Open source culture and the valorization of public work

February 25, 2024

A while back I wrote about how doing work that scales requires being able to scale your work, which in the open source world requires time, energy, and the willingness to engage in the public sphere of open source regardless of the other people there and your reception. Not everyone has this sort of time and energy, and not everyone gets a positive reception by open source projects even if they have it.

This view runs deep in open source culture, which valorizes public work even at the cost of stress and time. Open source culture on the one hand tacitly assumes that everyone has those available, and on the other hand assumes that if you don't do public work (for whatever reason) that you are less virtuous or not virtuous at all. To be a virtuous person in open source is to contribute publicly at the cost of your time, energy, stress, and perhaps money, and to not do so is to not be virtuous (sometimes this is phrased as 'not being dedicated enough').

(Often the most virtuous public contribution is 'code', so people who don't program are already intrinsically not entirely virtuous and lesser no matter what they do.)

Open source culture has some reason to praise and value 'doing work that scales', public work; if this work does not get done, nothing happens. But it also has a tendency to demand that everyone do it and to judge them harshly when they don't. This is the meta-cultural issue behind things like the cultural expectations that people will file bug reports, often no matter what the bug reporting environment is like or if filing bug reports does any good (cf).

I feel that this view is dangerous for various reasons, including because it blinds people to other explanations for a lack of public contributions. If you can say 'people are not contributing because they're not virtuous' (or not dedicated, or not serious), then you don't have to take a cold, hard look at what else might be getting in the way of contributions. Sometimes such a cold hard look might turn up rather uncomfortable things to think about.

(Not every project wants or can handle contributions, because they generally require work from existing project members. But not all such projects will admit up front in the open that they either don't want contributions at all or they gatekeep contributions heavily to reduce time burdens on existing project members. And part of that is probably because openly refusing contributions is in itself often seen as 'non-virtuous' in open source culture.)

Written on 25 February 2024.
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