nate of nine

A Tale of Two Communities

A few quick important notes before I begin.

  1. I am a huge fan, supporter, and fervent believer in open source. It is not “the only way” but I do firmly believe it is a necessary and good way.
  2. I am intentionally not mentioning any specific people, companies, events or communities in this post despite how obvious it may be to some people who know me.
  3. The intention of this is to draw attention to the impact attitudes can have on a community. Furthermore, it is a focus on the human aspect of these communities, not evaluations of products they produce in any way.
  4. These are personal beliefs and statements about how I will be conducting my personal time and affairs. It is also very tied to my personal experience, which may or may not be the experience others have had.

Over the years I have been involved in a number of technical communities; student groups, meetups, open source projects, etc. Each one has its own unique culture. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Even when communities struggle with attendance, or volunteers, or conflicts whether they be internal or external, they all have something special that their constituents value and share. That is something that should not be forgotten or diminished. It is something foundational that makes it all possible.

One of the communities I have been involved in, I’ll refer to it as Community A, had some profound impact on my life. It helped me take a few successful leaps of faith in my life. It helped me transition my career, allowed me to grow. It gave me the opportunity to experience a wide variety of people and places, literally all over the world. It has also caused me profound internal conflict, especially over the past few years.

As I became more involved in the community and the companies supporting it I became exposed to some challenging situations:

  • Being told upon starting a job at one of the prominent companies that I should be prepared to take my clients to strip clubs, and later watching it actually happen as part of conference culture, even part of sales expense accounts.
  • Watching misogynistic attitudes and blatant disrepect and bias from senior executives, including C-level.
  • Watching questionable office behavior and fear of nepotism-based justification.
  • Arguments between companies that can only be described as religious-style battles (in public and at conferences) based over who was right without asking end users what they desired or experienced.
  • Being made to feel uncomfortable and have my intentions challenged when I maintained friendly and cordial professional relationships with people from other companies who were all members of the same open source community.
  • Having my employer make an official press release—picked up by official news sources and republished—right after a round of funding about going to an upcoming conference with loads of cash to throw epic parties including references to drugs and strip clubs, apparently as a joke. Clients called me asking what was going on and making it known that this behavior could strain and threaten our professional relationship. C-level execs delayed for quite some time to offer a public clarification, and completely refused to issue an apology. My immediate superviors were concerned by my anger and embarrassment, but senior executives wanted lists of everyone who had issues with this and told us to stop making an issue out of it.
  • Witnessing in the community, personally and through observation of others, numerous accounts of rude, attacking, and destructive behavior towards volunteers looking to contribute or newbies asking honest questions. In some cases this was dealt with, but even in those scenarios it would go on literally for years.
  • Witnessing numerous accounts of “brogrammer”-style attitudes that either you are a hardcore developer or are dumb.
  • Watching prominent community members promote foul and offensive ideals during official conference sessions.

As I make that list, I’m alarmed by the size of it. Frankly, I’m a bit ashamed I waited so long to make a stance after I see it all compiled together. I was not forced to do things I did not want to, and in some cases I even laughed at some of the jokes. In hindsight I wish I had not. I’ve made mistakes that I can not change, but what I can do is focus on what I do moving forward and what I choose to support.

In contrast, Community B feels entirely different. There are similarities amongst individuals in both A and B. Both communities contain wonderfully loving and inclusive people. Passion for the larger mission are present in both places. However, in Community B this seems to be the norm. When you look at the makeup of the community, Community B includes a far wider and diverse makeup; developers, users, designers, business owners, passions in just about every aspect of life. Community A has that, but Community B is that. Community A even has a large representation of these people. The unfortunate part is that it also has another part that rears its head into the mainstream makes me feel as if I simply cannot be a personal participant.

Additionally, there appears to be a distinct compassion for not leaving people behind in Community B. At first glance this appears that it could be a technological handicap, but somehow they’ve turned it into a pragmatic strength and have some staggering stats to prove it.

If there is one way I could sum up a generalization of the two communities, it would be this:

Community A is primarily focused on building a tool. Community B is interested in using the tool they are building to achieve a series of other things out in the world.

