Getting involved with Open Source communities was one of the greatest things I’ve done for my personal and professional development, and also one of the most challenging activities I’ve ever been involved with.
Being a more passionate and opinionated person myself, I do not always agree with certain ideas, assumptions or regulations. And that is usually normal — because there are various groups of people within a community:
- people who merely observe and rarely participate
- passive people that don’t take anything too personally
- people who stick around if the whole idea makes sense, and leave if it doesn’t
- folks that aren’t interested in confronting anyone for various reasons
- people who genuinely believe in a community and try to selflessly do the best
- people in the previous group that don’t quite take into account harming other people while reaching their goal
- corporate interests’ representatives that try to get some marketing benefits or business network gains
- political figures that have to serve the interests of their audience or management
- general trolls
And so forth.
Looking from the outside, this picture seems terrifying. Percentages vary massively from one community to another — some are more open, others — more closed. Some are democratic, others adapt meritocracy, and there are some extremely absolutismistic ones — such as the communities ran solely by a single corporation or one person.
On top of that there are the users and their interests. And there are the developers and their “convenience”, too. Not to mention other contributors dealing with documentation, support, translations, and other activities common for most communities. Oh hey, there are the freelancers and business owners too, as well as the main organizations or corporations on top of the food chain, assisting the main leaders — one way or the other.
And most people want some skin in the game — because the more active and vocal you are, the higher the chances that your opinion or suggestions will be accepted or taken into consideration.
The Different Positive Attitudes Scenario
One of the most painful situations that I’ve seen online are heated discussions between people who want the best for a community.
Multi-purpose platforms such as WordPress happen to be used by different people in different scenarios — bloggers use it, marketing people too, some use it for eCommerce, others build university networks; there are plugin and theme authors delivering various services, SaaS product owners, freelancers building small sites or large ones, folks dealing with high-scale products, people who enjoy WordPress as an idea, but dislike the codebase.
Some love the database schema, others loathe it, some want a detachable admin look and feel and others dislike that. Some provide alternative approaches, several implementations or a number of hooks and others claim that to be an overhead, a lot of bloated code or a separation of the effort that could have been focused on a given direction.
But I’m not talking about any of those. I’m talking about two completely different ways to implement a new thing that serves half of the community and affects the other half, or vice versa. I’m also referring to different ways to solve a conflict — some are being more liberal, others believe in the harder, dictatorship-alike approach.
The WordPress community has been working on improving the communication within the community and the “public relations” for new contributors and users. Things are certainly getting better and there are improvements in certain areas. And yet, there have been more serious problems like the introduction of the Customizer in Core (or that one becoming mandatory for themes on WordPress.org), or the Thesis dilemma, or other local community-specific problems that seem to have a common factor: the difference between the perspectives of two large groups of people.
In this case the meritocracy of WordPress plays the role of a decider.
Roadmap and Alternatives
And sometimes it stinks. And a potential democratic solution would be for WordPress to actually give some heads up to people within the community about upcoming features and long-term plans. Right now the future of WordPress is unclear, and many of us are not aware of what will happen in 6 months, a year, a couple of years or by 2020.
I have no doubts that things will deviate more or less since we are in an industry that moves fast. But I do believe that some of those conflicts happen due to the lack of at least high-end roadmap for the future of WordPress and a list of features that are being anticipated and are planned for the future of Core.
Because we have the political regime (being meritocracy, so we’re clear on that), the “human element” with different opinions, and the project plan component — which can only be argued against a roadmap that says it all.
Or if roadmap is a dumb idea, than what’s the purpose of WordPress Ideas as it’s probably one of the most useless links on WordPress.org nowadays?
To provide an example — Drupal’s community is another great place with welcoming people, great community leaders, a solid technical team and a massive portfolio of impressive projects built on top of the platform. Since Drupal 8 is out in 20 days, the revolutionary update of the platform could be a viable solution for WordPress freelancers or firms, and they may feel deceived in terms of wasted time if WordPress takes a wrong term according to where they stand, instead of joining another community and investing in a different platform.
Is WordPress going to keep the focus on blogging alongside the CMS/framework efforts due to the nature of WordPress.com? Is it going to tackle the Enterprise market? What would be the realistic future of backwards compatibility, or automatic updates, or what are the foreseeable changes to be introduced after the Rest API inclusion in Core? Shall we see a modern PHP support, or not? Is the Core going to be decoupled for good, or it will stay as is?
From where I stand, many of the conflicts arise due to the lack of clear communication, future plans or general standards. If that was in place, many heated discussions would not have happened, or that public Code would have served as an arbiter, just as the law serves as the common authority in most countries.
Diversity and All
Speaking of most countries, some don’t obey the law above all. Religion, for one, is a common example of the highest force in certain countries where religious norms stand higher than the common legal ones. Family morale is another example in other areas.
This essay will not focus on the basis of national authority, but this reference is to serve as a reminder that people are different and some cultures understand things differently.
