Published November 2019

Citizenship is a complex and fraught thing to talk about in the United States in 2019. But a little more than ten years ago, I was sitting in a colleague’s kitchen, trying to outline what separated the community side of open source software from the commercial, when I proposed we think of it like citizenship: a declaration you could make, accepting certain rights and responsibilities. I based the overall tone of it on the awards we had in grade school for a student who was eager to help others — at the time, my own national citizenship was something I took for granted. Here’s what I wrote in February 2009:

It seemed important to bridge the kinds of roles we have in open source, user/contributor/owner/institution, getting down to something more fundamental. What else are people who interact in this multi-directional way? Perhaps we’re citizens. Not residents—we do more than live here. We are, like citizens of a country, engaged in the practice of an interlocking set of rights and responsibilities.

Citizenship isn’t a concept I’ve thought about much since grade school, so I might only be scratching the surface of what it implies, but here’s a few thoughts.

There are rules for gaining citizenship. You have to be born in a place, or have parents who are citizens, or be sponsored, or apply and jump through hoops and make sense of bureaucracy. There’s no requirement you and the government like each other, but you must agree the follow the laws you and it are bound by.

Citizens are constrained, but they also have rights. They are protected from outside entities. They may be called to act in service, to contribute to the country’s well-being and defense.

Citizenship can be revoked, or renounced, if the person commits treason, or is found serving an opposing side.

It served us fairly well as a starting point. We were able to frame our understanding of open source around enthusiastic participation, and what we could do to enable it. This was a direct response to the other open source conference we attended, OSCON, which used a lot of the same ‘for the users!’ rhetoric but clearly defined the success of open source software through capitalist production and consumption. That commercial definition allowed many participants to defend low diversity, abusive behavior, and a whole lot of missing stairs — if the software was working, how could there be a problem? In contrast, the sort of people who showed up to learn how to be better open source citizens were much more likely to be people we wanted to be around.

Ours was far from the only effort to define a more humane sort of software community, that has roots in this time period, and there was all sorts of overlap between Open Source Bridge and other activities. BarCamps and other unconferences proliferated, covering every aspect of software development, technology communities, and other interests. We incorporated an unconference day in the schedule. Many other community conferences were started for particular languages or technologies, acting as a kind of amplified user group, and further drawing a line between the commercial focus of OSCON and other motivations. Another effort, the Geek Feminism community, grew out of a desire to expand participation in open source and technology as a whole by people who weren’t white men.

From the start, Geek Feminism was talking about what tools would enable more diverse participation at tech conferences. There were far fewer women visible in those spaces than there are now — we could pretty much guarantee we’d meet everyone else just by using the same bathrooms, if we were in there often enough. The Open Source Bridge concept of citizenship was feminist too, although we were sometimes a little more cautious about saying that directly. So in 2010 when some of the Geek Feminism contributors started talking about drafting a code of conduct that conferences could use, it seemed obvious that we were going to adopt a code of conduct too.

I felt a little put off by the idea at first. I mean, we were working our butts off to create a space that everyone could be a part of and to recruit a more diverse speaker pool. It felt like there was this new threshold we’d have to meet, when we already did so much and could see positive results. It’s possible that I was mostly responding to my own burnout — I took that year off from conference organizing and only came back when Christie, Reid, and I started forming a new non-profit to provide stability to OSBridge. Still, I remember this as one reason it felt important to me that we write our own version, and make it more than an ‘anti-harassment’ policy. We used many of the same root pieces, then connected it to the positive goals of Open Source Citizenship and the space we were creating at the conference.

We had a first draft of the “Open Source Bridge Code of Conduct” in March 2011, plenty of time to start using it at our next conference in June. We were also continuing to participate in general conversations about codes of conduct and why they were important, which was a mix of defining our own practices and advocating for their use elsewhere. One obvious ‘elsewhere’ was OSCON. They needed a policy, that was obvious to anyone who had experienced or known someone who’d dealt with any number of bad incidents. Calling out the problems one-by-one wasn’t stopping them from continuing.