The products of these two attitudes came in stark contrast to me recently:

  • Organizers of Community A included a female-objectifying magazine associated with pornography as official conference swag handed out to everyone (Playboy). I want to give credit that an apology was issued, but let me be clear that this does not erase or negate this extremely distasteful and official decision. These organizers only found issue after an outcry against them.
  • I personally observed a company prominent in both communities chose to react to a (potentially legitimate) disagreement by attempting to rally anger and protest against the facilitators in the midst of an event in Community B and then cried foul when they were banned from the event for inappropriate behavior. I then saw numerous members of Community A actively promoting and justifying the company’s misbehavior by saying someone else acted poorly as well.

I am a father of three children. All three of my children, two girls and one boy, are very interested and proud of my professional and personal involvements. They want to be involved and learn what I do. I want to teach them the values of volunteering and believing in things greater than yourself. I want them to learn compassion and empathy.

How on earth can I teach them these things safely, productively, and successfully in Community A where such hostility, toxicity, and misogyny are so prevalent?

This really caused me great grief and anxiety as I know numerous admirable people and efforts in Community A that I think very highly of. What I needed to realize was that it wasn’t about them being part of Community A, it was about everything else that came along with Community A. Over the weekend I realized a simple but intensely black and white fact: I would absolutely not take anyone in my family with me to an event for Community A, while I would happily (and sincerely hope to) take them to numerous events for Community B.

If you are a community builder or even just a community member in any project, I encourage you to remember this comparison. Whether or not you agree with my assessment is irrelevant. It is my experience and not for anyone to say whether or not I experienced those things. I offer this as an encouragement to communities to consider what is accepted, promoted as well as what is abolished and never permitted to grow. Situations like these don’t just spring up overnight they take a long time to grow and spread. Not everyone will agree with each other so it is vital to a vibrant community to have respect and compassion as primary values.

Earlier today, after almost 9 years of official involvement, I deleted my Community A account and performed an extreme purge of my Twitter list. I realized I had been avoiding Twitter for quite some time and so much of my feed was filled with negative and sarcastic rhetoric. When you’re surrounded by that you start to think it’s normal and even start to participate in it. I can’t let that continue for me, life is simply too short.



8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Communities”

  • Hey Nate,

    Do you think the problems (which are valid) are problems with the company you were working for, or the community as a whole?

    The company that you were working for is very sales-centric (with the majority of its employees in sales/marketing/etc) and does not represent the community at-large. The community at-large has also highlighted issues with this company.

    You do mention that “Organizers of Community A” included Playboy in a swagbag. You don’t mention that this was an organizer of a smaller conference in Europe, which less than 1% of the community even heard of (before the Twitter storm). European culture is not the same as American-centric culture, although that does not excuse the act.

    Community A has an excellent track record of including underprivileged groups and typically has >20% female attendance at its major conference, which is more than other similar communities. It has an even greater amount of female and minority speakers, and continues to strive to increase this. Community A’s association is run by a woman, and has an amazing “community working group”, that does is empowered to act to remove aggressive people from communities and conferences. It has even done so before, because once you put thousands of people into one place, you’re certain to have a certain amount of assholes.

    Looking forward to your response.

  • Hi Mike –

    You are very astute and correct. I agree that the company in question probably had a huge part to play. I’d even go further and say that with a couple of these experiences, they tend to stack and create baggage that I tried to acknowledge was just my own and others may not have had these experiences.

    I also agree that objectively speaking there is a ton of great efforts by various leaders. In fact, I feel quite confident to say that I think the community would be far stronger if the community’s association were more “in charge”. Commercial interests, in community organizational issues as well as toxic sales cultures at more than just one company, really cause damage. (Note: I’m using ‘toxic’ as an adjective, and not stereotyping that sales cultures have to be toxic)

    I do want to caution, that it’s easy to start accepting the murmur that is still harmful; the pedantic arguments, dismissive attitudes, etc. Community A definitely attracts a high percentage of strongly held opinions, often times without the courtesy or skill to balance them in such a diverse group. It’s a challenge for sure.

    It truly was no single event. Rather, a series of experiences with a company, with vocal personalities (some of whom have been dealt with, yes), with issue queues (even the “good” issue queues are ridiculously long and turn into debates that most people don’t have the time, knowledge, or interest in joining). It all started to leave me with a general impression of 1) there are a lot of nice people and 2) there is a sizable group of pushy, rude, opinionated people that can bomb in at any time.

    I’ve seen companies hold public debates at a conference, thinly veiled as a panel discussion, where they prep ahead of time on how they’re going to tear each other down. I’ve see another company attack a client from the podium in an official conference session. I’ve been to meetups where attendees take pot shots at contributors and official core initiatives. It’s really a shame, since I firmly believe that these people do not represent the community. I tried to articulate that, but may have not been as effective as I hoped.

