Building A Strong Open Source Community Requires Empathy

oss, empathy, community 0 comments suggest edit

A recent confrontational thread within the Subtext forums that I shared with Rob Conery got us into a discussion about the challenges of dealing with difficult members of an Open Source community. There are many approaches one can take. Some advocate not engaging disruptive community members. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt at first. Rob often commends me for my paticence in dealing with users in the forums. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other. It’s a matter of style.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about running an Open Source project, it’s that it takes two key qualities.

First, you really need to have a thick skin. You cannot please everybody, and if you’re doing something even remotely interesting, you’re going to piss off some people with the choices you make. But you can’t stop making choices, so be prepared to piss people off. It’s a part of the job. Just be mentally prepared for the attacks, fair or not.

Troi Second, you have to have empathy for your users and developers. Sometimes what feels like an attack is really a misunderstanding based on cultural differences. I know some cultures tend to have a very brusque in-your-face way of discussion. What might be considered rude in one culture, is considered a normal even keeled discussion in another.

At other times there may be an underlying reason for the venting which really has nothing to do with you or your project.

Sure, it’s not really fair to take the brunt of someone’s wrath because of what happens elsewhere, but I find that humor and attempting to focus the discussion to specific objective complaints often helps defuse an argumentative thread.

In this particular case, the user ends up apologizing and writes about the aggravating events at work that led to his frustrations and lashing out in our forums.

Apology accepted, no hard feelings.

What about Toxic members? Sometimes there are members of the community who really are simply toxic trolls. They’re not interested in having any sort of real discussion. How do you deal with them? How do you tell them apart from someone who actually does care about your project, but is so ineloquent about expressing that?

I’ve been fortunate not to have experienced this with Subtext yet, but this excellent post How Open Source Projects Survive Poisonous People points out some great advice for identifying and dealing with poisonous people.

The post is a summary a video in which Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian Fitzpatrick, members of the Subversion team, discuss how to deal with poisonous people based on their experiences with Subversion.

Their points are specific to their experience running an Open Source project. But many of their points apply to any sort of community, not just Open Source.

Politeness, Respect, Trust, and Humility go along way to building a strong community. To that list I would also add Empathy.

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11 responses

  1. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked March 26th, 2007

    Just to be clear, I don't want to give anyone the false impression that I think I actually possess these two traits in abundance.
    I sometimes lose my temper and get snarky in responding to users, as I did in the forums. It doesn't help anything, but hey, I'm human too.

  2. Avatar for Zack
    Zack March 26th, 2007

    I was really mad when another project's dev came over to my project (Club Starter Kit) and started saying

    "Why are you doing this? This is pointless! Use SharePoint."

    So I decided to delete it... maybe I shouldn't have. Oh well.
    Anyways... I love SubText... keep up the good work!

  3. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked March 26th, 2007

    Thanks Zack!
    A legitimate question would have been, "Why not use Sharepoint for this? What advantage does this project have over using Sharepoint?"
    Coming in and declaring the project pointless without waiting for the answer to his question is the height of arrogance. It's no wonder you deleted it. :)

  4. Avatar for Rob Conery
    Rob Conery March 26th, 2007

    To me there's a strong difference between a thoughtful review/rebuke/suggestion/rant and someone who's just out to rile people up (trolling). When you get someone, like the person in your thread, who writes things like "There, now I made people really angry" you have to scratch your head. I realize he apologized, but I think he should have had a time out in the corner (or like I suggested, to just "go away").
    I don't think there's a problem telling someone you're going to ignore them unless they exhibit some professionalism.

  5. Avatar for Geri Langlois
    Geri Langlois March 26th, 2007

    A couple of points:
    1. I am very grateful for the talented folks who create open source projects and even the people who may disagree with an approach, or are upset because something didn't install correctly, etc., need to recognize the tremendous personal sacrifice it takes to support open source.
    2. There is plenty of room for spirited discussions provided the intention is good.
    3. Community members need to come to the aid and help 'discipline' anyone who really crosses the line.

  6. Avatar for Steven Harman
    Steven Harman March 26th, 2007

    @Rob: Where did you post Open Source Challenges go? It showed up in my RSS aggregator and when I went to leave a smart-ass comment on your blog the post was M.I.A.
    @Phil: Buddy, I'm glad that you had an opportunity to reply to that thread before I did b/c I might have 'disciplined' the poster (as Geri suggests)... I was all fired up about not being able to post a quip on Rob's blog b/c he was being a jerk - removing posts and whatnot!
    @everyone: You should be more like foo and start doing bar. I'm so freaking sick of baz... you suck!

  7. Avatar for Rob Conery
    Rob Conery March 27th, 2007

    I was being a jerk? Hmmmm...
    I took it down (even though I stand behind it) because I violated a prime rule of mine: I wrote it while cranky. I care - what can i say?
    I'll rewrite it at some point and you can come leave a smart-ass comment if you like :).

  8. Avatar for Ken
    Ken March 27th, 2007

    Great points, though I think they apply whether you are working on an open source project or not. Anytime a developer is interacting with their users or anyone in the public, they need to take these into account. Even with commercial products, you can get livid or toxic users who can be taxing on patience or dig under your skin. In the end, need to realize which things to take with a grain of salt or to sift through and find what is constructive.

  9. Avatar for Paul Cox
    Paul Cox March 27th, 2007

    Thanks for the comment, an open invitation to the development community. http://innovation-in-oil-an...

  10. Avatar for Steven Harman
    Steven Harman March 28th, 2007

    Rob, just for the record I was being facetious when I called you a jerk. Sometimes my sarcasm doesn't translate well via the web... but I still might leave that smart-ass comment one day. :)

  11. Avatar for Sohbet Odasi
    Sohbet Odasi March 29th, 2007

    I don't think there's a problem telling someone you're going to ignore them unless they exhibit some professionalism.