Abusing Contributors is not OK

As reported in Ars Technica, the ongoing efforts to promote diversity in open source communities came up once more during the plenary Q&A session with Linus Torvalds, Andrew Tridgell, Bdale Garbee and Rusty Russell.

I was there for that session, and found that Linus's response appeared to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the motives of many of the folks pushing for increased diversity in the open source community, as well as a lack of awareness of the terrible situations that can arise when leaders in a community regularly demonstrate abusive behaviour without suffering any significant consequences (just ask folks like Kathy Sierra, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu that have been subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment largely for being women that dared to have and express an opinion on the internet).

As the coordinator of the Python Software Foundation's contribution to the linux.conf.au 2015 financial assistance program, and as someone with a deep personal interest in the overall success of the open source community, I feel it is important for me to state explicitly that I consider Linus's level of ignorance around appropriate standards of community conduct to be unacceptable in an open source community leader in 2015.

Linus's defence of his abusive behaviour is that he's "not nice", and "doesn't care about you". He does care deeply about his project, though, and claims to be motivated primarily by wanting that to continue to be successful.

To be completely honest, the momentum behind the Linux juggernaut is now large enough that Linus could likely decide to chuck it all in and spend the rest of his life on a beach sipping cocktails without worrying about open source politics, and people would figure out a way to ensure that Linux continued to thrive and grow without him. Many a successful start-up has made that transition when the founders leave, and there's no good reason to believe an open source community would be fundamentally different in that regard. The transition to a new leadership structure might be a little messy, but the community would almost certainly figure it out.

However, there's still a lot of scope for Linus to influence how fast Linux grows, and on that front his words and actions suggest that he considers being careless in his speech, without regard for the collateral damage his verbal broadsides may be doing to his cause, more important than having the most positive impact he is capable of having on the future growth of the Linux kernel development project and the open source community at large.

It's not (necessarily) about being nice

It may surprise some folks to learn that I don't consider myself a nice human either. My temper is formidable (I just keep it under control most of the time, a task online communication makes easier by providing the ability to walk away from the computer for a while), and any feelings of compassion I have for others are more a product of years of deliberate practice and hanging around with compassionate people than they are any particularly strong innate knack for empathy.

I'm pretty sure that genuinely nice people do exist, and I assume that one of their key motives for creating open, welcoming, inclusive communities is because it's fundamentally the right thing to do. The main reason I exclude myself from my assumed category of "nice people" is that, while I acknowledge that motivation intellectually, it's not really one that I feel viscerally.

Instead, what I do care about, passionately, is helping the best ideas win (where I include "feasible" as part of my definition of "best"). Not the "best ideas from people willing to tolerate extensive personal abuse". The best ideas anyone is willing to share with me, period. And I won't hear those ideas unless I help create environments where all participants are willing to speak up, not just those that are prepared to accept a blistering verbal barrage from a powerful authority figure as a possible consequence of attempting to participate. Those are upsetting enough when they come from random strangers on the internet, when they come from someone with enormous influence not only over you and your future career, but also your entire industry, they can be devastating.

The second order consequences

So there you have it, my not-nice reason for advocating for more welcoming and inclusive open source communities: because, from an engineering standpoint, I consider "has a high level of tolerance for receiving personal abuse from community leaders" to be an extraordinarily stupid filter to apply to your pool of potential contributors.

Exhibiting abusive behaviour as a leader has additional consequences though, and they can be even more problematic: by regularly demonstrating abusive behaviour yourself, you end up normalising harassment within your community in general, both in public and in private.

I believe Linus when he says he doesn't care about who people are or where they're from, only their contributions. I'm the same way - until I've known them for a while, I tend to care about contributors and potential contributors wholesale (i.e. happy people that enjoy the environment they're participating in tend to spend more time engaged, learn faster, produce superior contributions, and more quickly reach the point of being able to contribute independently), rather than retail (i.e. I care about my friends because they're my friends, regardless of context).

