Last week I wrote about Sexism
in FOSS and much to my surprise, received more supportive
comments than I expected. Maybe we are moving forward. Maybe more
people are getting braver and more willing to confront the issue.
As I see it, the problem can be roughly defined in three parts,
something like a steep bell curve:
1. There is a minority of vocal and dedicated bad actors in
FOSS, who are disproportionately loud and destructive.
2. There is a larger number of ordinary people who, for whatever
reasons, are unwilling to call the jerks on their bad behavior, and
find it's easier to pretend there are no problems. Or worse, tell
anyone, especially women, who is bugged by it to go away.
3. Then there are a small number of people who speak up and try to
do something about it.
For all of the talk about "community" and "freedom" there is an
awful lot of cliquish and exclusionary behavior. A good step would
be re-defining "freedom" as "the freedom to be welcoming and
supportive", rather than the freedom to be the most unpleasant
person. Is there a trophy for that? There must be some reward,
given the energy and passion some folks devote to being
Not Exactly a Community
I'm using the word "community" rather loosely here because it's a
convenient shortcut. Of course Linux/FOSS is complex and varied;
some projects are models of professionalism, some are
self-indulgent dysfunctional little grouchpits, some are middlin',
and so on. Something for everyone.
Some people are just plain poison. No one is so brilliant and
indispensible that they can be excused from treating other people
with courtesy and respect. One "brilliant" but obnoxious person
will chase any number of good people away, and you'll never know
how many because they don't all make parting announcements. Some
never even show up in the first place because they see ToxicPerson
and go looking for a healthier project to support. How to Protect Your
Open Source Project From Poisonous People is a good video
produced by GoogleTechTalks. A related news article if you don't
have time for a 54-minute video is Google
defends open source from 'poisonous people'.
It's a slap in the face to the good people in your project to
excuse a chronic troublemaker. Is it so hard to understand that a
pleasant, supportive atmosphere is better than a contentious one
full of insults and personal attacks? It is a failure of
leadership, an abdication of responsibility to let any one person
get away with bad behavior. The video and article have a number of
specific suggestions for dealing with difficult personalities, such
as having a code of conduct, and if necessary kicking an
unrepentant offender from your project. Hopefully it won't come to
that and you can work things out, but with some folks it's all take
and no give, and there is no working with them.
What is Offensive?
Whatever an offended person says it is. "I'm just joking" is a
lie-- a lot of hostility hides behind "humor." Listen, think, have
some compassion. People of goodwill and mutual respect work at
getting along, with give and take. Say "I'm sorry" and move on.
Defending to the death one's right to be obnoxious really isn't
worth fighting for, especially when bigger and more important goals
are at stake.
A lot of folks seem to think that public forums and mailing
lists are like little private clubhouses. Um no, they're not,
you're onstage for the world to see.
Women get targeted in special and icky ways just for being women.
Often it is subtle; tone comes through even in plain-text
communications. It is a look or a posture; some men are creepy just
saying "Hello." We all have our own lifetimes of experience in
recognizing and dealing with this crud. Sometimes it's blatant and
crude. Either way it is real. It is rooted in disrespect and
contempt, so I've never seen any particular reason to tolerate it.
Kirrily Robert's OSCON keynote "Standing out in the crowd" is
so good I wish I'd written it. She gives a great summary of the
issues and is a lot nicer than me, but she still doesn't pull any
"This is a normal sort of open source project. I'll
give you a minute to spot the women in the picture. Sorry, make
that woman. She's on the right. Can you see her?...You walk into a
space, and you feel like you stand out. And there's enormous
pressure to perform well, in case any mistake you make reflects on
everyone of your gender."
All women in FOSS need to be more visible. There are a number of
women's groups to provide help and support, such as Linuxchix.org. Linuxchix has been
around for several years, and is for women who like Linux and for
anyone who wants to support women in computing. We have a nice mix
of women, men, and other from all over the planet. Check out
groups for Women in Free Software to learn about some other
groups as well.
All of this is such a silly sideshow. Step back and look at what
FOSS is about, and what is good for it. It needs good people in a
multitude of roles, because coding is just the beginning: community
leadership, marketing, documentation, artwork, education, reaching
out to girls and boys, reaching out to adults considering career
changes, fundraising, law and politics, and dozens of other
important jobs. We need everyone with useful skills and the
commitment to hang in and get things done. We need to get better at
turning users into contributors. There are a lot of competing
opportunities for good people with good skills, and being nasty is
not going to win them over.
I think we're at a crossroads right now. I think if we devote
real energy to community-building and attracting a new generation
of contributors Linux/FOSS will develop unstoppable momentum, and
progress beyond what anyone else can do. If we don't, if we
continue to fumble along the same old way, corporate contributors
are going to dominate and take it in a direction we may not like.
Progress will slow and the community contributors are going to be
stuck out in the weeds. An especially thorny issue that is has
never been seriously addressed is how can people make a living
writing code, writing documentation, designing great artwork,
leading strong projects? It's not good enough to say "Service and
support" because those do not apply to everything. Are corporate
funding or advertiser-supported the only options? You know the
Golden Rule: "The one with gold the makes the rules." I think the
question of money is going to become more acute as more businesses
make money off FOSS code.
Like Kirrily's OSCON presentation says, new contributors are not
going to replace old ones-- it's additive, and they will make us
stronger and better.