Illustration by Bettina Reinemann

In the late 1950s, a British sociologist coined the term “meritocracy.” He used the phrase satirically, describing a restructuring of society that replaced one class system (inherited privilege) with another (earned influence), but people still took it seriously. Years later, the idea of meritocracy especially resonated in the tech industry, perhaps most dramatically in open source communities. Programmers have long abided by a work culture where the thinking goes something like, you’re only as good as the code you write, and the code never lies. Whoever writes the best code, and the most of it, gains the most capital.

“That culture is based on the idea that everyone has the same energy to devote, the same time to devote,” says Coraline Ada Ehmke. “And that’s patently false.” Ehmke started writing code in 1994, and in 2014, two decades into observing how programmers talk to one another, she decided to ask her fellow coders to start acting with more empathy. The open source community is made up of thousands upon thousands of projects, where programmers collaborate on code to build the world’s software. Unlike a typical software engineer who might write proprietary code for a specific company, open source coders often volunteer to write code out in the open, where anyone can use (or buy) it. It’s ground for fast-moving invention. It’s also earned a reputation for aggressive rhetoric and unbridled shit-talking, and members are overwhelmingly white and male. When Ehmke released the Contributor Covenant, it called upon coders to create “a harassment-free experience for everyone,” by “being respectful of differing opinions, viewpoints, and experiences” and “giving and gracefully accepting constructive feedback,” among other pledges.

A coder’s code of conduct

Ehmke initially wrote the Contributor Covenant with tech conferences in mind. But the pledge soon gained traction with online open source projects, where women, non-binary people, and people of color often feel pushed to the margins by dismissive, insensitive language. Today, tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands—Ehmke says it’s hard to get good numbers) of projects have adopted the Contributor Covenant. Companies as big and prominent as Apple, Google, and Salesforce follow it, and myriad other projects pledged to their own codes of conduct. Ehmke says when she first released the Covenant, the notion of codifying appropriate language and behavior in writing was controversial. Now, “if a project doesn’t have a code of conduct, that is a statement. And it’s a warning sign,” she says. “Here, in 2020, we won that fight.”

A screenshot of the purple and white website for The Contributor Covenant.
The Contributor Covenant was created in 2014 by Coraline Ada Ehmke and has since been adopted as a code of conduct by tens of thousands of programmers. Image credit Contributor Covenant.

How do you define a win when dealing with hundreds of thousands of contributors, sprawled across the web and around the world? After some recent high-profile oustings—notably, Eric S. Raymond’s ban from the non-profit advocacy group Open Source Initiative, which he founded, after reported use of offensive language—some participants of the broader open source world bristled against the perceived censorship. “Tone-policing, cancel culture, and identity politics are a real problem … and it seems like they’re getting out of hand. This is happening everywhere though—it’s not unique to the open source world at all,” wrote user nrclark in a Y Combinator Hacker News thread, before conceding, “I don’t know what the right solution is.”

Dismantling a culture of intimidation

“A common argument I would hear a lot in the past is, ‘can’t we all just be nice to each other? We’re all adults,’ ” says Abby Cabunoc, who leads the Working Open initiative at Mozilla. But “nice” is an amorphous concept, and an inclusive, accessible environment manifests in many ways. Cabunoc’s first role at Mozilla was in the Science Lab, where she trained scientists in open source coding. She found that fostering actual collaboration depended on a more nuanced outlook, beyond just avoiding toxic language. “Part of it was telling these scientists they needed to make their work more accessible, so that someone who didn’t spend five years getting a PhD could still understand it,” she says. “It sets the tone that you care about how people interact with your work.”

One marker of a good code of conduct is how it dismantles a culture of intimidation. “There’s this acronym, RTFM,” says Lauren Lee McCarthy, creator of the p5.js code library. Short for read the fucking manual, it’s the kind of flippant reply a newcomer programmer might get when trying to report a bug to a forum. Like shirking someone’s question with, “just Google it,” RTFM suggests that the query isn’t worthy of time, and the person asking it hasn’t done their homework. McCarthy designed p5.js’s community to respond differently; its code of conduct asks members to “remember to approach every situation with patience and care.” “I’ve had people come in and report something they think is a bug, and the community responds and walks them through it, and then they ask how to make the documentation better,” she says. “It’s possible to create a community where people’s worth is tied to building something together.”

A screenshot of a resource showing how to use shaders in p5.js.
An open resource created by Casey Conchinha and Louise Lessél for the p5.js community to use while learning how to use shaders in p5.js. Image credit p5.js.

McCarthy launched p5.js in 2013, and Ehmke wrote the first version of the Contributor Covenant in 2014. Both recall years of joining events or projects and being the only non-male person present. In 2017, Github, the most widely used platform for sharing code, confirmed that assessment in a report. Despite the fact that 22% of all coders were female and 34% were people of color, only 3% of the open source respondents identified as female, and 16% belonged to a minority racial or ethnic group.

Maintaining a healthier open source community

It’s not clear where those percentages fall in 2020. Collecting data on open source contributors is difficult, thanks to the dispersed, digital nature of the work. But the health of open source projects depends on a more diverse workforce. “Think about accessibility, and people who use screen readers—what is a usable graphics library for someone who can’t see it?” McCarthy says. “If you have people who read from right to left—for example—then your software is most likely going to support that, but you also need to be open to people around the world,” says Georg Link, an open source strategist who points to research showing how more diverse teams create better products.

A graph showing the percentages of rudeness, name-calling, serious incidents, and stereotyping both witnessed and experienced in the open source community.
A figure included in the 2017 Github survey of the open source community showing the percentages of people who witnessed and/or experienced negative behavior. Image credit Open Source Survey.

Hard data showing a link between the recent adoption of codes of conduct and diversity in open source might not exist (yet), but activists are already at work on the next phase of securing healthier communities: enforcement. “A code of conduct without an enforcement strategy is worse than not having a code of conduct,” says Ehmke, who released a second version of the Contributor Covenant in September, this time with sample enforcement guidelines “that companies can adopt out of the box.” Some encourage companies and projects to create a code of conduct committee, while others, like p5.js, ask contributors to send concerns in via email. Both measures sound obvious enough, but in open source—where communication deliberately happens in public, in chat channels and coding-specific forums—having a private group committed to oversight hasn’t always been a given.

Soon, projects could also seek external approval. Link co-founded CHAOSS, a community within the Linux Foundation that creates standardized toolkits for evaluating the health of open source ecosystems. One of its focus areas is diversity and inclusion, and one of its initiatives within that is a badging system to recognize open source projects that have thoughtfully adopted a code of conduct. Many projects adopt a code of conduct with the air of checking an item off a list, Link says. The badging system (which is in development) would certify that a project has taken a thorough look at the right metrics for its diversity and inclusion initiative. The badge would mean a project has gone through “basic hygiene,” Link says, and it could telegraph a welcoming environment to those who’ve felt unwelcome elsewhere.

“We don’t reinvent the wheel when we write code,” Link says. “We use libraries, we use code from other places, we’re building on the shoulders of giants. It’s super important to secure the digital infrastructure we are building.” Securing it, he adds, means having healthy communities.

This article was published in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design.