Can’t Prop, Won’t Prop – Contributor Carrots and Sticks

A very mild rebuttal to Rob's "Toxic Scorekeeping" post and a primer on what "props" are in WordPress.

A woman sitting in front of a computer with another woman standing over her

Recently on MasterWP, Rob came out hard against what he calls “Toxic Scorekeeping” in the WordPress community – a response to the project leadership’s recent moves towards publicly calling out which companies are contributing “enough” to WordPress. This will not be a proper rebuttal to Rob’s article, as we have mostly common ground on the topic, but I did want to dig into some of the recent conversation around Five for the Future, disagree with Rob a little bit, and connect it to my real-life experience trying to contribute to a new feature project.

My First Prop

Recently, as part of an earlier piece on WordPress spam and an internal effort to increase our WordPress contributions at MasterWP, I began contributing to the WP Feature Notifications project. The goal of that project is to give WordPress sites a modern infrastructure for managing alerts, messages, and notifications. I’ll be documenting the trials and tribulations of contributing to WordPress in an upcoming article, but I wanted to focus on one part of the experience here.

After joining the project conversation in Slack and pushing a few mediocre pull requests on Github, it wasn’t long before I received my first “prop.” Don’t know what a prop is? Neither did I. Basically, a “prop” is a celebratory comment that shows up on your profile (here’s mine). Contributors can grant other contributors “props” as a way of saying “thanks” or just highlighting helpful contributions they’ve made. While I’m about the least sentimental person around, I have to admit that it felt nice to be recognized.

When I read Rob’s article about “toxic scorekeeping,” however, my mind didn’t jump to “props” and the positive ways we can keep score, but to the negativity many of us can be so guilty of falling into when we evaluate the big players in the ecosystem. I can understand where he’s coming from, even if I disagree.

Is Scorekeeping Bad?

First of all, I’m not so worried about the scorekeeping as much as I’m concerned about the toxicity. In fact, I’m coming out in favor of scorekeeping – if it means we’re being more transparent about which companies are behind which features make it into WordPress. I actually want to know if Google has taken a larger interest in WordPress or if GoDaddy is draining resources from it (spoiler alert: the evidence on that front is scarce). I just think we need to be more careful about the various ways in which we keep score.

As larger companies turn higher profits off of the WordPress ecosystem, it may feel perfectly reasonable to publicly shame them on Twitter in the hopes that you’ll get more contributions out of them. In fact, it’s often why we spill critical ink on WordPress’s benevolent dictator himself, because with great venture capital and project ownership comes great responsibility. We’re fans of speaking up critically sometimes. But while Twitter-shaming the Frontier Airlines customer service account can look like punching up, multimillionaires coming after rank-and-file WordPress devs, writers, and users doesn’t.

That being said, we do need more options for transparency in all aspects of WordPress contribution, including knowing where funding for individual contributors comes from, something that’s hard to parse even from helpful lists of commits and contributors after each release. There’s so much more happening outside of core releases that have an important affect on the ecosystem. On a positive note, I’ve seen publications like the WP Tavern move towards identifying contributors by their sponsoring company, using phrases like “Automattic-sponsored contributor John Doe.” This is a good trend.

I’d push for us to move a step further and include a “sponsored” badge with a company name next to user names across the entire contribution ecosystem – the website, GitHub, Make WordPress Slack, and Trac. Every author of a post, proposal, pull request, course, or comment could be clearly identified as being sponsored, and volunteers would be more visible by their lack of a “sponsored” badge.

What I’d remove is the scoreboard, the “pledges,” the rankings, the comparisons, and so on. Remove anything that’s vague or punitive, but maintain everything that’s important for understanding where contributions and ideas come from. And keep the props. What else would I keep? The vast umbrella of tasks what we traditionally considered a “contribution.”


What is a contribution?

The larger context here is the project’s recent attempts to limit what was traditionally considered contributing to the WordPress project, referring specifically to FftF (Five for the Future) contributions. Contributing to core or organizing a WordCamp would be considered FftF. Sponsoring a WordCamp or building a plugin may not be considered FftF contributions any longer, presumably because those actions can also lead to financial gain for the original contributor more than support the larger ecosystem.

One of my favorite Twitter activities is watching developer agencies such as WebDevStudios share their monthly FftF projects. Unfortunately, most of the tweets from WDS and other agencies are about building free and open-source plugins – the de-facto way to contribute code for anyone with a WordPress site to use without waiting for it to be included into core (CPT-UI in core anyone?). These contributions are suddenly not FftF contributions.

