On being an open source contributor

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There are a lot of ways to contribute to the world of open source. Since the community around WordPress is the one I primarily hang out in, I’m going to centre my thoughts around WordPress, although I think these thoughts are applicable in any open source community around the web.

I’ve been noticing a new-ish assumption around what open source contribution means, lately. Both in my own thoughts and also in what I see being echoed around the web – that to be considered an open source contributor you have to officially and tangentially have created something directly connected to the core open source project.

For example, this may mean a code contribution that gets merged into WordPress Core or a piece of writing that made its way into the official press/communication/blog hosted on the main website of the open source project.

I see people dismissing the opinions and thoughts of people who they don’t consider contributors, or people who don’t have enough commits, badges, or props directly inside the core WordPress project, which is certainly one of the easiest ways to identify an open source contributor.

The Rubric

Of course, I completely get that in a community as large and varied as WordPress, we cannot listen to every single person and give every piece of feedback equal weight. We have to have some kind of rubric or system to sift and filter through all the messages, feedback, comments, and reviews to find the ones that are worth giving attention to – that are valuable. And so in doing so, we’re often considering, “Has this person earned the right to have their opinion matter by way of making real contributions to the project?” And if the answer is no, their opinion is discounted, dismissed, or devalued.

However, the open source community is much much larger than that. What makes open source projects so powerful and so valuable is all the open source and free work that surrounds the project. The thought pieces on people’s blogs, the tutorials on people’s websites and YouTube channels, the ongoing conversations on social media, the offline friendships and groups that form, etc.

I have known and learned from prolific WordPress tutorial authors who – for the longest time – never contributed anything to the WordPress project directly; not a line of code or an edit to a marketing page, nothing. And yet, their work propelled the growth of WordPress itself and empowered numerous people to build entire careers on top of WordPress, because of their tutorials and articles.

Earning my Core Contributor Badge

There was a time where I, myself, sought out legitimacy as a contributor by amassing those WordPress.org badges.

I first earned the “Core Contributor” badge because I helped write the “What’s New” page of a WordPress release – you know that page you see when you update WordPress and it showcases what’s new about that version? I fell into that Marketing Team meeting accidentally and helped out because I just happened to be there.

The context here is, most people associate the Core Contributor badge with contributing code to the project, which still to this day is considered the highest form of contribution to an open source software project (and a topic to tackle for another day). Imagine the imposter syndrome I felt when people were impressed that I had that badge.

It was only later that I contributed code to the project and finally stopped feeling like a fraud for having that badge.

The badges on those WordPress.org profiles are great and lots of fun to see when you contribute something very directly to the WordPress project. And those are fun little digital rewards for sure, but they don’t really tell you anything about someone’s current involvement in the project. Don’t think for a second that someone without badges can’t be an open source contributor. There are plenty of folks promoting WordPress out there, teaching it, and creating work with it, without ever having directly putting anything into the core project. Without those people, WordPress would never have grown to be as big as it has or become an engine that drives such a large part of the web.

I’m not saying I have an answer to this slightly troubling trend. We all do need a way to sift through all the comments, thoughts, tweets, and posts on the internet and decide what deserves our attention. I’m just saying, it’s maybe a bit troubling what we’ve unconsciously decided is the definition of a contributor – of someone who’s opinion matters – and maybe we need to examine our bias around it.

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