    Community A even has a large representation of these people. The unfortunate part is that it also has another part that rears its head into the mainstream makes me feel as if I simply cannot be a personal participant.

    I want to see Community A succeed. I want to see Open Source succeed. I honestly think these lessons that I have learned and will take with me can apply to just about any community.

    In my attempt to take a wordy post and keep it somewhat concise, I did make an error in that I referred to Community A too generically. This led to the impression that everyone, or at least a large percentage of people, represented these issues. This is just not the case. Unfortunately for any community it doesn’t take too many to start souring the experiences of individuals.

    Sometimes when you’re sick you don’t realize how bad you feel until you’re better. That’s how I’ve felt recently about [parts of) Community A. There’s some community culture aspects that have just been accepted as status quo that probably should be examined.

    “Proudly not invented here” was a brilliant effort, despite the amount of nay-saying I also saw about it. I am glad it seems to continue to thrive. I’d say that same concept can be applied to the soft-skills as well. What to other communities do better? What can be seen as strengths of this community? What ideas would be good to bring back? These are key questions that are often written off both intentionally and unintentionally when the ‘x-is-best’ excitement is too strong.

    I truly wanted to share my heart and not insult people. I’ve already received notes ranging from “I understand” to comments that extremely clearly underscore my point about problems. Not surprising, I suppose.

    Hope that helps clarify bit. Thank you for taking the time to read.

  • I respect your concerns and understand that your experiences may have been the exact opposite extreme of mine in the Drupal community.

    It is important to speak up when you see these kid of issues as you just did. However I cannot agree with the generalization you are doing of your experiences to the ones everyone must have had.

    I’m sorry to hear that you are hopeless in our community and decided to leave, I wish you could have seen the community using my eyes before losing you. I hope that the people that encourage those foul behaviors you’re describing here, use this post as an excuse to reflect an improve.

    I’m also glad to see that your experiences with [Community B] have been more fulfilling and wish you lots of luck.

  • One of the things I like most about “Community A” is how many times I’ve seen problems faced head on, openly challenged, and how the culture of respectful, constructive discussion wins out and finds the silver lining (aka iterative improvement, learning from mistakes).

    Take ANY human community of any significant size and you will eventually have the good, the bad, the ugly, and more all in there. I think community A’s record of enabling others to change the world, mentoring culture, active efforts for diversity and so on stand head and shoulders above the mistakes made along the way–intentional, innocent, malicious, or otherwise.

    For example, after a thoughtless mistake (the magazine) and unsuccessful efforts to recruit more diverse speakers, the camp team made a sincere apology. I opened the camp with some thoughts about empathy and culture that you can read here: https://medium.com/@horncologne/empathy-diversity-and-open-source-e0f60126002c#.3h35zfqjd and we had 100 or so people attend a very constructive and open diversity BoF session at the camp. The German [Community A] association (the [Community A] Initiative e.V.) is also making official moves to incorporate diversity goals and actions into its charter and activities.

    I’m sorry to see you out of [Community A], but I’m really glad you’ve found an open source home with the very excellent folks over in Community B. 🙂

    • Jam, thank you for your note, and I largely agree with everything you’ve said. I love your post on your site as well. I have edited out the specific references in your comment as I truly do not want search results showing up and adversely affecting other people’s view in a negative way.

      I have not even considered myself “at home” in any other community, which is a strange feeling. If I had more time and energy I would even continue to help the fight in Community A, perhaps most effectively by example setting and zero tolerance for intolerance and in-fighting. It’s definitely not everyone by a long shot and I encourage people to not become accepting of or numb to these attitudes.

  • I enjoyed reading a bunch of dudes defend “Community A.” Fact is, most people who leave, they leave quietly, and people like to pretend that the community is growing when it has lost a lot of talented people.

    I think all the mention of companies here really underscores what’s wrong: the companies that do Drupal. They and their dynamics are incredibly toxic and it seems to have gotten worse over the years. I wasn’t about to hitch my career to something being dragged down by those dynamics. It’s so refreshing being part of a community not dominated by them.

  • Indeed, I can honestly say after my experience in Community A (more specifically the Corporate arm of Community A) when I am asked about my time in the community I only answer with one word.

    Toxic.

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