The Open Source community is wonderful

Ubuntu Mauritius CommunityBut it isn’t perfect.  And that, in my opinion, is okay.  I’m not perfect, and neither are you, but you are still wonderful too.

I was asked, not too long ago, what I hated about the community. The truth, then and now, is that I don’t hate anything about it. There is a lot I don’t like about what happens, of course, but nothing that I hate. I make an effort to understand people, to “grok” them if I may borrow the word from Heinlein. When you understand somebody, or in this case a community of somebodies, you understand the whole of them, the good and the bad. Now understanding the bad parts doesn’t make them any less bad, but it does provide opportunities for correcting or removing them that you don’t get otherwise.

You reap what you sow

People will usually respond in kind with the way they are treated. I try to treat everybody I interact with respectfully, kindly, and rationally, and I’ve found that I am treated that way back. But, if somebody is prone to arrogance or cruelty or passion, they will find far more of that treatment given back and them than the positive ones. They are quite often shocked when this happens. But when you are a source of negativity you drive away people who are looking for something positive, and attract people who are looking for something negative. It’s not absolute, nice people will have some unhappy followers, and crumpy people will have some delightful ones, but on average you will be surrounded by people who behave like you.

Don’t get even, get better

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as the old saying goes. When somebody is rude or disrespectful to us, it’s easy to give in to the desire to be rude and disrespectful back. When somebody calls us out on something, especially in public, we want to call them out on their own problems to show everybody that they are just as bad. This might feel good in the short term, but it causes long term harm to both the person who does it and the community they are a part of. This ties into what I wrote above, because even if you aren’t naturally a negative person, if you respond to negativity with more of the same, you’ll ultimately share the same fate. Instead use that negativity as fuel to drive you forward in a positive way, respond with coolness, thoughtfulness and introspection and not only will you disarm the person who started it, you’ll attract far more of the kind of people and interactions that you want.

Know your audience

Your audience isn’t the person or people you are talking to. Your audience is the people who hear you. Many of the defenders of Linus’ beratement of kernel contributors is that he only does it to people he knows can take it. This defense is almost always countered, quite properly, by somebody pointing out that his actions are seen by far more than just their intended recipient. Whenever you interact with any member of your community in a public space, such as a forum or mailing list, treat it as if you were interacting with every member, because you are. Again, if you perpetuate negativity in your community, you will foster negativity in your community, either directly in response to you or indirectly by driving away those who are more positive in nature. Linus’ actions might be seen as a joke, or necessary “tough love” to get the job done, but the LKML has a reputation of being inhospitable to potential contributors in no small part because of them. You can gather a large number of negative, or negativity-accepting, people into a community and get a lot of work done, but it’s easier and in my opinion better to have a large number of positive people doing it.

Monoculture is dangerous

I think all of us in the open source community know this, and most of us have said it at least once to somebody else. As noted security researcher Bruce Schneier says, “monoculture is bad; embrace diversity or die along with everyone else.” But it’s not just dangerous for software and agriculture, it’s dangerous to communities too. Communities need, desperately need, diversity, and not just for the immediate benefits that various opinions and perspectives bring. Including minorities in your community will point out flaws you didn’t know existed, because they didn’t affect anyone else, but a distro-specific bug in upstream is still a bug, and a minority-specific flaw in your community is still a flaw. Communities that are almost all male, or white, or western, aren’t necessarily bad because of their monoculture, but they should certainly consider themselves vulnerable and deficient because of it. Bringing in diversity will strengthen it, and adding minority contributor will ultimately benefit a project more than adding another to the majority. When somebody from a minority tells you there is a problem in your community that you didn’t see, don’t try to defend it by pointing out that it doesn’t affect you, but instead treat it like you would a normal bug report from somebody on different hardware than you.

Good people are human too

The appendix is a funny organ. Most of the time it’s just there, innocuous or maybe even slightly helpful. But every so often one happens to, for whatever reason, explode and try to kill the rest of the body. People in a community do this too.  I’ve seen a number of people that were good or even great contributors who, for whatever reason, had to explode and they threatened to take down anything they were a part of when it happened. But these people were no more malevolent than your appendix is, they aren’t bad, even if they do need to be removed in order to avoid lasting harm to the rest of the body. Sometimes, once whatever caused their eruption has passed, these people can come back to being a constructive part of your community.

Love the whole, not the parts

When you look at it, all of it, the open source community is a marvel of collaboration, of friendship and family. Yes, family. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about people I may not have ever met in person. And just like family you love them during the good and the bad. There are some annoying, obnoxious people in our family. There are good people who are sometimes annoying and obnoxious. But neither of those truths changes the fact that we are still a part of an amazing, inspiring, wonderful community of open source contributors and enthusiasts.

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8 Responses to The Open Source community is wonderful

  1. All there with you, esp on the family point. And can family members not be a pain sometimes? Such is life.

    One thought I would like to add: always realize that people get angry because they CARE. If they didn’t there was no issue… So be happy about an occasional bumping of heads – it is healthy!

  2. Andrew Lake says:

    A wonderful, refreshing, pragmatic view. Good stuff.

  3. Thanks so much, Michael, for such a loving, rational and realistic look at community. I especially loved the appendix analogy. I hope everybody who has “blown up” at one time or another comes back, or at least finds another community to contribute to.

  4. Emily Gonyer says:

    Very well said!

  5. Anand says:

    Thoughtful read. Well-written. Thanks :-)

  6. Rick McFarley says:

    Thank you! That was so refreshing! (like Andrew Lake said)

  7. Rhys Howitt says:

    What a wonderful post to stumble upon.

  8. “I try to treat everybody I interact with respectfully, kindly, and rationally”

    Absolutely the truth.

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