juneteenth a holiday for US employees, detailing its diversity and inclusion efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, offering recommended reading to better understand the Black experience in America, and advising companies about what to say and tweet about racism.

Brooks would like to see more changes at Twitter, like banishing white supremacists from its website. "If you want to remove hurtful, harmful, hateful words, you might look at removing people who use your platform in that way," she said.

In response, Twitter said, "There is no place on Twitter for hateful conduct, terrorist organizations or violent extremist groups. Because of these rules, we've permanently suspended hundreds of accounts, many of which advocate violence against civilians alongside some form of extremist white supremacist ideology."

Twitter has banned some accounts, like that of a white supremacist group posing as a left-wing antifa group inciting violence, but its rules against hateful conduct only ban accounts whose "primary purpose is inciting harm towards others." Google's YouTube banned former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and white supremacist Richard Spencer this week.

Out with the old words

Twitter's engineering teams are working to change terms that touch on race, sex and ability, Oliver said. Terms and recommended replacements include:

  • Whitelist becomes allowlist.
  • Blacklist becomes denylist.
  • Master/slave becomes leader/follower, primary/replica or primary/standby.
  • Grandfathered becomes legacy status.
  • Gendered pronouns (for example "guys") become folks, people, you all, y'all.
  • Gendered pronouns (for example "he" or "his") become they or their.
  • Man hours becomes person hours or engineer hours.
  • Sanity check becomes quick check, confidence check or coherence check.
  • Dummy value becomes placeholder value or sample value.

Twitter's senior management is backing the effort.

"Inclusive language seeks to treat all people with respect, dignity, and impartiality," said Twitter engineering chief Michael Montano in a June 25 email to all Twitter employees. "It is constructed to bring everyone into the group and exclude no one, and it is essential for creating an environment where everyone feels welcome."

Black Lives Matter. Visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.

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