The Dark Side of Open Source

This post was inspired by a conversation about Open Source between Adam Yeats and James Seymour-Lock and an article by Remy Sharp. Please read them thoroughly before continuing.

Open Source software is a thriving market that supports thousands of startups and gets them off the ground — freeware with a “small” price of a few dependencies. Anything can be open sourced; from the smallest code snippet to giant, complicated systems. You can kick off a career because of contributions and meet like-minded people. It’s great.

I love Open Source. It has taught me many things going beyond programming — better collaboration, patience, compassion and mentoring. But it has a very dark side too, that often gets swept under the carpet of shiny benefits of a new career and so-called fame.

The numbers game

It’s all in the numbers — followers, contributions, comments, stars. Have none? Less than twenty public commits per week? What have you been doing lately?

The difference between public and both public and private contributions on Github

For, I’d presume, security reasons Github doesn’t show pushes to private repositories within the contribution graph. Such a simple design decision that causes one of the most tireless races to prove yourself a worthy developer.

Searching for the ultimate productivity hack we push our boundaries of comfort to perform. Or at least to be seen as incredibly prolific. Github facilitates that mindset with a shiny badge full of green squares, so easy to build. Don’t get me wrong — I love Github, but this, what might seem irrelevant part of user interface, fundamentally changes how we behave.

We want to be seen and have our work acknowledged. We’re humans after all.

That number and credibility game makes us forget our humanity. It fosters neglecting physical and mental health. It breaks relationships. The time we might come to realise that, it might be too late. Stop racing.

Privilege

Privilege might be a vague, abstract idea if you’re not a member of an underrepresented group (Open Source has been historically more development than design focused). I’ve been working simultaneously as a designer and developer for almost ten years now and it has been tremendously challenging to break the barrier to entry and start collaborating in the open. It mostly happened thanks to encouraging, empowering people from the community. No one judged me based on my empty collaboration graph as I offered design advice and mentoring. That was my entry point. As someone coming from a non-English speaking country I’ve been quite lucky with getting quality education, so communication wasn’t an issue.

I am privileged.

Not everyone is so lucky and I elaborated on this here (last post, at the bottom of the page). Designers and front-end developers without JavaScript knowledge struggle to create projects, fear judgement and rejection if they participate. The language barrier amplifies the anxiety.

I wish every single person who’s willingly contributing their free time (in healthy doses) was welcomed without assumptions but with open arms and empathy instead.

Open Source is privileged.

Impostor Syndrome

Open Source often is a constant, vicious cycle of ego games. Ever-present expectations of performance and arbitrary success bring people to a breaking point. We confuse approval with love and self-worthiness, which becomes dependant on achieving. At the lowest levels of behaviour we engage in phenomenon called impression management — we’re always thinking about how we appear to others, even when no one’s around.

That might push us to impostor syndrome. Coined in mid-80s by Dr Pauline Clance this phenomenon is described as experiencing feelings of inadequacy — conviction that our achievements are undeserved and accompanying it worry that we will be exposed as frauds.

Impostor phenomenon fosters such behaviours as avoiding failure at all costs, outperform others (where performance infers ability, which we’ve talked about when mentioning Github) and focus on task mastery, where mediocrity isn’t acceptable.

Social and internal pressure makes us work even harder, intertwining impostor syndrome with burnout—a relatively new term to psychology, described in the 70s.

The standards we’re trying to live up to are disastrously crippling the quality of our lives and we’re letting them do so while, deep down inside, pursuing one of the most basic, humane needs—acceptance and interaction.

My Grandmother used to say that everything can be good in reasonable doses and it applies to Open Source as well. But before pulling several all-nighters in a row stop for a minute and think if your health and relationships are worth another green square.

You’re amazing.

PS. If you’re interested in impostor syndrome check out the talk I’ve given at CSSConf.eu last year.

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