The Thing about Volunteers and Civility

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The thing about volunteers is that they don't have to do what they're doing. If you're getting paid to hang out in an IRC channel and answer questions all day, that's one thing. If you're hanging out on an IRC channel all day because you want to, that's another.

The thing about volunteers writing software is that they don't have to do it. The same goes for volunteers writing documentation or reporting bugs or asking questions about how to use or install or configure that software.

The thing about the Perl community is that almost no one gets paid solely for participating in the Perl community. Sure, you can volunteer for a while to earn the cachet and the right to apply for a TPF grant at a fraction of the going consulting rate to justify continuing to work on the unpleasant parts of a project, but you're still effectively a volunteer.

The thing about volunteers is if it's not worth their time or energy or health or sanity or happiness to keep volunteering, they can walk away whenever they want. They have no obligation to continue to do what they do. Not even their sense of devotion or duty or guilt or community camaraderie should compel them to continue on projects that aren't worth their investment of time, and that's more than okay.

The thing about volunteers is that you can't force them to do anything. You can't force them to have your priorities. You can't force them to work to your schedule. You can't force them to work on your project and you can't force them to care about what you care about. They'll do what they want to do when they want to do it and you either deal with it or you don't.

The thing about volunteers is that it's rare to have too many and it's far too common to have far too few. Thus healthy projects spend time and effort recruiting volunteers and keeping volunteers around and guiding the interests and energy and time of volunteers in productive ways, not only by making their projects pleasant and useful but by removing distractions and unpleasantness from their communitites.

The thing about volunteers is that for every one willing to take the abuse and hostility from a few people, you can't tell how many orders of magnitude more potential volunteers find that hostility and abuse so distasteful that they refuse to consider the possibility that it's worth their time to contribute.

The thing about volunteers is that if you allow certain parts of the community to fester and to grow toxic, you're well on your way to having fewer and fewer volunteers who grow more bitter and eventually become a tiny little cluster of angry, angry people who can't do anything productive.

The thing about volunteers is that it doesn't have to be this way.

Certain Perl IRC channels don't have to be seething cauldrons of rage from burned out system administrators who castigate anyone who doesn't know the secret rituals and wordings of arcane rituals to identify themselves as insiders.

Certain Perl forums don't have to devolve into arguments over whose web framework stole which idea from some other place, or whether it's clear that anyone who does or does not use one CPAN dependency or another has parents with specific unpleasant characteristics.

Certain Perl mailing lists don't have to debate whether people who work on one version of Perl or another are hateful fools whose only goal in life is to destroy everything good and sunshiney and organic.

Certain Perl blogs don't have to have comments accusing other volunteers of being liars or thieves or people of negotiable affection because said volunteers disagree on project management styles.

I suppose it's easier to destroy than to create, and it's easier to prove that you're right by demonstrating your scathing verbal wit with a keyboard, and it's easier to believe that you've won an argument if you reduce the other person to a cardboard cutout of simplistic, ridiculous beliefs. It's also easy to justify your decision to spread hostility if you can overlook the fact that the person you're castigating is a human being with complex motivations, goals, dreams, aspirations, beliefs, and emotions.

The thing about volunteers is that they don't owe you a thing.

If you want a Perl community full of hostile people who jump to hasty conclusions, who are willing to nitpick and debate the specific meaning of words than to understand what other people mean, and who are willing to throw wild accusations of crazy, hateful motives around, then you have an easy task. Just say nothing. Let it fester.

Me, I don't think that's the way to encourage a healthy community. After all, how silly is it to argue over how some other volunteer spends his or her time? Yet isn't that what we're doing?

Maybe if more of us speak up when we see this abuse and hostility, maybe we can discourage it. Maybe we can encourage people to try to understand and listen more, or at least to disagree politely if they must disagree. Maybe we can help people unwilling to be civil to find better hobbies than abusing other volunteers. Maybe we can make the Perl community and our IRC channels and our mailing lists and our forums and our comment sections places where potential volunteers want to participate because they know that we appreciate novices and we appreciate volunteers and we don't all have to do the same things or want the same things or agree on the same things to treat each other with respect.

After all, we're all trying to build great software to solve problems. Why should we borrow trouble?

3 Comments

Very, very well said, chromatic++. :-)

As a practical exercise in detoxification of collective memories, I'd like to reply to this paragraph in your PerlMonks post:

(As I'm sure plenty of other people remember,
  I was out of line getting on Audrey's case for a decision she made with Pugs.)

That case probably refers to a series of posts occurred exactly 4 years ago, during the week of April 21~26 of 2006:

I didn't consider any of us went out of line back then; re-reading our public expressions cited above now, I still stand by my original impression.

That is to say, we expressed our differences with considerable civility, which ultimately effected a better understanding of licensing issues for all involved.

(Later on, that exchange also motivated me to adopt CC0 for all my published works, as a legally robust device for the same intent.)

During that week, Jesse, Allison, Limbic_Region and #perl6 all offered tremendous help to steer productive discussion, for which I'm very grateful. :-)

I'm glad we resolved that situation to mutual satisfaction amicably, but I do believe we could have avoided unnecessary tension if I'd conducted myself with more wisdom and care. I suppose that's how people like me learn humility.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on April 21, 2010 1:46 PM.

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