The Cost of Contribution

The following text is the script for a lightning talk I did at WordCamp US 2019. I failed to deliver the talk in the way I had planned for various reasons, so I want to give this important topic a second chance in written form.


In the summer of 2014 I started work on my first client site using WordPress, as I had just switched careers from government agent to freelance developer. I made heavy use of the WordPress Codex to learn how to solve my problems, and I found it to be vast, detailed … and often also very bad advice.

So I thought to myself: I should blog about this and share better practices with other WordPress developers.

As I fleshed out more of my project, I started to hit bugs in the WordPress Core code. I’m not talking about exotic edge cases, but rather very obvious bugs. As I found out, these bugs were known, already had patches to fix them and were just waiting for these patches to be committed … for 3 to 8 years or so!

So I thought to myself: I should contribute to WordPress Core to help fix those bugs in a shorter time frame.

That way of “slipping” into contribution probably sounds familiar to a lot of you…

After a while, I started questioning my choice of the platform, as WordPress was not the development tool I had hoped it would be, mainly because it prioritizes end-users over developers (and for a valid reason). And just when I considered switching, I experienced the one thing that has continued to keep me in this space: the WordPress Community.

It’s a community full of passioned and inspiring people, and when you come into contact with it for the first time, it can be very intoxicating – I was hooked right away!

But with time, I noticed more and more that this highly inspiring and addicting environment did have a negative long-term effect on some community members.

I witnessed stress, anxiety, and burn-outs amongst the contributors, and a lot of churn in general. So I wondered why such a seemingly positive environment and noble common cause could have such a bad outcome for some people.

I believe that all of this can be traced back to a very simple root cause: Cost.

Everything we do comes with a cost attached. It is usually the combination of several different costs: the cost of energy for operating our body and mind, the cost of opportunity for not doing something else, the financial cost of travel and accommodation for attending an event, and so on and so forth.

Everything we do comes with a cost attached. Click To Tweet

The best way to cover cost, in general, is money. It is the tool best fit for the job, as it can be easily traded for other resources and is neither intrinsically valuable nor scarce on its own. It is simply an exchange mechanism for offsetting costs against each other in an asynchronous way.

In open-source projects, a lot of people are not paid for their contributions and don’t receive money for covering their costs.

What they usually trade instead is time. But time is a much more scarce resource and cannot be amassed or regained.

And if you overdo this, you’re spending the time that should rather go into your family or your health instead, with devastating long-term effects.

Contributors usually cover the costs of their contributions with time, not money. Time that should have gone into their health or family instead… Click To Tweet

So why is it that we tend to keep contributing even to the point of hurting ourselves?

The main driving force behind this is our natural tendency towards prosocial behavior. On one hand, this is ingrained deep within us, as caring for the group means improving the chances of the group for survival – a fundamental evolutionary mechanism.

But prosocial behavior is also rooted in a principle called reciprocity. There is a hot debate going on for a while now whether true altruism really does exist, but most researchers seem to agree that when we help someone, we ultimately do it for what we get back in return. This can be a direct benefit, like gratitude or recognition, but it can also be a more subconscious reward, like helping as the fastest way to escape an uncomfortable situation, for example.

Whether we actually decide to help or not is then a matter of doing a subconscious cost-benefit analysis of the situation. Is the return we get from helping more valuable than the cost we need to invest?

So wouldn’t that mean that we only contribute as long as our return outweighs the cost we invest…? … that we’d keep ourselves automatically from overdoing it or hurting ourselves…?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and there are many other factors at play.

When we help, our body produces serotonin, making us happy about what we did, to encourage this behavior (remember the evolution that is at play). This can lead to an addiction that is commonly known as “helper’s high”, where people simply cannot stop helping and do it even to their own detriment, always chasing the next helper’s high.

There’s another psychological effect that constantly lets us compare ourselves to our social surroundings and derive our self-esteem from how we perceive these social comparisons. Seeing other people contribute motivates us to contribute as well. Seeing other people contribute more than we do motivates us to try even harder to match this.

Also, within a given group, people tend to strive for conformity, trying to adhere to whatever the social norm seems to be for that group. What’s worse, if no expectation was explicitly set to define this norm, the group members will deduce it from the perceived behavior of the group. This leads to situations where volunteer contributors, besides their regular day job, try to match the output of professional full-time contributors, because that is what they perceive as the norm in Slack. They are unaware of the large majority of people who can only be seen in Slack every few weeks or months.

Considering all of these psychological factors makes it even more important to talk about sustainability in open source contributions. People need to be aware of the costs involved, and what it means to contribute to something without hurting yourself or your family in the process.

People need to be aware of the costs involved, and what it means to contribute to something without hurting yourself or your family in the process. Click To Tweet

Let’s work on destigmatizing the money topic in the open-source space, as it is our best bet for making this work sustainably in the long run. It is not heroic or laudable to do too much and burn out, and we all ultimately lose because of it. We don’t need a rotation of martyrs that we churn through. All we need is a constant accumulation of reasonable and sustainable efforts.

We don't need a rotation of martyrs that we churn through. All we need is a constant accumulation of reasonable and sustainable efforts. Click To Tweet

And please, if you have the feeling that someone is doing too much or putting too much pressure on themselves, absolutely do talk to them and try to address the issue. Who knows, maybe they just weren’t aware that they’re chasing the wrong “norm” to conform to…


Here’s the video recording of the lightning talk as well, but my bad memory made a mess of the delivery, I’m afraid.


Featured image credits: Aron Visuals on Unsplash

4 Comments

  1. Tobias Zimpel on November 21, 2019 at 9:46 am

    In this context, I want to point out https://wpandup.org/ as a resource for people inside the WordPress community that have (or might have) mental health issues, or know people who do.Report

  2. Heather Burns on November 21, 2019 at 10:54 am

    Something which keeps getting missed in this ongoing dialogue is the fact that projects dominated by professional full-time contributors need volunteer unpaid contributors for the open washing. Their value to the project is not their contributions, it’s their tokenism as the bona fide volunteers, in a crowd of salaries, which allows projects to maintain the appearance of the work being an OSS collaborative, even when that ship has well and truly sailed.

    A good example of this was after WCUS last year, when there was a call put out for more people to post team updates to the Make blog, because the updates were dominated by one certain obvious company’s employees. The message being sent there was clear: the work you contribute is less important than the optics of your volunteer face being on the page. As an immigrant I learned very quickly – as you did too – not to allow myself to be anyone’s token anything, whether that’s a diversity hire or a component maintainer.

    So when the corporate-dominated leadership of OSS projects puts off addressing issues of contributor time and equity for yet another year, remember that they have an ulterior motive for doing so.Report

  3. kOoLiNuS on November 21, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks for sharing on this very subject. In these last 3 weeks its being the core of my struggle with burned-out local WP community meetup. And I’m trying to re-fuel some enthusiasm and perspective to my peers…Report

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