A group of regular OSCON speakers and attendees started asking O’Reilly, the company that runs OSCON, to adopt the Geek Feminism anti-harassment policy. The O’Reilly staff expressed doubts that they had a significant problem: so they received documentation and personal accounts. They continued to suggest that the conference didn’t need a policy to tell people not to be jerks — it’s obvious, right? This went all the way up to the week of the event. I remember being asked if I would go talk to Gina Blaber, the VP of conferences. I imagine she heard very similar things from several of us. It wasn’t like they would be starting from scratch, we were all very willing to hand them a template and tell them how to use it.

Finally, Tim O’Reilly agreed to make a statement in support of the request. It was not universally popular. Christie and I remember being cornered in the speaker lounge by an Open Source Initiative board member who accused us of inciting a ‘witch hunt’. I don’t recall whether it was right before or after this conversation that the two of us decided our Open Source Bridge Code of Conduct needed to be available as a template ASAP. At least then we’d be able to show everyone what we were aiming for.

What to call that template? Well, since our community values could be expressed through Open Source Citizenship, how about the Citizen Code of Conduct?

A supplemental goal of this Code of Conduct is to increase open [source/culture/tech] citizenship by encouraging participants to recognize and strengthen the relationships between our actions and their effects on our community.

Communities mirror the societies in which they exist and positive action is essential to counteract the many forms of inequality and abuses of power that exist in society.

If you see someone who is making an extra effort to ensure our community is welcoming, friendly, and encourages all participants to contribute to the fullest extent, we want to know.

I had an idea of what would happen next. We’d enforce the code of conduct by intervening in the kinds of harmful incidents we’d seen elsewhere, when necessary (we could note we’d already succeeded at setting a better standard of behavior even without this formal policy). The community values we’d defined would help prevent many more of those incidents, by further shifting the cultural norms. The Open Source Citizen award we introduced at the conference, alongside the new code of conduct, helped show what those values looked like in practice. Then, we’d be able to make slow but steady progress on improving the diversity and inclusion of open source.

This narrative isn’t wrong, in the most general view. All of those things did happen and are still ongoing. But it wasn’t long before I had to start questioning several of my base assumptions. Maybe open source was much more complicated than the collaborative practice we enjoyed, that allowed us to make things together without boundaries created by whether we had the same employment. Perhaps my understanding of feminism was only just starting to become intersectional. Also, what if the incidents we expected to deal with were only just scratching the surface of what could go wrong?

I’ve written about how I started to rethink my understanding of open source personally and professionally, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just note that these thoughts began to form about a year after the Citizen Code of Conduct was introduced. I’ve continued to develop those ideas, most recently in my talk “Creating a Third Wave of Free/Open Source Software”. If the structure of open source was visibly shifting from the grassroots community efforts we were interested in, how about citzenship as our model of participation?

The most obvious problem is that citzenship itself is not an equal opportunity. Out in the world, rights are often denied and responsiblities ignored. Within technology there is also a clear inequality in ownership, impact, and rewards. Companies and individuals have different needs, both as single entities and in the aggregate. Any thoughts I had about the inherent openness of citizenship seem ridiculous and privileged now. I failed to understand that the very concept of citizenship depends on the existance of a border.

I also had a lot to learn about how we shape and protect our community values. When we introduced the Citizen Code of Conduct, we knew we would need some kind of system of enforcement. For the conference, it was obvious that the co-chairs and the Syndicate board would be involved — so that’s where our enforcement roles started. We found a sample incident response plan from another group that we started to customize. I kept looking at it and trying to figure out how to make it something we would go to first when there was a problem. Eventually that led to a set of materials that I’ve been able to use reliably in the communities I support, and also have taught successfully to many others.

I started writing this essay a year ago, at a time when I was thinking about the skills I teach in Code of Conduct Enforcement workshops. Teaching people how to make use of a response plan has lead to a lot of other thoughts about governance, authority, and since I started working at tech startups again in November 2018, about collective action. It is clear to me that the values and goals expressed in the practice of open source are quite diverse – and often in conflict, as we’ve seen in the last year’s discussions about ethics. I think that deserves its own essay, so I’ll wrap up here with the thought that we’ve built something quite remarkable in the decade I describe above, but if it’s going to continue forward, we need a new umbrella or framework, one that clearly focuses on how technology impacts people.