“Put up or shut up”

One thing I love about open stuff, such as open source communities, is that we (try to) measure people by what they contribute.

I’m now Volunteer Development Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation (although I am not speaking for them in this post), so I care about the quality and quantity of contributions to MediaWiki, and about the people behind them.  In fact, I’ll partially be measuring my success through statistics on the number of people who offer code, bug reports, translations, documentation, talks, mailing list posts, and so on.

And it’s not just doing, it’s doing and sharing.  We value collaborative work, not hoarding.

This norm, among others, leads us to use “put up or shut up” to quash unproductive conversations, bikeshedding, trolling, and “you should…” unhelpful suggestions.  I once had the satisfying experience of saying, to a guy full of “why didn’t they do foo”, “you should totally post that suggestion to the mailing list!” and seeing him just shut up, defeated.  He knew that doing this without embarrassing himself would take a modicum of research and thought, and he had no intention of doing anything that arduous.  He’d just wanted to mouth off.  And now I’d revealed him as a noncontributor.

I saw another example in Kitt Hodsden’s talk about the Hacker Dojo community center.

all talk, no action

Another aspect of open source development we encountered, an aspect that is also found in just about every volunteer organization ever, are the troll subspecies “we oughta.”

The we-oughtas clan is often very vocal, they know what we should be doing. When it comes to the actual doing, however, they aren’t around, they aren’t available, or that’s not what they meant.

When this is the case, the response is either, that’s nice, and ignore it, or, just as in open source projects, “put up or shut up.” Essentially, if you’re not willing to put forth the effort of leading your own project – even if that leading is just finding someone else to lead your project – we’re not going to follow.

At its best, “put up or shut up” is empowering.  In Hodsden’s talk, she shared a story about a potential member whose “project was outside of our expected and supported hardware and software development spaces”:

We gave the answer we have learned to give for people who have crazy, though potentially awesome, ideas that in the future could work wonderfully in our space: lead the project: tell us what it is going to take for your project to succeed, develop a game plan, put in the safety measures, find supporters, work up a budget, start the fundraising, make it happen.

The community defines itself. If the community decides it wants to become a metalsmithing shop or an experimental biology lab, it’ll become that, because that’s what the community wants.

I bet all of us who have held leadership in FLOSS can attest to the two sides of “well go ahead then, patches welcome, make it happen, this is a do-ocracy.”  Great, we can empower people.  But how often do we use it to shut down discussions, ideas, and people we don’t like?  In particular, have you been part of an interaction where a privileged FLOSS project member used “you want it, you make it happen” to wrongly dismiss a concern that might require the whole community to change its behavior?

Look at what I did, in the anecdote I told in the third paragraph of this post.  I wasn’t purely kind or rational or ideologically anarchic in telling that guy to write to the list; I found him annoying and wanted him out of my hair.  I told him to contribute, superficially encouraging him, but really wanting to discourage him.  Have you ever been on either end of that, especially around geek feminist issues?

And I suspect this disproportionately affects newbies and non-native speakers of a community’s language.  This is the problem with saying “you want it, make it happen” in response to requests for a harassment policy, or for all of an app’s strings in one file to make localization easier.  The very people who need those new policies, procedures and abstractions are least able and worst placed to implement them.

(Small digression: in the case of harassment policies, consider “Did you know how to react?” by Noirin Plunkett, and Bitch Radio’s interview with Valerie Aurora.  The Ada Initiative, in suggesting and working towards conference anti-harassment policies, has far more energy and resources than would one individual seeking protection.)

Developers are used to dealing with requests for features or bugfixes, but FLOSS leaders are still learning how to deal with requests to socially engineer our projects.

And no matter whether you’re considering adding a feature, hosting a sprint, changing version control systems, or joining a conservancy, it’s sensible risk mitigation to chat about it before putting substantial effort in.  This is a different kind of work, not coding, but building support and getting the lay of the land.  And it’s part of contribution.

So, fellow FLOSS leaders: If you want to grow new contributors, along with giving them permission to suck, build personal relationships with them.  In private or face-to-face, listen as they vent and discuss their ideas, even the half-baked ones.  Listen for the difference between “we should” and “I’d like to/how do I?”.  Sometimes they’ll need sympathy, and sometimes advice.  If you say “go do it then,” say it encouragingly, not dismissively.  Watch out for moments when a marginalized potential contributor is essentially asking you, “help me help you.”  And watch yourself in case you’re about to do what I did, using “put up or shut up” to shut down someone you find abrasive.  Because sometimes I’m abrasive too, and sometimes I have good ideas.  :-)

As hypatia puts it: “a gentle ‘that’s definitely an issue, could you file a bug’ goes a long way.”

