The other side of the coin: what people get out of contributing to WordPress

The first iteration of this article, The 4 “Gets” in WordPress Community Organizing, was written in 2019. In this update, I apply these ideas to all parts of the WordPress open source project.                     

People all over the world contribute to WordPress, in many, many ways

WordPress contributor handbooks have lots of public information about what each team does, and how or what they ask people to give when they contribute. However, there isn’t always a clear explanation of what contributors might expect to get, from or through their contribution. While many people know that WordPress is made possible through volunteer time, it’s sometimes less clear what kind of reciprocity exists in the project. But for everything that a contributor gives, there is almost always something that they receive.

Photo by Raphael Brasileiro on Pexels.com

Here’s an incomplete-but-good-starter list of some benefits that WordPress contributors might get, through contributing to WordPress:

Impact

As of early 2021, WordPress powers 40% of the web. That’s an enormous footprint for an open source project. The decisions made by Core designers and developers affect millions upon millions of users. Translators extend the power of WordPress to 75% of the world’s population that doesn’t speak English. WordPress community organizers bring together nearly half a million enthusiasts per year to talk about the software. Our documentation and support forum threads are viewed by millions of people every month. 

It’s hard to find another volunteer-based, open source organization that compares to WordPress, for reach and impact. 

Growth 

In WordPress, most volunteer opportunities are based on your interests, not your experience. WordPress community organizers aren’t required to have organized an event, or have managed a team, before taking on a leadership role in their local communities. No one reviews a developer’s resume, or a designer’s portfolio when considering whether to merge a patch to the WordPress core software. You don’t need to be a professional speaker or educator to create a workshop for learn.wordpress.org.

And yet, working in WordPress gives contributors a chance to develop a broad array of skills: leadership, communications, design, logistics, marketing, fundraising, management… the list goes on.  Every one of these skills can create opportunities in someone’s professional career or personal life — and generally can offer a safe place to experiment, where you’re not risking your career if your idea doesn’t work out. 

Training/Support

Most of what contributors need to know to get started, and become proficient, is publicly available. You don’t need anyone’s permission to submit a patch, share a solution in the support forums, or test a theme for accessibility.  Onboarding to many roles is unusually short, compared to many other global volunteer programs — even for roles with specialized skills/knowledge, like writing lesson plans or translating WordPress

Our training, documentation, best practices, and tools are produced by experienced contributors — many of whom do that kind of work professionally. And when contributors run into problems they don’t know how to handle, nearly every team has a group of experienced helpers available to give feedback. Through sharing feedback, contributors grow together as they work to meet the high standards that come with high-impact work.

Safety

Though this limited autonomy sometimes shows up as a “bug” for contributors (sometimes it sounds like “why are people getting in the way of my excellent & important idea?!”), I firmly believe this is a desirable feature. 

Nearly every contributor opportunity has checks and balances in place, which reduce risk when volunteers try out their bright ideas (either in theory or in practice), without endangering the success of any major WordPress components or initiatives. Code contributions are reviewed by world-class developers before being added to the core software. New event formats are discussed and refined before we try them out, are documented, and then iterated upon. Translations are reviewed and edited before they go “live.”

So! 

Those are some pretty great things you can expect when contributing to WordPress! AND… there are things that no one gets, or that only come with time or experience — and it’s important to call those out too.

What WordPress contributors don’t get (right away, and sometimes ever)

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com
  1. Complete autonomy. As mentioned above, contributors can make a lot of powerful choices when helping to build, maintain, extend, and promote WordPress — but that doesn’t mean they can make just any choice. If you accept a position of responsibility as a WordPress contributor despite disagreeing with some parts of the role, you’re still expected to do the things that everyone in that role is asked to do — they’re part of the job.
  2. Commit-level access. WordPress contributors are full of bright ideas, which is a lot of what makes this project so great. Not every bright idea meshes well with WordPress project values or works on a broad scale, though. The WordPress open source project is open source, but it’s not open commit*. Even if you are certain that your idea is a good one, it still might not work as part of WordPress core software, or in the WordPress community. Commit-level access (and similar levels of responsibility on other WordPress contributor teams) can be earned over time, of course. 
  3. And other things.  There are other things, too, which are detailed in contributor handbooks or other kinds of contributor training or resources. (For the Community team, they’re outlined in the 5 Good Faith Rules for meetups, plus Should You Be An Organizer? and Representing WordPress docs in the WordCamp organizer handbook.) To summarize, it’s best not to try to establish a leadership position in WordPress for self-serving purposes. Likewise, if your leadership approach includes hateful or very controlling behavior, WordPress probably won’t be a good fit for you.

