Random thought on communities

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Being in charge of a popular project has its highs and lows. On the one hand, creating something that is used by many people can be highly rewarding. You have a large community that supports you, there are many people willing to do their part. But then there are times when an unpopular change needs to be done, and as your community grows almost any change will make you unpopular with somebody. All the sudden you get people yelling at you — lots of people suddenly need to tell you how stupid that change is and what you should have done instead. It’s highly demotivating and makes you want to avoid uncomfortable changes. But that’s a dead end leading to a dead project.

I’ve seen people bashing Mozilla this way regularly recently (I am probably not without guilt myself), I can only imagine how hard it is to be a Firefox developer these days. Same thing happened with the Adblock Plus project a number of times and is happening again right now. Sure, the new “acceptable ads” feature is highly controversial in a community that is dedicated to blocking ads. Still, after putting countless hours into this project (unpaid until relatively recently) it is very disappointing to see how lots of people out there don’t want to believe that I possess some basic intelligence and integrity. It’s a good thing that we founded Eyeo — otherwise I might just give up and let them do it instead.

One thing shows very clearly in these discussions: there are two different groups of people coming to our forums/blog/whatever. Some people want to improve things. They listen to arguments, propose improvements, often they stay around and help. This was how the discussion went on “acceptable ads” before a “helpful” soul unleashed the power of Reddit upon us. There was much criticism but it was presented in a constructive way and some changes were implemented. Other changes were rejected, with good reason I think. And some changes were deferred because we couldn’t realistically fix every possible issue before even starting the experiment.

What happened later was entirely different: the other group of people arrived en masse. They didn’t listen to arguments, they didn’t bother to ask if something was unclear, they didn’t try to understand other people’s point of view — they already “knew” everything and so they ranted. Experience of previous encounters tells me that they will disappear after this incident and we will not see them again. Unless they find something else to rant about of course.

What is the conclusion from all that? First of all it is the experience many other projects made before: a successful project cannot be a democracy, it needs to be a meritocracy. People who want that their voice counts have to prove that they are willing to contribute in a constructive way. People who merely complain have to be ignored in a healthy project (yes, I am still learning but I am getting better at that). Ever wondered why the Mozilla project seems so unwilling to accept “feedback”? Now you know why.

The other conclusion: you shouldn’t focus on the negative feedback. It is an easy mistake to make because the negative feedback is so vocal and often more numerous (happy users have far less reason to come and say “thanks”). Still, we got quite a considerable number of users approving of this recent change and it is important to remember that they stand for a much larger group that didn’t bother telling us.

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