On entitlement, toxicity, and burnout in Open Source.

[Toxicity is] rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable language that is likely to make someone leave a discussion.

– Google, Project Jigsaw

Thu, 19 Aug 2021 @EmilyKager & @wardellbagby@androiddev.social

I didn’t expect to learn something new from this paper.

I’d hoped it was obvious by now: there’s no room in tech for the brilliant jerk.

But the paper, “‘Did you miss my comments or what?’ Understanding Toxicity in Open Source Discussions,” taught me something new. They took a deep-dive into GitHub comments to name something I’d seen but never had a term for: “entitlement.”

The five flavors of toxicity

The authors lump toxic comments into five flavors—four I’ve seen before:

  • 🤬 Insulting – Typing angry words at people.
  • 😏 Arrogance – When a comment author forces their “clearly superior” views on others. A hallmark of many technical disagreements.
  • 🤡 Unprofessional comments – Comments that make project members uncomfortable. Mostly unfunny attempts at humor that are inappropriate in a professional setting.
  • 🧌 Trolling – The lowest form of toxicity. As Justice Potter Stewart quipped about trolling1, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

And one is new to me:

  • 🆕 Entitlement – Pure PEBKAC fury. Comment authors act as if maintainers have violated a contract. They make unreasonable requests of the maintainers. They demand the software be different.

I’d seen entitled comments but never had a name for them.

“Entitlement” is a new term for me

Entitlement is commonly targeted at people, […] insulting them for not doing what they wanted them to do or do it fast enough.

– Understanding Toxicity in Open Source Discussions

The term is new, but the paper renders a familiar scene, “The author is usually visibly upset about not being able to use the tool, often complaining about wasted time.”

The situation is all-too-common and exhausting. And when it happens over-and-over, maintainers give up.

It made me wonder: why have I never seen “entitlement” in a code of conduct?

For example, the Contributor Covenant2 names all the flavors of toxicity from the paper—except “entitlement.”

Maybe “entitlement” is a new term for everyone ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

♻️ The entitlement-burnout cycle

complaints, questions, and requests for enhancement from users can feel like ‘a constant stream of negativity’

– Understanding Toxicity in Open Source Discussions

When maintainers make toxic comments, they’re often responding to entitled comments.

The cycle looks like this:

  • Frustration – A user gets frustrated with the project
  • Entitlement – Users start making demands of maintainers
    • They complain about the project not working how anyone would expect
    • Or they complain about the maintainer not working fast enough.
    • “wasted time”
  • Insulting – Finally, this causes project members to snap—insulting the user
  • Burnout – This interaction burns out project members and repels new users. The burnout withers the project and causes more users to get frustrated.

So, let’s do something about entitlement

[Toxicity] can increase the risk of projects becoming abandoned or unmaintained

– Understanding Toxicity in Open Source Discussions

XKCD #2347: Dependency—CC-By-NC 2.5 by Randall Munroe

The Open Source software powering the internet is chronically underfunded and understaffed.

We still refuse to learn one of the crtical lessons of heartbleed: maintainers need our support

First, Open Source maintainers need money—give them money if they’ve written code critical for you or your company.

But maintainers also need mental space to function.

So, now that we have a term let’s do something about entitlement:

  • Add it to your code of conduct.
  • And say something when you see it happening.

Otherwise, at best, we’re all doomed to reimplement terrible versions of OpenSSL and ImageMagick forever *shudder*.

Thank you to Brennen, Kosta, and Željko for reading the early drafts of this blog. The remaining errors and dumb opinions are mine; all the invisible fixes are theirs.

  1. IIRC, {{citation-needed}}↩︎

  2. Which, to be clear, is amazing↩︎