A group of people in the WordPress community is dealing with the diversity situation, which often tends to get misinterpret in a way that minorities are being exclusively selected and invited and the actual “majority” turns “minority” — that includes WordCamps actively inviting 50% females just for the sake of the diversity statistics, or situations such as WordCamp San Francisco which, by being the “international WordCamp”, affected the local community and suppressed their chances to actively participate in the organization, speaking and volunteering process of organizing a local camp.
Some of those are inevitable, others merely require a normal discussion or a good overview of a situation and clear recommendation for other community participants about the code of conduct or requirements, and some are being solved in democratic ways — like the newborn WordCamp US formed after WordCamp Europe and rotating in different cities.
Nevertheless, most actions have consequences, and occasionally those are left unnoticed due to the lack of vocal opinions — or those being ignored or miscommunicated.
The Royal Family Syndrome
Additionally, opinions matter. But some opinions matter more than others.
As I said in a previous blog post of mine:
I’ve been in other communities where certain companies build a sort of “immunity” status or what I call a “royal family” level. This is normally a well-respected or really powerful group of people that suddenly starts to feel elite and more important than everyone else — often simply due to working for one of those top companies or organizations. That alternative reality may cause damages to people who simply want to give back without being ignored, disrespected or belittled.
This is a complex problem since it varies depending on the perspective.
Let’s Review a Hypothetical Conference
Let’s imagine that you’re attending a local .NET Conference and you’re a newbie user. Well, you’ll be super thrilled to get more Microsoft folks on stage since they are the main people behind the platform, right? You don’t know all of the other active contributors, library founders, or folks working on challenging .NET projects implemented for the X government.
What if you’re a Microsoft applicant yourself? Well, congrats — you will likely get the marketing benefits and exposure, and suddenly become a preferred speaker. When people at the after party hear where you work, your opinion suddenly matters — regardless of your skills.
And if you’re a senior developer with 15 or 20 years of experience and sit on a table with a junior Microsoft guy or gal, well, your opinion doesn’t matter so much. Since he or she “is the real deal” — as Microsoft are not writing news, they are inventing them.
Oh hey, if you are actually in charge of the event and have certain regulations, don’t get surprised if those get violated by the Microsoft guys. If “that other dude” asks for a late application, you’ll send them back the link with “CFP are Closed!” and tell them to follow the schedule next time. If a MS suit applies 3 weeks later than the final date, the discussion may end up differently — “because politics”.
And yet again, Microsoft are not the bad guys here. In fact I even like them ever since Satya Nadella became their CEO almost 2 years ago and he literally turned the company around — in a very positive way.
But if you happen to be a jerk, or basically a more aggressive personality (not necessarily in the harmful way) and also happen to work for them (not really a stretch given their 115K employees), there are tons of shortcuts that you may take. Rules don’t apply as much for you since you can bend some of them. And often, even if you get reported, this would be aimed at someone far too high to pay attention to it (or see it), or someone way too low that can’t do anything or is a less involved close friend of the rule-breaker.
How Does Hierarchy Work?
I’ve been seeing that personality a few times and it’s not a pleasant feeling. Sometimes it’s involuntary, other times it’s bad manners or simply a cultural misunderstanding. But the higher that person is in a hierarchy, the more impactful a problem is.
Let’s imagine that the lead of WordPress did something really disrespectful (just building an alternative scenario here, bare with me). That would have caused some scandals among the highest level of Project Leaders, then all Core Committers and team leaders (all make/org groups), then all level 2 leaders and local community organizers. That may not be the actual hierarchical chain, but you get the idea — Matt is on top, then a smaller group leading the project, another one, and then several larger circles up down to the owners of the 24% of the Web and all of their users (probably 80% or more of all browsing Internet users).
And there isn’t much to do if Matt suddenly decided to turn WordPress in a closed platform, or something else that I can’t think of right now. Well, it can be solved in different ways:
- Everyone may agree wholeheartedly and start giving back to a closed project
- Everyone may fork WordPress and start building a FreePress or something else
- Community may split in groups, some backing Matt up, others forking the WordPress Core at the moment, and another group just joining another project
But having that hierarchy in place is clear — so there are times where you don’t get to call the shots, but someone else does. And while the very top of the chain has clear responsibilities and credentials, some roles get blurry, similarly to the Microsoft example.
What About Reporting?
One of the other “gotchas” about being in a similar situation is the reporting case.
After the diversity-oriented discussions over the past couple of years, some people in the top of the community took action. Some WordCamp organizers did as well, and I love what the WordCamp Miami community did with their Code of Conduct.
But let’s see what’s the reporting process in case of an “Oops!”:
3. Expected Behavior
Be considerate, respectful, and collaborative.
Refrain from demeaning, discriminatory or harassing behavior and speech.
Be mindful of your surroundings and of your fellow participants. Alert conference organizers if you notice a dangerous situation or someone in distress.
Participate in an authentic and active way. In doing so, you help to create WordCamp Miami and make it your own.
Later in the code of conduct one can see a link to the contact form and the group email for the WordCamp orgs.
