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InfoQ Homepage News "Dear GitHub…" — An Open Letter to GitHub

"Dear GitHub…" — An Open Letter to GitHub

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[This post has been updated on Jan 19, 2016 to include a GitHub spokesperson's statement]

A growing group of open source project maintainers, including some of the most popular projects on GitHub, have signed an open-letter to express their frustration and complaints about what they experience as a feeling of being ignored and being invisible to GitHub’s eyes. In a couple of days, the number of signees to “Dear GitHub” has grown to many hundreds (including a few obviously fake signees, to be fair). Among them are the maintainers of jQuery, React Native, node.js and plenty of other successful open source projects.

Their main complaint lies with the lack of support and a proper, two-way communication channel with GitHub. The only response that they have ever had to any of their enquiries, they maintain, has been “an empty response of no response at all”, as evidenced by the number of reported problems that GitHub has not been able or willing to fix for years. In conversation with InfoQ, James Kyle, one of the initiators of “Dear GitHub”, said that while redacting the open letter he gathered “a massive list of improvements” from all participants, yet they decided to highlight just three of them in the final text:

  • Poor issue reporting through the issue tracker due to lack of customizability. This could be provided, e.g., through custom fields and basic validation mechanisms to ensure that issues are filed with all the required information, such as steps to reproduce or version tested.
  • High noise in the issue tracker’s comment system, mostly due to content-less “+1” comments, which are useful to let maintainers know how widespread an issue is, but cast too much noise on them. This could be solved by providing a first-class voting mechanism.
  • Difficulty in getting issues and pull requests (PR) conforming to the guidelines. This is deemed to be a consequence of the inconspicuous nature of the “guidelines for contributing” link that GitHub displays and could be fixed by allowing maintainers to configure a file to be displayed at the top of new issues/PRs.

InfoQ has spoken with James Kyle to learn more about the open letter’s inception and intent.

Could you describe the birth of the open-letter to GitHub and how the process was carried through?

It all started with a twitter thread between a couple of high profile open source maintainers. I suggested an open letter to GitHub and started a Google doc inviting all of them to it. I wrote a couple paragraphs to get a general outline and then I left it up to everyone else to voice their concerns and flesh the letter out. There was a massive list of improvements GitHub could make which was truncated to the top 3 or so.

Do you thing that the open-letter format was the most appropriate to convey GitHub your complaints? Do you expect that GitHub will finally take note of your requests?

I think the open letter was the only remaining way to convey our concerns to GitHub. When asked, all of the authors had emailed GitHub support previously with feature ideas and product issues, none of which received any substantive response.

GitHub is a great product. However, it’s obviously not a finished product and it is not without it’s faults. All of the authors of this letter maintain massive projects, and because of that they have experienced GitHub’s shortcomings to an extreme degree. I would argue that GitHub is one of the largest contributors to open source burnout because of the fact that it does not scale past a handful of users.

Beyond the three main points that the open-letter mentions, it seems that there is a structural problem in the relation between GitHub and the open source developer community. How hard would be to fix this, in your opinion, provided the will is there that is?

This is a huge opportunity for GitHub. By GitHub’s own analytics, the repo received 55,000 individual visitors. It was pointed out to me that the post on Hacker News is currently the 19th most popular post of all time (and still climbing). There’s over 800 signatures, and if you take a quick look through the signees you’ll see many of the most popular projects on GitHub.

It’s very clear to me that this is something that has struck a chord with the GitHub user base. In my opinion, GitHub should take this for the opportunity that it is.

I hope that they respond in some form or another, but I’m certainly not holding my breath for it. What I’ve heard privately from current and past employees of GitHub isn’t promising. It frightens me how stagnant GitHub has been over the last 3 or 4 years, the open source community relies heavily on it and it should continue improving just as any other product should.

“Dear GitHub” sparked a prompt reaction from another group of open source developers who signed a second open letter, “Thank you GitHub”, which at the current moment has more than 200 signatures. In conversation with InfoQ, Xavier Noria, Ruby on Rails Core developer and original proponent of “Thank you GitHub”, clarified that though a reaction to “Dear GitHub”, their letter was not “in itself much about Dear GitHub”.

Suggesting improvements and giving feedback is perfectly fine, but I found myself in disagreement with the negative tone voiced in “Dear GitHub”. My disagreement was expressed by not signing “Dear GitHub”. Instead, "Thank you GitHub" is just the expression of a different sentiment and even "Dear GitHub" signed "Thank you GitHub" via a representant.

Asked about their views on "Dear GitHub", a GitHub spokesperson released the following statement to InfoQ:

Open source is critically important to GitHub and we take this feedback very seriously. We are working on several of the initiatives discussed, and will  look for proactive ways to engage with open source maintainers to continue to make GitHub a great experience for their communities

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