So when GoDaddy siphons away revenue from WooCommerce’s payment processors by introducing an alternative payment handling plugin, this is anti-FftF and is in fact “parasitic.” Thus the outrage. But then again, the entire WooCommerce project and ecosystem itself is, by definition, not a part of FftF either. It’s just a plugin, and it’s primarily for the economic benefit of Automattic, I guess.

Part of the problem is that you can’t donate financially to WordPress, even if that might be easier than donating your time or your employees’ time. So speaking at a WordCamp is a contribution, but sponsoring it is not, even if a sponsorship could potentially fund more underrepresented speakers joining the community. But again – paying the full-time salary of a WordCamp organizer IS FftF… confused yet? Similarly, coding for core is a contribution, but coding a plugin used on millions of WordPress websites is not. Tell me again, what is the goal of these arbitrary distinctions? Would WordPress be further along the path to the “future” if every plugin developer only put their energy into contributing their ideas into core?

Speaking of arbitrary distinctions, Gravity Forms CEO and Founder Carl Hancock brought a similarly odd perspective to the ecosystem with his tweet that WordPress doesn’t need any “more newsletters, podcasts, news sites or courses” but instead “more people to actually build and ship shit instead of talking about it.” As a WordPress news site with a newsletter, podcast, and courses about to launch, I’ll admit that we took this one personally. Luckily Podcaster Joe Casabona responded with a rant of his own, titled Are Content Products “Real” Products, saying basically everything that needed to be said (or didn’t need to be said, if we’re being honest). Go read his take.

The point here is that narrow, punitive, and perhaps condescending definitions of what a “valuable contribution” is feels like the least meaningful approach to the problem of “we don’t have enough people wanting to contribute.” We need diversity of contributions.

Props Where Props Are Due

Executive Director of the WordPress project, Josepha Haden Chomphosy, explained her new Five for the Future proposal with a podcast episode digging further into the campaign and attempting to downplay some of those recent comments from her boss, Matt Mullenweg.

Instead of tackling the actual contributions issues that many in the ecosystem have been discussing, she pivots her podcast to discuss “props” – a move that baffled me at first, even if the podcast was still interesting and thoughtful.

But then I saw her updated introductory paragraph to the original post on defining Five for the Future contributions:

The end goal is to distribute props more equitably and more consistently by taking out the subjectivity of human review, not to make individual contributions somehow less valuable.

As I’ve mentioned, props are nice and pleasant when you get them. To quote Sé Reed, they’re the “thoughts and prayers” of WordPress contributions. But I can’t imagine that props will solve the contributor shortage or help bring transparency to the financial incentives or contributions of major stakeholders – something that all of us (including Matt Mullenweg’s deleted tweets) would presumably appreciate.

Props aren’t nearly enough of a carrot for me to contribute personally – I didn’t even know they existed before I contributed. Whereas the “stick” of being called out for not contributing may have additional psychological leverage on my business. That’s why I’m suggesting more transparency into WordPress at all levels, including the funding behind major contributors and major features.

If you read the original comments on Josepha’s post, you’ll see that “props” were not what anyone was thinking this conversation was really about. Luckily she clarified it after the fact, but the reality is that the conversation many in the community were wanting to have still didn’t get to happen.

Contributing Is Hard

Contributing is hard. Contributing with a full-time job, five kids, and a wife who thinks we’re on Fixer Upper is even harder. The fact that I’m even able to put a few hours a week into WordPress now has everything to do with the financial and social privileges I’ve experienced throughout my career and even back in my childhood.

Josepha opens her podcast with one of the most important statements surrounding contributions:

Contribution to open source is a question and indication of privilege.

I’ve never been able to justify unpaid weekend coding sessions outside of my workweek when I’d rather be spending time with my kids or working on projects around the house. Recently, MasterWP offered to sponsor five percent of my time towards contributing, which I consider one of my many privileges I’ve been given in life.

It’s not volunteering. Its ultimately a financial contribution from our company that could affect the direction of WordPress, if I’m being totally transparent.

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Brian is the Technology Director at Understrap and Howard Development & Consulting. Located in Southern California, Brian is a former college instructor and full-stack developer who brings his unique academic perspective to Understrap Academy. Brian is a graduate of California State Polytechnic University Pomona and California State University Fullerton. His work has included projects for Harvard University, The World Bank, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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