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InfoQ Homepage News How Open-Source Maintainers Can Deal with Toxic Behavior

How Open-Source Maintainers Can Deal with Toxic Behavior

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Three toxic behaviors that open-source maintainers experience are entitlement, people venting their frustration, and outright attacks. Growing a thick skin and ignoring the behavior can lead to a negative spiral of angriness and sadness. Instead, we should call out the behavior and remind people that open source means collaboration and cooperation.

Gina Häußge spoke about dealing with toxic people as an open-source maintainer at OOP 2023 Digital.

There are three toxic behaviors that maintainers experience all the time, Häußge mentioned. The most common one is entitlement. Quite a number of users out there are of the opinion that because you already gave them something, you owe them even more, and will become outright aggressive when you don’t meet their demands.

Then there are people venting their frustration at something not working the way they expect, Häußge said, who then can become abusive in the process.

The third toxic behavior is attacking, mostly from people who either don’t see their entitled demands met or who can’t cope with their own frustration, sometimes from trolls, as Häußge explained:

That has reached from expletives to suggestions to end my own life.

Häußge mentioned that she tried to deal with toxic behavior by growing a thick skin and, ignoring the behavior. She thought that getting worked up over them was a personal flaw of hers. It turned out that she was trying to ignore human nature and the stress response cycle, as Häußge explained:

Trying to ignore things just meant they’d circle endlessly in my head, often for days, sometimes for weeks, and make me spiral into being angrier and angrier, or sadder and sadder. And that in turn would influence the way I communicate, often only escalating things further, or causing issues elsewhere.

Häußge mentioned that when she’s faced with entitlement or venting, she often reminds people of the realities at work. "Open Source means collaboration and cooperation, not demands," she said. If people want to see something implemented, they should help to get it done - with code, but also things like documentation and bug analysis:

Anything I don’t have to do myself means more time for coding work to solve other people’s problems.

It shouldn’t just fall to the maintainer, Häußge said. We all can identify bad behavior when we see it and can call it out as such. We don’t have to leave it to the maintainers to also constantly defend their own boundaries or take abuse silently, she stated.

Häußge mentioned to also always look at ourselves in the mirror and make sure we don’t become offenders ourselves:

Remember the human on the other end at all times.

InfoQ interviewed Gina Häußge about toxic behavior towards open-source maintainers.

InfoQ: What impact of toxic behavior on both maintainers and OSS communities have you observed?

Gina Häußge: Over the years I’ve talked to a bunch of fellow OSS maintainers, and the general consensus also reflects my own experience: these experiences can ruin your day, they can ruin your whole week, and sometimes they make you seriously question why you even continue to maintain a project. They certainly contribute to maintainer burnout, and thus pose a risk to the project as a whole. It’s death by a thousand papercuts. And they turn whole communities toxic when left standing unopposed.

InfoQ: How have you learned to cope with toxic behavior?

Häußge: A solution for the stress response cycle is physical activity. I have a punching bag in my office, and even just 30 seconds on this thing get my heart going! This signals to my brain that I have acknowledged the threat and am doing something against it, completing the stress response cycle. Once I’ve done that, I’m in control again and can take appropriate next steps.

If things get abusive, I make it clear that behavior such as what they just demonstrated won’t be tolerated. This has gotten me a surprising number of apologies over the years, but sometimes it has also led to further escalation. In that case, I show people the door and if push comes to shove ban them.

InfoQ: What can we do in open-source projects to handle toxic behavior?

Häußge: The general mantra in Open Source used to be that as a maintainer you just need to grow a thick skin, ignore the haters - and if you can’t then you are simply not cut out for the job.

I disagree with this. The constant onslaught of this kind of treatment either will break you or turn you into a worse person, and neither should be something you just have to accept for wanting to maintain OSS. Enforce your own boundaries and your project’s CoC, and demand to be treated with human decency.

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