Share your thoughts

What do you think about this list of “get”s and “don’t get”s — does it accurately describe the kinds of personal return that contributors can reasonably expect for the time they invest in contributing to WordPress? Follow-up question: what did you expect you’d get out of contributing to WordPress, and what did you actually get?

*An ”open commit” project allows anyone, no matter their level of familiarity or expertise, to commit their code to the core code base. 

Some reflections on Dotorg dilution, and how to combat it

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.

My rubric when asking for additional user permissions

A WordPress contributor told me recently that he was feeling anxious about asking for a new level of user permissions for problem-solving reasons, and in the process of advising him, I realized I have a fairly reliable rubric for making those requests. Maybe it’s even useful outside of WordPress? Here it is, regardless!

  1. Hey (person), I/we have a problem, and a possible solution that you might be able to help provide. 
  2. Our team/I need to be able to do (action), in order to (accomplish something supporting the mutually understood goal of team).
  3. Currently we’re (using this awkward workaround)/completely blocked, which is inconvenient for our team and (people we’re working with). 
  4. If I/we/this group could get the right user permissions to (do XYZ), that would fix this problem. 
  5. Are there any downsides to that approach that you think I’m missing? If not, are you a person who could help us get this access?

If you have feedback on this message structure, leave it in the comments! Excelsior!

Doing business in WordPress: missed opportunities

If you’re new to WordPress-based business, welcome! There’s never been a better time to help people achieve their goals with WordPress. The ecosystem is vast, and we’re a welcoming community.

An image of three people smiling, with arms around each other, at a conference.
Don’t we look welcoming? Here I am at WordCamp US 2016, with fellow WordPress enthusiasts Cory Miller (left) and Bob Dunn (right). I’m can’t quite make out who’s photobombing us in the background there. This photo was swiped from Bob’s social media.

I’ve worked with WordPress contributors and business owners, full time, since 2011. Anytime I meet someone who’s decided to build a business that depends on open source, I find myself hoping they’ve researched open source and its complexities. If this is you, and you’re not sure you’ve done that research, I hope this article is helpful to you!

Here are some things I think WordPress-based businesses need to know:

WordPress is Free and Powerful

Sometimes I wonder if WordPress-based businesses understand the incredible advantage that WordPress’ (lack of) price and open source foundation bring. The fact that WordPress is low-risk to try, and practically limitless to build on, has directly contributed to its ubiquity on the web. WordPress is a stable platform that can be used for nearly every purpose, which means WordPress-based businesses have an enormous built-in market.

What people often miss:

I frequently see WordPress-based businesses limit their potential by restricting how people use their theme or plugin. This effort requires a lot of work for a mediocre net return, which directly conflicts with the things that make WordPress appeal to so many people. The GPL makes WordPress possible, and it makes WordPress successful. When you try to limit your users’ rights with a non-GPL license, you’re limiting your work’s ability to grow with WordPress. Don’t work against the “selling points” of WordPress; support them and build on them, just like you do WordPress itself.

WordPress Changes

The software available at WordPress.org is stable, but ever-changing. This is great because it means that a lot of people are working to keep WordPress relevant, secure, and easy to work with. Anyone whose product or business depends on WordPress needs to keep up with the 3 or so releases per year, to know how and whether they will affect your business. It’s smart to notify your customers about upcoming changes to Core WordPress that will affect them, as well. Since you’re not in control of the Core roadmap, then your smartest move is to stay informed about how it will affect you.

