Open Source, Tech, and Tribalism

The open source community can be a turbulent place, and this turbulence often plays out in public. Periodically, people leave a community, and when they do, the swirling drama can be fun or bemusing from a distance. The “Why I’m leaving community X” blog post from a prominent Community X member is common enough to qualify as its coming-of-age milestone.

But recently, as I found myself and people I care about involved in one of these situations, I no longer had that bemused objectivity. Wait a minute, Community X is my community, and it was being harmed. I felt personally attacked. I watched others become defensive, which seemed to justify my own feelings.

As I started seeing lines being drawn, I realized that my reaction over someone deciding not to use a thing that I use was putting relationships at risk.

I had to stop and do some personal soul-searching around this topic, so I’ll try to be sensitive to the fact that others may, like me, have their identities wrapped up in the various communities and tribes they belong to. This is tribalism. It’s perfectly normal, but it’s crucial to understand, and I don’t think it gets its due when talking about open source.

A person could create a college-level course defining and exploring tribalism. For the sake of definition, I’ll leave it at this: Tribalism is the act of attaching one’s own identity to a shared group identity.

And it’s a tough one to fight: as a pre-programmed default, tribalism was key to the survival of the human species for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Coalitions, communities, tribes, and cults: a spectrum

Let’s call this the identity spectrum: the degree to which one’s identity is subsumed by the shared identity of their affiliation with a group.

Coalitions are, essentially, “frienemies”. A federated group of people, in Ayn Randian self interest, unite to achieve some common goal.

Communities are also loosely united by a common goal, but often act in the group interest above self-interest.

Tribes are communities that are bound by a shared identity as members.

Cults are a tribe that shun all identity except as a member of the tribe.

The tribe of open source

It’s easy to spot an open source developer from across a crowded room, as we usually broadcast our preferences. Borrowed perhaps from skateboarders, we wallpaper our laptops in stickers representing our interests. Everything’s fair game: Products we use, technologies we love, perhaps even our favorite My Little Pony character.

This was a big deal for me.

I’ve felt like an outsider for pretty much my entire life. Even my other “tribes” (professional, religious, etc.) never really fit me quite right, until, at 30 years old, I discovered a new sense of inclusion and belonging in the software community.

Like most tribal affiliations, I got some amazing benefits: lasting friendships, support, and a sense of purpose outside oneself. As a new developer I was welcomed, guided, mentored, and offered opportunities in a way entirely new to me.

And thanks to the network of open source developers on Twitter and elsewhere, I now know hundreds of wonderful people in cities around the world who share many of my interests, passions, and values. I can visit a conference on the other side of the country and be welcomed as if I was a longtime neighbor. It’s amazing stuff, and it deepens my faith in humanity every time I experience it.

And I should take a moment to note that I do not have the GitHub profile of a prolific open-source contributor. GitHub is not my CV.

I have my own ways of helping: writing, organizing, hiring, etc., and no one has yet stopped me to tell me I’m a fraud and kick me out of the community. In open source, your best is good enough. (Perhaps that’s just until you manage a popular project, but that’s another post.)

Tribal affiliation as a shortcut

The tribes I belong to offer some great shortcuts in describing myself to people: Rubyist, Javascript programmer, Embereño, Mormon(ish), Beatles fan.

These are great for allowing someone a small insight into my activities and interests. A shared interest in Javascript development means I’m probably game for interesting conversations on the subject. Knowing I’m Mormon lets people know I’m a pretty good bet as a designated driver.

But if I’m not careful, it can be easy to slide toward the right side of the spectrum, and start letting these shortcuts define who I am.

Bad tribal habits

If we’re not aware, we often fall into habits programmed into our brains from thousands of years before we were born. Here are some common net-negative tribal behaviors:

Blind evangelism: A sense that your tribe’s cause is a one-size-fits-all solution, and that the entire world would be best served by relentless evangelism until they join.

This allows you to feel confirmed in your belief, but it erodes empathy for the desires and needs of others.

Buying into one ecosystem: Have you ever been to the home of an Amway family (or lived in one, as I did)? All of their products are Amway. Is Amway shampoo the best? Their detergent? Eyeliner? It doesn’t matter, because the Amway families are so financially locked into the system it doesn’t make sense for them to buy anything else. (But if you ask an Amway family, yes, the Amway everything is the best.)

Using Windows makes me physically ill. Is Windows really that terrible? Or am I conditioned to think that Windows is terrible because I’ve spent a decade building an Apple fortress? Either way, counting business expenses, I fork over the cost of a decent car, every year, on Apple products.

Narcissism of small differences: Few things divide tribes more sharply than being ideological next-door neighbors.

It pains me greatly when I see communities (in religion and in technology… but I repeat myself) who all want the same thing bicker incessantly about the right way to do it.

Burning the heretic: People who speak against a tribe are often vilified. And you’ll rarely see as vitriolic a reaction as when a person leaves a tribe. And if they don’t have the decency to go quietly, they receive ten times the furor, thus justifying their decision to leave.

