Discussions: suckless.

I moved to New Zealand last week, and as a proper Dutch person one of the first things I did after arriving was getting a bicycle.

I was recommended a great place where they collect old bikes and provide people with the parts and tools to fix them up. Want a bike? Choose one, fix it, and it’s yours. There are helpful and knowledgable volunteers who will gladly help you and explain how things work, but you’ll have to fix your own bike; they’re not going to do it for you.

I like this DIY attitude; I built my own fixie – which I unfortunately couldn’t bring – years ago and had been maintaining it myself ever since. There are many different aspects I never touched on, such as different brake systems, gears, etc. and fixing my bike with some help and explanation was a useful experience which taught me a thing or two that I’ll be sure to use in the future.


My attitude to open source projects tends to be similar: I’ll gladly assist you or explain things, but you will have to do the work. I also don’t expect anyone else to do work for me.

Open source software is fundamentally a DIY ethic for many – though not all – people who participate in it. It certainly is for me. I just fix stuff I want myself. Since I take some amount of pride in my work I’ll also fix most bugs that are reported, but sometimes people will post an enhancement or feature request and just expect me to implement it. Sometimes this is even combined with a “but project X does it!”-comment. Well, feck off and use project X then (I don’t actually say this, just think it).

I’ve seen more than a few people get frustrated by this attitude especially – though hardly exclusively – in the OpenBSD and suckless communities (recent example that prompted this post), partly because it’s not infrequently communicated in a somewhat unhelpful fashion (the OpenBSD saying is “shut up and hack”), but also because some people seem to misunderstand what it means to be a maintainer of an open source project. Open source software isn’t a service I provide to the world; it’s something I DIY’d myself and make available to the world so everyone can benefit and work on it with me.[1] In an alternative universe without Free Software or Open Source I would probably have written the same software, just for my personal needs.

The term “Open source” is a broad catch-all term, which includes Free Software, “Source Provided Software”,[2] DIY Software, and probably a few more. It is my suspicion that the majority of open source projects aimed at developers (libraries, programming tools, etc.) is DIY Software, even if it isn’t explicitly stated.

Not all non-code contributions are useless. Well-written bug reports are often useful, and sometimes someone will have a great idea for an enhancement or feature that I hadn’t thought of myself, which can be a valuable contribution. But those types of constructive contributions are usually easy to recognize: they consist of more than just a single paragraph, are respectful, show a clear understanding of what the project is supposed to do, if they don’t understand a certain aspect they’ll ask instead of bombastically claiming that it’s “broken”, and perhaps most importantly, they show a willingness to constructively contribute, rather than just trying to tell you how to run your project.


To quote Neil Gaiman when talking about A Song of Ice and Fire fans demanding George R.R. Martin work harder on the next instalment of the series: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch”. I can’t help George write his book, but I can help with software projects, which is really neat. Not everyone is a computer programmer, but the vast majority of projects I’ve worked on are used exclusively by programmers.

In the two months that it took me to finish this post there have been a number of incidents in various communities that touched upon a mismatch in expectations between open source authors/maintainers and the users. “It’s not fun anymore, you get nothing from maintaining a popular package”, to quote one maintainer, or “I’m frustrated because I can’t handle the volume of emails” to quote another.

The situation would be vastly improved if more people start seeing and treating open source more like the DIY that it is and assume responsibility for that bug you’ve encountered or enhancement you want, rather than offloading all responsibility to the maintainer. This won’t fix everything, but it’s a good start. Plenty of people – including myself – already do this, but many more don’t.

Both authors and users will benefit; authors will be less frustrated with “entitled” users, and users will be less frustrated with “rude” authors, and in the end the software will work better as users will be more willing to spend some time fixing stuff themselves, rather than just expecting other people to do it for them.

Footnotes
  1. Some open source software is supported by companies. Only about 14% of the contributions to the Linux kernel are not affiliated with a company. I don’t think this matters for the purpose of this post; these are companies who are DIY-ing as well. 

  2. Software that uses an open source license but with little community engagement. Try landing a patch in Chrome or Android as a non-Google employee.