What people often miss:

Remember, the unique solution that your business brings to WordPress (if it’s code-based at least) could be added to Core WordPress and available to all WordPress users, at any time. For this reason, it’s particularly important that your business not monetize access to the software. To have a truly resilient and successful WordPress-based company, monetize something that makes the software more powerful for your customers. What you’re selling should be so valuable that your customers would still pay you for it, even if your plugin or theme were merged into Core.

WordPress is Growing

This diagram shows the percentages of websites using various content management systems.
A snapshot from today’s W3techs.com page on content management statistics.

As of February 2021, WordPress powers 40% of the web. I believe that this growth is rooted in the power of open source, and that the road that brought us here was paved by the work of thousands of global WordPress enthusiasts. The opportunity to help WordPress grow is open to all, regardless of experience or background. The work of helping WordPress grow — by translating, writing documentation, organizing events, helping in the support forums, publishing videos, creating great training content, and so much more — helps everyone who uses WordPress and whose livelihoods depend on WordPress. This results in a culture and a community that understands that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The WordPress financial ecosystem is one of the most friendly, collaborative, and welcoming that you’ll find.

What people often miss:

Companies that make brash, unsubstantiated business claims and regularly trash-talk competitors… do not flourish in WordPress. We don’t succeed here by trying to steal each other’s customers or features. We also help WordPress avoid the tragedy of the commons by giving back to the project. In WordPress, the most successful companies focus on growing the whole pie of the WordPress market (which then grows their slice as well).

Don’t miss your chance!

I firmly believe that WordPress is a great place to grow: as a person, as a leader, and as a business. If you haven’t considered getting involved in WordPress before, I encourage you to check out all the different ways to join us as a contributor. If you’re brand new to this WordPress thing, check out my list of resources for new and experienced WordPress enthusiasts. There’s lots to learn, but don’t worry, you’ve got time — we’re not going anywhere but up. 😉

What did I miss?

What other important things should businesses and people know about the WordPress ecosystem? Tell me about them in the comments!

Many thanks to Jonathan Wold for his feedback on this article!

What happens when you won’t admit (or don’t realize) you’re a leader

Hello, my name is Andrea, and I’m a recovering leader-in-denial.

I’ve spent much of my life stepping (usually reluctantly) into leadership roles, while also eagerly looking for someone else who could lead better than me — so I could stop being in charge! And that rarely happened, much to my surprise and chagrin, but only recently did I realize that was because… I am actually gifted at leadership.

“I smell imposter syndrome!” you’ll say — and you are correct! But having my own imposter syndrome pointed out to me… was not the thing that helped me get past it. The lightning bolt for me, was when I realized that my unwillingness to embrace a leadership role was causing me to screw up the actual work of leading.

Read on for my observations on how leading without admitting or realizing that you’re in charge… is really inefficient and hard!

  1. You’ll probably avoid doing *all* of the job. Many times I have stepped into a leadership role because I was in a group of people who had no direction. I would wait for someone to step up and take charge, and wait some more, and wait some MORE, and finally it was too much for me. So I would speak up and say, “Hey everyone, let’s go this way!” and then shut up again. Little bursts of leadership and strategy are usually better than nothing, but having a consistent and engaged leader is WAY more effective.
  2. You are more likely to undermine yourself and confuse others. If you think you shouldn’t be doing something, you are more likely to do that thing in a half-hearted or apologetic manner. Alternately, you might act passive aggressively, resenting that you’re in a position that you find uncomfortable. I don’t endorse an authoritarian approach to leadership, but you can lead collaboratively without apologizing for holding people accountable or setting limits.
  3. You probably think you’re failing if everyone isn’t happy all the time. Now, I like making people happy, and I think that leaders should care about the health and welfare of the people on their team. As a leader, you have a duty of care, but that duty does not always extend to “please all of the people, all of the time.” Leaders have to make choices, and some choices aren’t crowd-pleasers. Reluctant leaders or leaders-in-denial tend to stay in reaction mode — which is frequently conflict- and tough-decision averse.
  4. You are more likely to get in the way of your people. There’s a leadership adage that says, “when the conductor picks up an instrument, the orchestra falls apart.” The conductor doesn’t grab the violin when it’s time for the solo, or when the violinist is off key. If you’re laboring under the assumption that your primary value to the group is not that of leading, then you’re going to be looking for any excuse to put down that work and go back to individual contribution, sometimes by taking over the work of someone who might just need a little (or a lot of) support to do a better job.
  5. You won’t work on improving your skills. Good leadership is learned behavior, and learned behavior benefits from study and practice. By rejecting the fact that you’re a leader, you immediately cut yourself off from opportunities to get better at leadership in an intentional way. And when you do something badly, then you reinforce the idea that you’re not well-suited for it…. it’s a catch-22!
  6. You exempt yourself as a role model. People from marginalized groups don’t have a long list of excellent leaders to model ourselves after. That might even be one of the reasons you don’t see yourself as a leader — because you don’t look/sound/work like many of the leaders you saw while growing up. When people from traditionally marginalized groups courageously inhabit a leadership role despite all their misgivings, they change the very face of leadership.