5 thoughts on ““Put up or shut up”

  1. Dave

    I wonder if part of the problem isn’t one particularity of open-source software: the varied motivations of those working on it. There have been times someone has put forward an idea that has some potential, but looks complicated to implement. I might respond “I don’t know about that, maybe you should do it yourself?”, but what I really mean could be any of:

    – “This project is one I work on just for fun, and that doesn’t sound fun.”
    – “I’m approaching burnout, and can’t risk collaborating right now with people who I don’t yet know and trust.”
    – “I’m just trying to solve a problem of mine, and don’t care about expanding the scope of the project.”

    I’d rather not discourage those who want to help, so maybe I need to be more explicit about the real problem…me!

  2. Miriam Hochwald

    Can I please point out that often it takes alot of courage *just* to speak up, or even associate yourself with those that do speak or lead. When females in ICT often don’t even show up for classes or functions because it basically further identifies themselves, and increases the spotlight of how they are “different”. Often it needs alot of encouragement *just* to get someone to do something, or as mentioned in the interesting and relevant above article, to “do something”. Also, why *should* someone do it alone? “Rahhh, rahh, rahhh. Yay… errr – Me.” Females tend to be collaborative – they like company. Why on earth would they be highly concerned that “Sarah Jane” decided to go to the toilet (water closet, rest room, bathroom etc.) by herself? Does she really need someone to hold her hand in order to achieve the alluded objective? Errr, no. However, it does provide company and the unique opportunity to talk, exchange ideas and feel supported. Try asking a male why females think it important to go to the toilet (et al) together, and you will get a delicious blank face. Case in point.


    (Founder & Director of Girl Geek Coffees)

  3. Ricky Buchanan

    Also it can be shorthand for ‘your needs are not important to us’. At least two people have been asking that our local wordpress meet ups be held somewhere wheelchair accessible and been told theyd be happy to do so, but we have to find a venue that ticks all the boxes of things they prefer (eg free wifi, allows people to bring their own food, etc.) – an unreasonablely high bar when neither of us has been able to attend even one meeting to see what it’s actually like!

    This is also a reminder that the ‘put up or shut up’ culture doesn’t just apply within the community projects, but within everything about the community.

    1. Miriam Hochwald

      +1 Ricky.

      I think that when one alludes or gets into some kind of socially perceived contentious area, you tend to get unrealistic notions of perfection, rather than simply – lets do *stuff*, and see how we feel about it. How does society we live in feel about it? How can we work together? Take a step at a time, encourage participation and positive contribution.

      Also, those that have the nerve to stand up and be counted, tend to do all the work. And *yes* it is literally just a few people, often at their personal expense of time, effort and money or missed opportunity. However, they stand up…. and keep standing, because they think it is important that at least someone does!

      I think Monty Python got it right in “The Life of Brian” where they had committees about simply doing stuff, thought conventions and motions to order before they would even consider leaving the room! (*love* Monty Python!!).

      Lets get it straight. It is not about perfection. We live imperfect lives as imperfect people. Chasing our tails trying to reach perfection will simply drive you and others up the wall, and place you more in denial. Self-rightousness leaves an awful pong in the room once the person has left. The stench drives other people from the vicinity. There will always be a power struggle for resources, status, and basically anything that humans desire or need. It is simply about contributing to society in a reasonable and preferably balanced manner.

      … such as… gee, females should participate in the current economy which is directly and rapidly shaping our lives – i.e. ICT. Given that approximately half of the population of the world is female, surely some kind of representation in an area which directly affects how we live our day is reasonable? No?

      Miriam Hochwald

      Founder & Director
      Girl Geek Coffees

  4. Addie

    Late to reading this, Sumana, but it’s very good and I’m glad I happened to be catching up on Geek Feminism today.

    “And I suspect this disproportionately affects newbies and non-native speakers of a community’s language. This is the problem with saying “you want it, make it happen” in response to requests for a harassment policy, or for all of an app’s strings in one file to make localization easier. The very people who need those new policies, procedures and abstractions are least able and worst placed to implement them.”

    This has been my experience in several different tech communities since I started actively engaging myself with them. I actually left my first job because when I shouted “Help! I’m drowning!” to *countless* people, the response was almost unanimously “Well, come on! Save yourself!”

    You make some great points here – as I’ve gotten more experience, I’ve made a point of rephrasing things in a way like “I want to be empowered to fix this, but I’m missing x and y.” That helps a bit, but “social bug reports” still seem to be like alien language to some of the communities I’ve been involved in, and that’s always a bit jarring when the social issues are my biggest blocker. But I’m happy to see some documentation of the discouraging effect of the “Do it yourself!” messaging; it’s something that, as you mentioned, can only be effective when it’s framed properly, with an awareness of the power structures that may be in play.

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