How Can Contributors be Supported?

I was just reading several articles about the tragic loss of the talented Rachel Bryk. Bryk was a contributor to the Dolphin project and was known for her work on the Gamecube and Wii emulators. She apparently was being consistently harassed online and ultimately withdrew from the online communities that she had loved. This makes me think about the dozens of contributors and volunteers that I have worked with over the years at Mozilla and other global organizations. I wonder, is there anything that I can do to support a community member when they are in pain or struggling?

Many online and real life communities have codes of conduct, rules of play, manifestos or just something to communicate a general expectation of how members should treat one another - but is this enough? We are constantly putting up legal documents on websites that we create to protect ourselves as organizations, but are we being vigilant in offering support to those who help us to user test, improve, design and socialize our open source projects?

At this very moment I can list a dozen contributors to projects that I am directly working on. I can tell you their IRC handles, where they are from in the world (however that might be interpreted) and their latest contributions to github, a wiki or an list serv. What I can't tell is far greater than that - I can't tell if they are being secretly bullied on direct messages, or if they have received harassment for championing our cause. I can't tell if a contributor is in pain. Contributors come in and out of my life with frequency. They often volunteer what time they have to a project, so they can't always be contacted or reached with ease.

I am struggling to write this post because I think of contributors as the soul of open source projects - and if our "soul" is in pain and we don't even notice, what does that say about our "body"?

Proactively, I can list a handful of things that can be done:

  • Have a code of conduct - one that protects community members just as much as it protects the organization.

  • Create pathways for volunteers and contributors to check in and socialize. (I've done this by having virtual drinks with contributors to chat about their work and life - not tied to any specific deliverable).

  • Design a safe space - this one is tricky. How is this actually done? I'm not sure - but I am positive that this is important.

  • Safeguard the unique voices - If an individual volunteer or contributor is the sole voice for a cause, make sure that they are being heard out and respected.

I know this isn't enough. I am mainly writing this article to think about how I communicate with volunteers and contributors. Contributors are not just a resource, but part of the project development. If a staff member was in pain, this would be recognized and supported in some form - we should try to be doing the same for contributors. The challenge here is creating a community that is open enough to voice these kinds of concerns and problems, or to simply recognize when something isn't feeling right. After that there's a larger question about - would I even know how to help someone if they are struggling?