I’ve learned a lot about myself on this leadership journey so far, which I love to do. I may have started out by accident — and I won’t say it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done — but it’s a lot easier and more rewarding now that I’m bringing intent and awareness to the work. If any of this resonates with you, I’d love to hear about it! 

CMX Global online conference

It was a pleasure to present my conflict de-escalation workshop at today’s CMX Global online conference. If you signed up for the conference but missed my session, I think all sessions will be available to anyone who registered. If you didn’t register but are interested in the topic, I have published the script, bibliography and slides on this site. Enjoy!

The event used a platform called Hopin, which was quite interesting to try out. There is a “green room” tool that worked pretty well, and an “Expo” menu item, which allowed the event to offer online “sponsor booths” of a sort. There is also a Networking feature, which is straight-up video call roulette. While the one networking chat I did was quite pleasant, I can’t see myself using that feature very extensively in the future. It was anxiety-producing, not knowing who I was going to be dropped into conversation with. Unfortunately, the tool doesn’t seem to be accessible to keyboard-only users, so it’s not something we would seriously consider for online WordCamps.

The conference organizers tried a LOT of cool ideas, including live demos, networking, lunchtime stretching, an after-party DJ session, and after-conference mixology class. I’m sad I missed the Calligraphy 101 session at the end; that showed a lot of imagination.

It was great to participate both as a speaker and attendee, seeing people try out things I wouldn’t have attempted or hadn’t thought of. Kudos to the CMX team for carefully crafting this event, and to Beth McIntyre and Ann Marie Pawlicki for their attentive care of speakers! If you are looking to polish up your community organizing/management game, I recommend checking out CMX — they have some great resources (both free and behind the membership paywall) and plenty of helpful people.

Dancing with production

I always enjoy the excellent podcast Hurry Slowly (hat tip Josepha Haden Chomphosy for the recommendation), and a recent episode called “Are you Satisfiable?” really resonated with me this week. The episode centers on the ideas of writer, facilitator, and activist adrienne maree brown, who recently published the book Pleasure Activism.

The whole interview is wonderful, but this particular passage caught my attention:

I think in the workplace, it’s been interesting to see how that kind of thinking, like “oh everything should be scheduled and controlled and managed,” moves us further and further away from the natural and organic rhythms at which creativity and miracle actually want to happen.

And I’m getting curious and interested about spaces that are starting to adapt to… what does it mean to acknowledge that we have organic human beings, um, in these places, and that there are processes that have an organic pace to them….

There’s something about being in right relationship to change that acknowledges that not all change is mean to be driven; some of it is meant to be experienced in other ways. And that perhaps the changes we’re in now, which are climate apocalypse changes, perhaps those changes are only happening because we’ve been trying to drive production, and instead we need to slow down and learn to dance with it, dance with what’s happening in the world, and I’m really getting curious about that.

adrienne maree brown, on the Hurry Slowly podcast “Are you Satisfiable?”

