a theory on tech community drama
I’ve been following and trying not to participate in the recent Node drama, wherein an innocent PR evolved into a battle of egos on GitHub and resulted in a very direct statement from Joyent and a large amount of hand-wringing from people offended by that statement. I’d like to propose a theory on why this kind of thing happens in the first place, and why this is not the last time it will happen to Node. Let’s reverse-engineer this fucker and maybe we can stop having the same conversation about vague inclusivity over and over again and talk instead about how exclusivity becomes the assumption.
This drama starts, at least in my mind, not with the modest and helpful PR, but with the reaction of a maintainer of the project (libuv) declaring it too trivial for him to be interested in. So here is the first problem, and it’s one Joyent mentions in their response: people who have admin rights on projects based on their coding skills, not their ability to lead or deal nicely with other people. I do not maintain any big open source projects, but in talking to people who do it’s become my understanding that the bulk of the work is sifting through issues and pull requests, not actually coding. The former is the thing they consider hardest, the thing that burns them out, their most overwhelming responsibility. So it makes no sense to me that such a role would be given to someone who deals with other people badly. And I want to clarify, that’s all I’m reading into this. I honestly don’t know (or care) if Ben Noordhuis is a sexist. I do know and care that he very blatantly let his ego drive his decision-making here, which makes him not a good leader.
But it sounds completely ridiculous to suggest that people have admin rights on open source projects because of their skill in dealing with people instead of their skill in coding, right? I know it must, because there are basically zero examples of anything to the contrary. It’s an absurd kind of bloody monarchy where the only way to lead an open source project is to be the person who wrote the original code or to defeat the original author in battle, proving your worthiness. Via code, obviously. And so all around us we have a very clear message that code is all that matters, and whoever codes best is automatically right in all things. So we can’t really be surprised when this kind of shit happens.
(I want to take a moment to note that Node does have some very good leaders who are skilled at dealing nicely with people, but that standard is less evident when you consider those beyond the most visible folks.)
Is it possible to change the culture of open source in this way? I really have no idea. Well no, that’s not true. My low participation in open source is due to my sense that it’s most likely not possible. But maybe I’m wrong. I’d like to be. What I suspect, though, is that open source rejects the idea of “management”, and having people making decisions who have not been vetted by the infallible meritocracy of holy code sounds too close to being managed for comfort. Of course, anyone who’s been promoted to or worked under a developer-cum-manager might be able to tell you how they found they actually needed a manager who knew how to take care of humans, but nevermind all that. We don’t need no parents, we’re open source, we came to party.
Of course, if this dustup could have been guaranteed to be avoided, the how is real fucking obvious. The original PR changed male pronouns to neutral ones, so as not to exclude people who don’t identify as men. A non-male maintainer would probably have accepted that immediately (and been a bit embarrassed). That’s a silly hypothetical, though, because under our current system this non-male maintainer would have to be pretty heavily involved to become a maintainer and thus would have gotten to the pronouns at issue before anyone else even saw them. They might even have been the originator of said pronouns, meaning they’d be pretty likely to start off gender-neutral and stay that way. Which is to say: because open source is so non-diverse, and presents itself as hostile and obsessed with meritocracy to the point that it drives people who might add to its diversity away, it will always be cleaning up the artifacts of that imbalance after the fact, once people have noticed and drawn conclusions, and once those privileged enough to succeed under the meritocratic system have gotten all fucking defensive about it.
“Always” might sound like a pretty strong word to use, but it’s what I believe. Well-intentioned (and grammatically correct) though it may be, changing pronouns has very little impact on inclusivity. When you’re starting from a default position of exclusivity, when people automatically associate you with the tone-deaf cringefests that are one of open source’s worst problems, when people see your community and your leadership and find very few diverse participants, when your actions don’t illustrate how people can play a role if they won’t prove themselves better coders than those already involved, hanging up a sign saying “no one is disallowed” is not going to be enough. Saying you want to be inclusive does not create a culture of inclusivity. Those who it might hope to include will be smart enough to know that if they accept that invitation, it will become their burden to deal with those already included who are quite happy to enforce a culture of implicit exclusivity. If you want to be inclusive, find the people you want to include and fucking include them. Don’t wait for them to “man up” and make pull requests or submit to your CfP or whatever; only the most belligerent are going to bother to challenge the mixed message in “we want you here, please fight your way in, and can you pick up some ice on the way”.
So those two things are how I think Node got here – emphasizing code skill above all else in building community, and relying on that broken meritocracy to deliver diversity. I see a lot of hearts in the right places, but I also see a lot of defensive and self-righteous anger. I don’t see anyone addressing those problems I’d consider fundamental, so that’s why I think this will happen again.
Earlier, Bryan Cantrill, author of Joyent’s response, tweeted this about it: “And given the haters I’ve seen today, I shudder to think of the hate that would have been unloaded on me were I female.” I thought that was funny, because in a world where a woman held Mr. Cantrill’s position at Joyent, this probably never would have come up (because see above, not due to any deficiency on his part). We live pretty far away from such a world, though.