Which may work in some cases, but not always.
Calling For Help May Cost a Lot
Who will read that email? If there are a dozen organizers and there are friends of the bully among them, what would happen?
If the affected person works in a company, will they be punished or even fired should they report that to the wrong person? Or even shamed publicly, or get attacked back, or more?
Females being victims of domestic violence are often scared of vengeance or a failed report if they call the authorities — even if they reach out to real authorities through anonymous lines. Scarcity could be a deal breaker, and people are often rightfully afraid about their jobs, families, reputation or something else.
We don’t have a legitimate and clear process for reporting activities that don’t follow the code of conduct. There are no clear regulations as to what happens if someone abuses power — right now it’s practically nothing.
Moreover, reporting happens within the community when people know each other, rumors happen, and that often backfires.
Have You Been Bullied?
If you happen to be in a higher community position, you have probably already built the “immunity” or live in an ecosystem that doesn’t deal with those problems. Or simply don’t care and prefer to spend your time elsewhere.
Honestly, I haven’t been bullied a lot since I was a fat kid at first (which is a good thing aside from the weight jokes) and then I started to hit the gym until I became a tough target for bullies. And I don’t have personal encounters with many community people violating codes of conduct. Moreover, running my own company means that I don’t have a bully manager on top of me and my business is almost unrelated to the community “marketing” (coming through different channels).
But I still meet people like that — at events and virtually. And I do care about my local community and support other communities as well. I am involved with several meetups, I speak at universities and training academies, I mentor people and I generally try to be of help.
I see how introverts struggle in the presence of extroverts. And I see how some people apply non-ethical practices, respond in a harsh manner, or be a combination of opinionated personality that happens to be employed by the right company. And some tend to be nice guys until getting blinded by a new employment opportunity.
Taking an Action Against These People
Those scenarios are not a majority. However, following the Matt example from the alternate reality above, a single persona can cause a sufficient amount of damage.
And if we are to make a difference, what could we do?
- There is no clear way to report that behavior.
- There is no global clear policy on what is the acceptable behavior.
- There are no sanctions against such behavior. Which means that bullies aren’t afraid and that may backfire in reporters’ faces.
- There are some people who rant in general. So whatever solves 1–3 needs to account for the “false positives”.
- There is the “friends and family” dodgy case where a reportee may have a certain level of immunity.
- There is no “roadmap” which means that each case is as vague as it could be interpret as.
I’m certainly not after bureaucracy, but setting some guidelines and defining the rules may help a lot. And if that doesn’t seem important to you, think about the following loopholes in a system:
- a WordCamp organizer somewhere who exploits the community only for business gains
- a team/community leader who claims certain credentials and responsibilities over active contributors just by being a minority
- a speaker from a reputable company who expects certain behavior
- a representative from a reputable company who dictates the rules for a certain local community
- a WordCamp organizer selecting speakers based on personal friendship (that’s a whole other story about what is the actual process for a WordCamp)
- a team representative who keeps the contributing process closed or favors contributions from a limited, small number of people
- a meetup organizer who rejects speaker application that violate with [insert a political/business reason here]
Those are all realistic possibilities for things that may be happening in our community just now.
Some of them may be invalid reports. But we wouldn’t know that without a public code of conduct, or a roadmap for the product (that also shapes the communication style and the decision making for accepting changes or so when other constraints are to be taken into account).
Some may be reasonable complaints for wrongfully assigned people. And yet, what is the process for hiring them? Who picks project leaders or conference organizers, on what grounds, and how does everything work?
A large organization or a big company can’t track each and every volunteer or an employee. Some may be bad fits, others may need an ethical training. Some companies may also follow other agendas for business gains that are not reported openly.
Some may merely be a reality check of “how to do things better” — as long as people weren’t able to share their feedback openly.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
This could go on for quite some time. And yet, what is the best way to deal with a community in the most open and honest way, so that justice can be served where justice is due and the process is as transparent as possible — or alternatively a more open-minded community is being built or transferred to if it is a lost cause?
Remember, communities are still one of the greatest concepts ever invented. Like-minded people working together, experience being shared for free, solving problems as a whole.
And yet, due to the varying personalities and business interests, people are different and a community needs regulations in order to stay strong and survive. Some actions may be harsher for the common good, others may be left alone. But as a fan of the Broken window theory I do believe that we should pay attention to the small problems unless we want them to develop and grow until it’s too late for band-aid.
It is our responsibility to work together, be more observant and more tolerant. We should take into account all of the different people that are within our community. Let’s try to make it easier for each one of them to join, participate, comment, and send feedback. Let’s keep in mind the different versions of each story — how a feature has affected business owners, or developers, or what would be the impact for a hosting provider, for the regular blogger, or the large media outlet having to train their 120 editors the new interface?
Then and only then we will become a better and healthier community, one built on justice, one where a plan for the future is been agreed on by everyone with no major surprises. Where we don’t have to discuss those problems in the first place, but focus on growing and developing our community even further.
What would your solution be for a healthier and stronger community?