Personally, I am very comfortable when everything is scheduled and controlled and managed, but have found that I am much more able to think creatively when I am not scheduling and controlling and managing.

Likewise, I frequently find myself with a seed of an idea, that escapes me when I try to force it into being. If I leave it alone, though (I think of it as allowing the idea to gestate in my “back brain”), the seed is much more likely to grow and bear fruit. It resonates with me that my organic brain might best create on an organic pace.

I also love the idea of dancing with production, rather than trying to drive it. So much of technology work — development, design, documentation, support — is creative work. What could happen if more respect and space were given to the non-linear, non-schedule-able process of creation?

Innovation and Empathy for Loss

In reading Megan Risdal‘s excellent article, Reflections on Stack Overflow: Building Successful Communities, I was struck by a particular passage:

Have empathy. Loss aversion is a very real thing. Even if simplifying something is the best thing for users by all other accounts, taking something away still hurts. And this impacts not just end users, but the people who originally worked on a feature. You can have empathy by understanding how they use the feature and asking about the historical context around its original creation.

– Megan Risdal, Reflections on Stack Overflow: Building Successful Communities

Here’s a good definition of loss aversion: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-loss-aversion/

I think technologists in particular — because we are so fond of innovation — tend to look down on people who express aversion to loss. That disparaging attitude isn’t very respectful, and thus doesn’t lead to very respectful or productive conversations.

Certainly, change is a part of life, but likewise every change is a kind of a death — perhaps the death of something that should die, but any loss can cause deep sadness… and even a crisis of belonging. When innovating, it’s worth asking yourself whether you can find a way to give people the space to grieve the loss associated with the change, holding space for their pain, rather than just brushing them off as short-sighted enemies of progress.

Talking leadership, events, and open source with Cory Miller

I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with my friend Cory Miller about leadership, event organizing, and open source today. Check out that conversation if you’d like to hear about the three epiphanies that have changed the way I think about my work!

Cory has a ton of great content on his Youtube channel, too — he’s a wise leader with a strong sense of ethics, who has also shared some important insights around mental health in the tech entrepreneur space. If you care about those things too, check out his body of work; it’s great.

Embracing inclusion by fighting your brain

Recently I’ve been talking with community organizers about how we can both organize inclusive events and also do that organizing in an inclusive manner. WordPress is an open source project, and because open source depends on a large active contributor base, we have to constantly think about how to make the project welcoming and inclusive.

One of the goals for the WordPress Community Team is to organize in-person events (meetups and WordCamps) that help connect and inspire WordPress enthusiasts. We ask organizers to organize welcoming and inclusive events, AND we ask them to do that organizing in a welcoming and inclusive manner. (Double play!) This means we encourage organizers to recruit a diverse organizing team, work transparently, and embrace community involvement and feedback.

All of that sounds great and seems simple enough, right? We have great tools for publishing information for everyone to see (namely, WordPress), we have great language around how our program is open to everyone, we have a code of conduct, yay! Inclusion!

Except of course we’re all humans, thinking with our human brains. Human brains, alas, are not always our friends when it comes to diversity and inclusion, because human brains are primarily wired to keep our bodies alive. And from our brains’ perspective, diversity and transparency have not kept our bodies alive for millions of years. What human brains have found highly successful re: the survival of the human race is: to create and stay in small groups of people with similar looks and values.

So in many ways, the work of a community organizer in an open source project is to fight with your brain a lot. This is what happens for me at least, multiple times per day:

“Danger!” say my brain. “Someone different wants to join our group!”

“Shhhh…” I say back to my brain. “It’s going to be ok, they just want to help.”

“But they’re not like us and they might fight us and we might lose and then we’ll die!” suggests my brain.

“I see what you’re saying,” I reply, “but really this discomfort is not dangerous, and we really need more people who are different, to help us grow.”

“Harumph,” says my brain. “I’m certain you’re wrong, so I’m going to sit back quietly course-correct us toward safety with my favorite tools, adrenaline for change and endorphins for sameness, until you stop endangering us with your crazy ideas.”