But when you're personally abusive as a leader, you also have to take a high level of responsibility for all the folks that look up to you as a role model, and act out the same behaviours you exhibit in public. When you reach this point, the preconditions for participation in your community now include:

  • Willing to tolerate public personal abuse from project leaders
  • Willing to tolerate public personal abuse from the community at large
  • Willing to tolerate personal abuse in private

With clauses like that as part of the definition, the claim of "meritocracy" starts to feel a little shaky, doesn't it? Meritocracy is a fine ideal to strive for, but claiming to have achieved it when you're imposing irrelevant requirements like this is arrogant nonsense.

We're not done yet, though, as this culture of abuse then combines with elitism based on previously acquired knowledge to make it normal to abuse newcomers for still being in the process of learning. I find it hard to conceive of a more effective approach to keeping people from adopting something you're giving away for free than tolerating a community that publicly abuses people for not magically already knowing how to use technology that they may have never even heard of before.

As a result of this perspective, the only time I'll endeavour to eject anyone from a community where I have significant influence is when they're actively creating an unpleasant environment for other participants, and demonstrate no remorse whatsoever regarding the negative impact their actions are having on the overall collaborative effort. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have only had to do this a few times in my life so far, but it's something I believe in strongly enough for it to have been the basis for once deciding to resign from a position paying a six-figure salary at a company I otherwise loved working for. To that company's credit, the abusive leader was let go not long afterwards, but the whole secretive corporate system is rigged such that these toxic "leaders" can usually quickly find new positions elsewhere and hence new subordinates to make miserable - the fact that I'm not willing to name names here for fear of the professional consequences is just one more example of how the system is largely set up to protect abusive leaders rather than holding them to account for the impact their actions have on others.

Ideas and code are still fair game

One of the spurious fears raised against the apparently radical notion of refusing to tolerate personal abuse in a collaborative environment is that adopting civil communication practices somehow means that bad code must then be accepted into the project.

Eliminating personal abuse doesn't mean eliminating rigorous critique of code and ideas. It just means making sure that you are critiquing the code and the ideas, rather than tearing down the person contributing them. It's the difference between "This code isn't any good, here are the problems with it, I'm confident you can do better on your next attempt" (last part optional but usually beneficial when it comes to growing your contributor community) and "This code is terrible, how dare you befoul my presence with it, begone from my sight, worm!".

The latter response may be a funny joke if done in private between close friends, but when it's done in public, in front of a large number of onlookers who don't know either the sender or the recipient personally, it sets an astoundingly bad example as to what a mutually beneficial collaborative peer relationship should look like.

And if you don't have the self-discipline needed to cope with the changing context of our online interactions in the open source community? Well, perhaps you don't yet have the temperament needed to be an open source leader on an internet that is no longer the sole preserve of those of us that are more interested in computers than we are in people. Most of the technical and business press have yet to figure out that they can actually do a bit of investigative journalism to see how well vendor rhetoric aligns with upstream open source engineering activity (frequency of publication is still a far more important performance metric for most journalists than questioning the spin served up in corporate press releases), so the number of folks peering into the open source development fishbowl is only going to grow over time.

It isn't that hard to learn the necessary self-control, though. It's mostly just a matter of taking the time to read each email or code review comment, look for the parts that are about the contributor rather than the code or the design, and remove them before hitting send. And if that means there's nothing left? Then what you were about to send was pure noise, adding nothing useful to the conversation, and hence best left unsent. Doing anything less than this as a community leader is pure self-indulgence, putting your own unwillingness to consider the consequences of your communications ahead of the long term interests of your project. We're only talking about software here, after all - lives aren't on the line when we're deciding how to respond to a particular contribution, so we can afford to take a few moments to review the messages we're about to send and consider how they're likely to be perceived, both by the recipient, and by everyone else observing the exchange.

