Contributors do not save time

(This is based off a small tweet storm from yesterday).

There’s this idea that what open source projects need to become sustainable is contributors – either from people working at companies who use the project, or from individuals.

It is entirely wrong.

First off: Contributors are great. I love contributors, and I am extremely grateful to anyone who has ever contributed to Hypothesis or any of my other open source projects. This post is not intended to discourage anyone from contributing.

But contributors are great because they increase capabilities, not because they decrease the effort required. Each contributor brings fresh eyes and experience to the project – they’ve seen something you haven’t, or know something you don’t.

Generally speaking a contribution is work you weren’t going to do. It might be work you were going to do later. If you’re really unlucky it’s work you’re currently in the process of doing. Often it’s work that you never wanted to do.

So regardless of what the nature of the contribution, it creates a sense of obligation to do more work: You have to deal with the contributor in order to support some work you weren’t going to do.

Often these dealings are pleasant. Many contributions are good, and most contributors are good. However it’s very rare that contributions are perfect unless they are also trivial. The vast majority of contributions that I can just say “Thanks!” and click merge on are  things that fix typos. Most of the rest are ones that just fix a single bug. The rest need more than the couple of minutes work (not zero work, mind you) that it took to determine that it was such a contribution.

That work can take a variety of forms: You can click merge anyway and fix it yourself, you can click merge anyway and just deal with the consequences forever (I don’t recommend this one), you can talk the contributor through the process of fixing it themselves, or you can reject the contribution as not really something you want to do.

All of these are work. They’re sometimes a lot of work, and sometimes quite emotionally draining work. Telling someone no is hard. Teaching someone enough of the idiosyncracies of your project to help them contribute is also hard. Code review is hard.

And remember, all of this is at the bare minimum work on something that you weren’t previously going to do just yet, and may be work on something that you were never going to do.

Again, this is not a complaint. I am happy to put in that work, and I am happy to welcome new contributors.

But it is a description of the reality of the situation: Trying to fix the problems of unpaid labour in open source by adding contributors will never work, because it only creates more unpaid labour.

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