Dealing with Hostile Online Communities


The question is often enough asked: “Why is there such a dearth of diversity in open source?” While some have supposed that there may be some sort of genetic difference (hogwash) or similar, this last week I had some experiences that showed me why newcomers to technical and open source communities might decide to quite quickly spin on their toes and walk right back out.

One of the oft-cited benefits of open source software is that the communities that support various softwares communicate in an open fashion. Users can communicate with the developers and the experts in a technology in real time without having to navigate routes of gatekeepers. The following citation serves to express the general expectation:

…developers can feel free to discuss what they’re working on. They enjoy chatting with power-users on IRC and overseeing discussions on mailing lists. If a thriving community forms around the software, your developers will think they’ve got the coolest jobs in the world (and so will lots of people that use the software.) This gives you happier staff and better quality than is possible when you have isolated your developers from their users.

Wow! In its best implementation open source is like this. You see the discussion turn to fixes turn to releases. Your “is this broken or am I doing it wrong” question can actually be a valuable contribution to a project.

This is the dream.

Here’s a different style of experience. Last week I jumped into a channel on IRC and within 60 seconds one Party A enlightened the channel that while he had been summoned by Party B to the channel, Party B was not very focused on the dialog and, as such, party A has been reduced to “jacking off.” This prompted a spirited repartée as to whether party A would be willing to “send pics” or “skype” and for what monetary denomination he would be willing to put this on cam. Later, as I recall, that selfsame party B informed me, and others, that he was going to go “take a shit.”

And that is the reality.

If I’d gone straight from the dream to that reality I’m not sure what I would think. I’ve been on IRC since the mid-90’s and while certain communities are a bit coarser I was surprised by the topics of discussion. I could hardly imagine what my boss would think of glancing at the chat scroll for a purported technical channel and seeing nothing but discussion of feces and ejaculate.

Dear Mithras! While I’ve been socialized to grasp locker room talk, I was a bit taken aback. Look, I don’t expect behavior becoming to a monastery or a corporate environment, but where is basic civility in this?

When I logged back in hours later, I saw a screenfull of conversation from earlier in the evening and Party C was “joking” with Party D that he was doing some PHP work and that he thought sucked. Party D demurred. Party C had then asked whether there were any “Indians who wanted to feed their families” on the channel.

Wow. Is that racist? First-worldist? Genetic lotteryist? Jingoistic? Whatever it was, it was certainly puerile and grossly ignorant.

So I brought up this discussion on a mailing list and one of the operators of the channel replied and said he would talk to the parties in question and see if they might be willing to try to see how their actions affected the environment.

After discussion the operator notified myself and others that:

none [emphasis mine] of them thinks their behaviour is worth apologising for. They all claimed it was “harmless fun”.

How much have decent people had to bear under the claim that what was up was just “harmless fun.” Childish, ignorant, chauvinistic, “fun.” Burning crosses, didn’t hurt anyone! Photographing passed-out girls with skirts askew, just a laugh! Facebook bullying, we didn’t mean it! Pictures of dead and raped author… The trouble is that “fun” and abuse are slippery slope, ask the family of Pete McCabe, the referee who lost his life when an aggressive player crushed his skull after feeling unfairly adjudicated against.

As a result of their stance in response to him, the operator placed them on bans of various lengths.

So I felt good to know that one of my communities had done something sensible and responsible in response to an uncivil environment gaining a foothold in our forum.

Quotes from those involved in the situation were uniformly in praise of the operator’s actions:

Thank you. It is no fun to be the heavy but I am sure it will make a big difference - for the good. I periodically spend time on #rubyonrails and while it has often had enough banter to make it hard to get a word in edgewise, the last time I dropped in the tone had taken a turn that I really didn’t like.


[you] do a lot for the community, thank you.

I felt like the operator, I and our community had taken a positive, proactive action against the presence of “broken windows.”

I felt like I had taken a lot of cues from the feminist / women in programming resources I had read about. Ask nicely. State that you expect higher standards. Involve someone else in charge etc. I was feeling very good about my actions.

I logged back into IRC and found the following waiting for me. This was from Party C whose handle (and static IP address) I’ve sanitized because I don’t wish to shame him unnecessarily. (freenode)
15:58 -!- Irssi: Starting query in freenode with PartyC
15:58 <PartyC> faggot
15:58 <PartyC> lol
15:59 <PartyC> honestly have childhood issues if you waste your time
trying not to act 'puerile'
15:59 <PartyC> maybe got picked on by the popular kids at school
15:59 <PartyC> 'fuck it, i hate people like that, im going to spend my
whole life being a nark about it'
16:00 <PartyC> p.s: latin is for jackasses who drink cheap red wine
while enjoying the texture of leather bound copies of plato

Now I’ve been dealing with the ignorant, uneducated, and inarticulate for many years now, so this sort of noise from a troglodyte was not going to flap me. But what about someone new to an IRC community? If someone #iaskedpolitely for him to stop would this be an expected response? No, I think not. This response is so severe and vindictive that if I didn’t know that the majority of people in this community are decent, friendly people, I would never want to come back.

So, when you wonder why open source is dominantly a white, young, man’s monoculture or you hear a group’s absence being attributed to failing by the sword of “meritocracy,” realize that these actions are happening behind the scenes disgusting / scaring away good people. Our community loses out on perspectives, ideas, and fun when we permit the trolls break the windows. I, for one, refuse to stop asking for the best from my open source compatriots and hope everyone who reads this will stand vigilant against incivility in whatever community in which they are active.


Thanks to my girlfriend for encouraging me to write this by quoting Sheryl Sandberg: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Also thanks to both Ashe and Kat for editing help and review.