“Ok,” I sigh, “I realize you can’t help it, so I’m going to use logic and patience to keep reminding us that tight-knit exclusive groups, paranoia, and suspicion will not serve any of the goals we have in building open source communities.”

And scene.

I don’t have a solution to my assertion that open source goes against human nature, other than this practice of fighting my instinctual attraction to exclusivity and closed groups/processes. If you’ve found a method that works for you, I’d love to hear it! 🙂

 

Building community as an act of love

Editorial warning: this is a messy, stream of consciousness kind of post. 🙂

I was listening to a podcast called Becoming Wise today, in which a scientist who is also a Jesuit priest recounted a memory:

When I was a little kid, about nine years old, I remember a rainy Sunday afternoon, and you couldn’t go out to play, and you were stuck in the house, and my mom came out with a deck of cards, and dealt them out, and we played rummy together. Now, my mom can beat me at cards because I’m 9 years old, but that’s not the point of the game. The game was her way of telling me she loved me in a way — she couldn’t just say, you know, son I love you, because I’m 9 years old, I’m going to squirm and go ‘aww mom,’ and run away — in a way, being able to do science, and come to an intimate knowledge of creation, is God’s way of playing with us. And it’s that kind of play that is one way that God tells us how He loves us. So, is it invented? It’s as invented as the card game. But is it an act of love? It’s as much an act of love as the card game.

I had a lot of thoughts about this story, including stuff around gendering deity, the notion of deity itself, is 9yo deflection of love innate or taught by the patriarchy, etc. Take all that as a given if you can (I know: distracting).

Today, what really got me thinking from this story is the notion of how science, as an act of understanding the universe, can also be an act of love. Because what is love, but an effort toward acceptance and understanding someone/something? And then I got to thinking about my work, which centers on community organizing.

There is this huge community of people who use WordPress, and my work for the past 5 years has been to facilitate that community’s growth and health. Community is vital to the WordPress open source project — to any open source project — because WordPress is developed through a collaborative effort among hundreds of volunteers all around the world. Community fosters collaboration, which then fosters the growth and development of WordPress.

Collaboration is an act of love. Working with a group — sometimes even when you don’t 100% agree with everything the group’s doing, but flexing your muscles of acceptance and understanding, and adding your effort to the effort of many — working together for the common good, that shows trust and love.

Likewise, it’s an act of love to welcome criticism — to welcome reports of negative experiences — more ardently then we welcome praise. Praise just tells us that what we thought was right, was right.  Which is good — “works as expected” is always nice, right? — but that positive echo chamber doesn’t lay open more roads for improvement.

Community is an act of love. The act of talking about how you use this software, WordPress, that we all share, of telling people the problems that you face, of sharing your solutions to those problems, or lack of solutions — that is a vulnerable act, and humans rarely make themselves vulnerable unless they feel safe. But when you feel you know people in the group, when you feel close to people in your community, you are more likely to feel safe and make yourself vulnerable. By growing closer, we are stronger, and more able to become closer yet again.

Adding new people to our community is an act of love. It can be frightening to include more people, to make the circle bigger, to factor in more experiences and more ways that our solutions and tools could be imperfect. Humans survived a long time by defending their groups against “the other,” not embracing difference. Groups are safe, and opening your group to different people causes change, and change is not safe.

But without an open and actively opening community, our project, our WordPress, stalls out in an echo chamber. So the work is collaboration and community, but the master’s work is to constantly question your assumptions, to every day question if you have made your community as welcoming and as open as it possibly can be. To question yourself constantly: have I missed something? Is there another perspective, a group of people for whom this event or experience would not be pleasant or useful? How can I welcome those people and perspectives?

The way we design (or try to design) WordPress, should also be the way we design community: so that the experience is effortless and welcoming for everyone. And the way that we show our love and our willingness to collaborate is by constantly questioning whether we’ve done enough, listened enough, opened our minds and communities enough.

The work is never done, and isn’t that marvelous? There are, and will be, so many ways to improve how we show our love for one another.