Some reflections on Dotorg dilution, and how to combat it

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When I started working in WordPress, about 10 years ago, Jen Mylo warned me about about something pretty early.

At some point, you start seeing all the things that aren’t working, and you will want to fix them all, all at once. Don’t let yourself get distracted. You’re here to work on certain things, and you can’t do that if you’re working on all the things.

— something like what Jen told me, probably back in early 2011

Let’s call it Dotorg dilution.* This experience — being overwhelmed by the many places and people needing help, and taking on so many things that you suddenly find yourself spread too thin to accomplish much of anything at all — hits nearly everyone who gets involved in the WordPress open source project beyond a surface level. WordPress tends to attract helpful people (luckily for us!). The organization is vast. There’s a lot to do, and not a lot of people to do it.

I’ve seen this affect contributors differently, depending on whether they are paid or volunteers, so I’ll address both cases separately.

Volunteer Contributors

Dotorg dilution generally hits a volunteer/unpaid contributor in the Engaging or Producing stage, and it can block or slow someone’s progression on the contributor ladder. I usually notice because suddenly that person is everywhere, taking part in every new project, initiative, or experiment that comes along. Burnout is a danger at that point, and a number of enthusiastic people cycle out of volunteering every year because the dilution makes them feel (rightly) that they aren’t making a difference. Here’s my advice for avoiding that:

Stop and drop

If you’re struggling with this problem, I recommend you pause and spend some time thinking about what excites you most about contributing to WordPress. Then, identify how much time in a typical week or month you might have available for volunteer time, both in the short- and long-term. It might be someone can help in the support forums or translations while their local WordCamp isn’t in active planning, but during the 3 months of pre-WordCamp intensity, they have to step back from contributing in another area. Once you figure out what you realistically have time for, start cutting back on your commitments.

It’s OK to step away

Once you’ve decided how much time you plan to put into your WordPress contributions, communicate proactively if you need to change your role, reduce your commitments, or take a break. Very, very few contributor roles require long-term, fixed time commitments (which is great for flexibility). In the case of work that includes fixed time commitments or specialized skills/knowledge, such as WordCamp lead organizing or a role on a WordPress core release, it’s important to communicate as early as possible if you think you’ll need to step back, for a time or permanently. Nearly every contributor has had to make a tough decision about priorities in their WordPress work, so messages like “I really wanted to do this, but I’ve found that I just don’t have the time” are nearly always met with understanding and grace.

Fight FOMO with long-term thinking

For better or worse, many things move slowly in WordPress. Just because there’s a lot of energy around an idea or initiative right now, doesn’t mean you need to drop everything else to focus on a new project. Many, many (most?) projects go slower than expected, or will need a new influx of contributors in a few months or next year — in fact, that’s when they’ll need help even more! Large-scale organizations like WordPress frequently need help with sustainability even more than they do with new initiatives.

Come back anytime

Finally, I hope all volunteers remember that WordPress is a safe and welcoming place to step away from and back to. If we haven’t seen you around in a while, we probably miss you! Come on back, as soon as you’re ready or have time for a new challenge.

Paid Contributors

Dotorg dilution can affect paid contributors differently, due to a few factors:

  1. We’re here to do a job. Companies don’t just send employees into WordPress to do “y’know, whatever looks important.” We’re all on teams that have set goals — ambitious ones, at that! — and if we don’t work on the things we’re asked to work on, there will be employment-level consequences. That said, we all have some autonomy in our work, and we’re all very performant. It’s easy to think, “I’ll just take this on in my free time. All of those people are working on this in *their* free time, why not me too?”
  2. We have more time than most. Compared to most volunteers, paid contributors have an embarrassment of hours to work on things. Not offering to spend time on something can sometimes feel awkward if you’re the only person in the meeting or group who’s being paid to contribute, or contributing full-time.
  3. We can lend legitimacy. If an initiative or project has paid contributors working on it, that will sometimes give people the impression that it’s “sanctioned” or prioritized by project leadership (which is not always true). Volunteer contributors who consciously or unconsciously recognize this, might put extra effort into recruiting paid contributors for their passion projects/ideas.

Avoiding Dotorg dilution as a paid contributor isn’t complicated, but it’s also not easy. Here are some tactics that have worked for me and others I know:

Make all WordPress work = work

This is one of my preferred tactics: I don’t contribute to WordPress in my non-work time. I might volunteer for other organizations in my free time, and I might even help them with a WordPress site as part of that volunteer work (woe be unto them, I’m not very helpful). But if I do WordPress work after-hours, then I’m working after-hours — no exceptions.

Check in with your lead or colleagues

If an initiative seems really compelling to you and seems to need people badly, but also seems like it’ll interfere with your assigned/identified high-priority work, check in with your colleagues to see if the work fits into someone else’s work scope. If you think your list needs to be re-prioritized, definitely talk to your lead about that before you go too deep on a “new, shiny.”

Remember that challenging problems can lead to growth

WordPress is an organization that fosters growth for volunteers with many backgrounds and skill sets. We’re an incredibly supportive bunch, too. If you’re not able to help this time, or this year, that doesn’t mean an initiative is guaranteed to fail — and if it does fail, that failure may be more beneficial than you expect. Failed experiments can teach just as much as successful ones.

Share your challenges or pro-tips!

If this resonates with you, or if you have questions or wisdom to share, please comment below!

*This was originally described to me as “dotorg disease,” but I’m renaming it because…. well, pandemics.

By Andrea Middleton

I'm a community organizer on the WordPress open source project and a wine enthusiast.

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