It’s enormously satisfying to burn the heretic. When someone leaves the tribe, they’ve just questioned our collective identity. Our rightness. Our specialness. The natural reaction is to fight back, and invalidate that person and their obviously wrong opinions.

But know this: Every time you defend a tribal identity, you sacrifice a little more of your own. And a tribal identity is incredibly fragile, encouraging defensiveness and fear.

Cult behavior: when tribalism turns evil

What’s ironic is that people who are opposed to a given tribe are themselves defined by tribalism. In fact, the notion of “enemies” pretty much only exists at the tribe/cult end of the spectrum.

For example, consider the childish, abhorrent behavior of those within the “Gamergate” pseudo-movement. It’s a form of tribalism carried to the “cult” extreme. They’ve spent so much energy defending an inherited group identity that their individual identities are completely subsumed.

This invites the mental laziness of stereotyping those outside your tribe, dehumanizing them to the point where violence becomes a natural-seeming option. Opposing, heretical voices so threaten the fragile identities of the group members that the offenders must be silenced.

It’s a textbook example of the danger and potential dark side in allowing a group identity to become your only identity.

Taking back your identity: a self-check

After all this, you might think I’d warn away from tribes and tribalism, but that’s not my point. The trick is simply owning your own identity.

Personally, I don’t enjoy coalitions. I have friends who say “get over it, these are just tools you use to make money”, and that’s great for them, but I like communities. I even like tribes, when I’m on guard against my biases. Cults, though… I’ve had enough of those for one lifetime.

Whatever your personal preference, my request, my plea, is this: be aware. Keep some self-check questions at the back of your mind:

Do you define yourself by your job? It’s easy to catch oneself saying “I’m Prestigious Title X at Recognized Company Y”. Or “I’m the creator of Cool Thing Z.” It’s incredibly tempting to lead with this stuff when talking (or thinking) about yourself.

Does your social media profile offer any hints? When given 140 characters to describe yourself, what do you say? “Cat expert, sandwich artist, alligator hunter”? I mean, that’s super cool, but are you 100% sure that’s who you are?

Do you perhaps feel like you are enlightened in a way that others aren’t? A good test of this is how much of your time you spend evangelizing the things you like vs. listening to things others like.

How do you react when someone leaves the tribe? Do you write them off? Get mad at them? Gossip about what a huge mistake they’re making?

These are your cognitive biases. It’s OK! They’re helpful in daily life. But becoming aware of them, while painful, is crucial. Every bias you recognize, acknowledge, and work to compensate for allows you to reclaim more of your individual identity.

What owning your identity buys you

As you internalize more of your own identity, it becomes less fragile, and you’ll find the freedom to enjoy the benefits of participating in communities and tribes without the same drawbacks. It increases your “cult resistance”, lowering your susceptibility to manipulation by sociopaths, which is pretty handy in the workplace.

You’ll be able to manage and maintain cross-community relationships, which often has a positive effect on all sides. You may even find yourself as an influence for good, helping focus community efforts away from tribal wars, and toward shared purpose and inclusion.

This is far from a complete formula, but separating personal from tribal identity is a crucial step in truly being yourself, which, as far as I can tell, is a key ingredient in living a happy, regret-free life.

A few cautions on open source and tribalism

If you think it’s all about the code, you are deeply and dangerously mistaken. Any person can write code, but participation in an open source community absolutely requires understanding and empathy around basic human behaviors. If you can’t accept that responsibility, prepare for a pretty lonely and frustrating road. Ignoring this means you’re likely to run roughshod over the feelings of others and cause a lot of harm to people and your own community in the process.

When you’re part of a community, you’re an ambassador. Your responsibility is to embody the kind of community you’d like to see, because those are the people you’ll inevitably attract to join you. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, or whether you go on TV to say “I’m not a role model,” every public interaction you have is someone else’s window into your community.

When someone leaves your community, they’re not betraying anyone. People’s interests change. Their preferences change. They may even take occasion to vent frustration with your own community, tools, or ecosystem. That’s OK too. Related: if people defect from another community to your community, it’d be wise to let them know that disparaging their previous community is poor ambassadorship for their new community.

Get out of your bubble. I spent my first few years as a Rubyist feeling a sense of superiority to PHP developers, despite never having written a line of PHP. Now I’ve interacted with so many communities that I have a deep and abiding respect for anyone who builds things in the toolset of their preference.

Cross-community competition is less valuable than cross-community pollination. In free-flowing ecosystems, you get the benefit of people taking the best of a different community and trying to bring it to the new community. Tribes that prefer the “way we’ve always done things” miss out on these improvements.

And lastly, a piece of advice I received a few years ago:

Don’t yuck someone else’s yum. It can be unfathomable to me that someone would use some outdated, obtuse, or clearly-inferior technology to get their jobs done. If they’re doing it with a smile on their face, trying to make them realize how wrong they are is petty, egotistical, and unkind. I’m as guilty of this as anyone I know, and have worked to add “don’t yuck someone else’s yum” as a mantra for myself.

I haven’t yet seen an argument about tribalism that wasn’t also an argument against it. I hope this helps make a little bit of a case for the value of hopping into a shared culture and identity with people, just so long as you know who’s in charge of your own.