Expectations for Open Source

There’s kind of an unwritten rule in startups, that you pretty much have to follow your employer’s CTO on Twitter. Lucky for me, I have the distinct joy of following dB, the CTO of Artsy, a very thoughtful person, and someone who has thought a lot about open source.

So imagine my surprise when I saw them tweet this.

But but but! I’ve started open source projects! And part of why I like open source is because of the warmth and love I get from my fellow human beings. And maybe a little praise too I guess.

So after an initial knee-jerk “no no that can’t be right”, I took a deeper look and it’s kind of obvious; I conceded the statement’s truth after only a moment’s consideration. Open source definitely has assholes and definitely has trolls, and how quickly I dismissed this statement betrays what a sheltered I life I have online. People aren’t jerks to me because of my gender, or my skin colour, for example. Open source has regular trolls, but it also has problems specific to open source.

So I went back and I read the article and I saw a lot of truth in there. The project maintainers have distilled the lessons they’ve learnt to two dozen or so pieces of advice for open source contributors. I’ve seen some of their advice discussed before – like the amount of administrative work involved in open source – but some of their points describe patterns I’ve seen, but have never specifically thought about.

Many new users will submit feature requests, just to show that they are knowledgeable and clever. They don’t really want that feature, it’s a form of positive feedback.

I like this advice. It only describes a source of problems, and it doesn’t make a judgement on anyone or their motivations. It’s kind of obvious, now that I think about it, how I ought to react the next time this happens to me: first and foremost, I should thank them for their positive feedback.

But back to the original tweet, let’s think about this a little more carefully.

Do not start an open source project if you need praise, warmth and love from your fellow human beings.

That’s a pretty sad truth.

I wish we were kinder to each other, and I wish contributors could depend on praise, love, and warmth from their community. That sounds like an awesome place. But it’s not reality.

I’ve been trying to focus more on community-building, as part of my job and as part of my participation in open source. Influencing a community is a long long-term project, and you can’t start from scratch, either. I’ve only been thinking about community-building for a few months, but open source communities are often decades old and have their own problems. And these OSS communities are often founded within other communities (like academia), who have their own problems. It’s turtles all the way down!

So when I read something like this – that open source is not for those who need praise, warmth, and love – when I read this and I reject the idea, but then immediately concede that it’s correct, that hurts. A few months ago, when I thought “I’d like to concentrate on building communities”, I didn’t think it would hurt. And I didn’t think about having to concede that open source communities reallysuck sometimes. And they suck a lot more often for marginalized groups. I need to do some more thinking, and more listening.

Posted on February 8, 2016