Who do you contribute to?

When you contribute something as a member of a community, who are you actually giving it to? The simple answer of course is “the community” or “the project”, but those aren’t very specific.  On the one hand you have a nebulous group of people, most of which you probably don’t even know about, and on the other you’ve got some cold, lifeless code repository or collection of web pages. When you contribute, who is that you really care about, who do you really want to see and use what you’ve made?

In my last post I talked about the importance of recognition, how it’s what contributors get in exchange for their contribution, and how human recognition is the kind that matters most. But which humans do our contributors want to be recognized by? Are you one of them and, if so, are you giving it effectively?


The owner of a project has a distinct privilege in a community, they are ultimately the source of all recognition in that community.  Early contributions made to a project get recognized directly by the founder. Later contributions may only get recognized by one of those first contributors, but the value of their recognition comes from the recognition they received as the first contributors.  As the project grows, more generations of contributors come in, with recognition coming from the previous generations, though the relative value of it diminishes as you get further from the owner.


After the project owner, the next most important source of recognition is a project’s leaders. Leaders are people who gain authority and responsibility in a project, they can affect the direction of a project through decisions in addition to direct contributions. Many of those early contributors naturally become leaders in the project but many will not, and many others who come later will rise to this position as well. In both cases, it’s their ability to affect the direction of a project that gives their recognition added value, not their distance from the owner. Before a community can grown beyond a very small size it must produce leaders, either through a formal or informal process, otherwise the availability of recognition will suffer.


Leadership isn’t for everybody, and many of the early contributors who don’t become one still remain with the project, and end of making very significant contributions to it and the community over time.  Whenever you make contributions, and get recognition for them, you start to build up a reputation for yourself.  The more and better contributions you make, the more your reputation grows.  Some people have accumulated such a large reputation that even though they are not leaders, their recognition is still sought after more than most. Not all communities will have one of these contributors, and they are more likely in communities where heads-down work is valued more than very public work.


When any of us gets started with a community for the first time, we usually end of finding one or two people who help us learn the ropes.  These people help us find the resources we need, teach us what those resources don’t, and are instrumental in helping us make the leap from user to contributor. Very often these people aren’t the project owners or leaders.  Very often they have very little reputation themselves in the overall project. But because they take the time to help the new contributor, and because theirs is very likely to be the first, the recognition they give is disproportionately more valuable to that contributor than it otherwise would be.

Every member of a community can provide recognition, and every one should, but if you find yourself in one of the roles above it is even more important for you to be doing so. These roles are responsible both for setting the example, and keeping a proper flow, or recognition in a community. And without that flow or recognition, you will find that your flow of contributions will also dry up.

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3 Responses to Who do you contribute to?

  1. Paul Tagliamonte who used to be a part of Ubuntu’s governance really pointed out the lack of recognition in Ubuntu and from Canonical to contributors:

    I think all of his points are still accurate even today and still need fixing. While I am not as involved downstream I still contribute to Ubuntu upstream and I see some recognition for the new app community but it seems like the people working on desktop and server are getting neglected in terms of lack of recognition.

    Some months ago I had asked Canonical to send some swag to the doc team and Jono agreed and months after I sent addresses I asked those contributors if they received anything and they did not. This is an example of what upsets people like me, Paul and many other core contributors that have moved on.

    Will you make Community an important investment for Canonical? Will recognition be something the Canonical Community Team will really invest in this year and ongoing?

  2. I think one important group was left out – the users. At least myself, I contribute to all the users, not the people who “own” the project. After all, in open source, ownership is a very small detail as it can easily change or a new ownership might fork the project, etc.

    As for the comment by Benjamin, I also hope that Canonical will focus a little more in caring for contributors and their thoughts. Leadership is important, but so is maintaining a good fun relationship with the contributor community.

  3. Pingback: Communicating Recognition | Michael Hall

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