With any personal abuse removed, you can be as ruthless about critiquing the code and design as you like. Learning not to take critiques of your work personally is a necessary skill to acquire if your ambition is to become a high profile open source developer - the compromises often necessary in the real world of software design and development mean that you will end up shipping things that can legitimately be described as terrible, and you're going to have to learn to be able to say "Yes, I know it's terrible, for reasons X, Y, and Z, and I decided to publish it anyway. If you don't like it, don't use it.". (I highly recommend giving talks about these areas you know are terrible - they're fun to prepare, fun to give, and it's quite entertaining seeing the horrified reactions when people realise I'm not kidding when I say all software is terrible and computers don't actually work, they just fake it fairly well through an ongoing series of horrible hacks built atop other horrible hacks. I'm not surprised the Internet breaks sometimes - given the decades of accumulated legacy hardware and software we're building on and working around, it's thoroughly astonishing that anything technology related ever works at all)

But no matter how harsh your technical critiques get, never forget that there's at least one other human on the far end of that code review or email thread. Even if you don't personally care about them, do you really think it's a good idea to go through life providing large numbers of people with public evidence of why you are a thoroughly unpleasant person to be forced to deal with? As a project leader, do you really think you're going to attract the best and brightest people, who are often free to spend their time and energy however they like, if you set up a sign saying "You must be willing to tolerate extensive personal abuse in order to participate here"?

What can we do about it?

First, and foremost, for those of us that are paid open source community leaders, we can recognise that understanding and motivating our contributors and potential contributors in order to grow our communities is part of our job. If we don't like that, if we'd prefer to be able to "just focus on the code", to the degree where we're not willing to learn how to moderate our own behaviour in accordance with our level of responsibility, then we need to figure out how to reorganise things such that there's someone with better people management and communication skills in a position to act as a buffer between us and our respective communities.

If we instead decide we need to better educate ourselves, then there are plenty of resources available for us to do so. For folks just beginning to explore questions of systemic bias and defaulting to exclusivity, gender-based bias is a good one to start with, by perusing resources like the Feminism 101 section on the Geek Feminism wiki, or (if we have the opportunity) attending an Ada Initiative Ally Skills workshop.

And if we do acknowledge the importance of this work, then we can use our influence to help it continue, whether that's by sponsoring educational workshops, supporting financial assistance programs, ensuring suitable codes of conduct are in place for our events and online communities, supporting programs like the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, or organisations like the Ada Initiative, and so on, and so forth.

For those of us that aren't community leaders, then one of the most effective things we can do is vote with our feet: at last count, there are over a million open source projects in existence, many of them are run in such a way that participating in them is almost always a sheer pleasure, and if no existing community grabs your interest, you always have the option of starting your own.

Personal enjoyment is only one reason for participating in open source though, and professional obligations or personal needs may bring us into contact with project leaders and contributors that currently consider personal abuse to be an acceptable way of interacting with their peers in a collaborative context. If leaving isn't a viable option, then what can we do?

Firstly, the options I suggest above for community leaders are actually good options for any participants in the open source community that view the overall growth and success of the free and open source software ethos as being more important than any one individual's personal pride or reluctance to educate themselves about issues that don't affect them personally.

Secondly, we can hold our leaders to account. When community leaders give presentations at community events, especially when presenting on community management topics, feel free to ask the following questions (or variations on these themes):

  • Are we as community leaders aware of the impact current and historical structural inequalities have on the demographics of our community?
  • What have we done recently as individuals to improve our understanding of these issues and their consequences?
  • What have we done recently as community leaders to attempt to counter the systemic biases adversely affecting the demographics of our communities?

These are questions that open source community leaders should be able to answer. When we can't, I guess the silver lining is that it means we have plenty of scope to get better at what we do. For members of vulnerable groups, an inability for leaders to answer these questions is also a strong sign as to which communities may not yet be able to provide safe spaces for you to participate without experiencing harassment over your identity rather than being critiqued solely based on the quality of your work.

If you ask these questions, you will get people complaining about bringing politics into a technical environment. The folks complaining are simply wrong, as the single most important factor driving the quality of our technology is the quality of our thinking. Assuming we have attained meritocracy (aka "the most effective collaborative environment possible") is sheer foolishness, when a wide array of systemic biases remain in place that work to reduce the depth, breadth, and hence quality, of our collective thinking.

Update 22 Jan, 2015: Minor typo and grammar fixes

Update 19 Apr, 2016: This article is also available in Russian, thanks to Everycloud technologies

Update 1 Dec, 2016: This article is also available in Estonian, thanks to Arija Liepkalnietis


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