Why the success of open source depends on empathy

With heightened awareness about empathy and the inspiration to spread it, open source productivity will grow, collaborators will lean in, and the power of open source software development can be fully harnessed.
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Practicing empathy

Melissa Hogan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Open source development's collaborative innovation and community ethos have changed the world. In The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst explains that success in open source is found by "thinking of people as members of a community, moving from a transactional mindset to one built on commitment." However, there is still a barrier at the core of the open source development model: Frequently, it lacks human empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings. In open source communities, face-to-face human interaction and collaboration are rare. Any developer experienced with a GitHub pull request (PR) or issue has received comments from people they may never meet, often halfway across the globe—and the communication can be just as distant. Modern open source development is built upon this type of asynchronous, transactional communication. So, it is no surprise that the same types of cyberbullying and other abuses people experience on social media platforms are also seen in open source communities.

Of course, not all open source communication is counterproductive. Many people develop respect and commit to good behavioral standards in their craft. But all too often, people lack common-sense etiquette in communications and treat people like machines rather than human beings. This behavior is a barrier to realizing the open source innovation model's full potential because it turns off many would-be contributors and kills inspiration.

A history of hostile communications

Hostile rhetoric in code reviews is not new to open source communities; it has been tolerated for years. The godfather of open source, Linus Torvalds, routinely barraged the Linux community when code did not meet his standards, driving contributors away. Elon University computer science professor Megan Squire used machine learning to analyze Torvalds' insults and found they numbered in the thousands during a four-year period. In 2018, Linus put himself on a timeout for bad behavior, tasked himself with learning empathy, apologized, and established a code of conduct for the Linux community.

In 2015, Sage Sharp stepped down as the Linux kernel coordinator for the FOSS Outreach Program for Women due to a lack of personal respect, despite being technically respected.

The impact of disparaging comments in PR reviews has a profound effect on developers. It creates trepidation in making PRs and dread at anticipated feedback, and it eats at developers' confidence in their abilities. It slows velocity by forcing engineers to strive for perfection every time, which runs counter to the agile methodology many communities have adopted.

How to close the empathy gap in open source

Often, offensive comments are unintentional, and with some coaching, the author can learn how to express opinions without negative emotion. GitHub does not monitor comments on issues and PRs for abusive content; instead, it provides tools to enable communities to moderate their content. Repo owners can delete comments and lock conversations, and all contributors can report abuse and block users.

Defining a community code of conduct establishes a safe and inclusive environment for contributors at all levels to participate and defines the process to de-escalate conflict between collaborators.

We can overcome the empathy challenge in open source. Face-to-face debate is much more conducive to empathy than text, so opt for a video call when possible. Set an example by sharing feedback in an empathetic way. Be a coach instead of a bystander if you witness a scathing review. Speak up if you are the victim. Assess empathy skills when interviewing a candidate. Tie empathy skills to performance reviews and rewards. Define and enforce a community code of conduct, and moderate your community.

With heightened awareness about empathy and the inspiration to spread it, open source productivity will grow, collaborators will lean in, and the power of open source software development can be fully harnessed.

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