Like most people in the WordPress ecosystem, I strongly believe that giving back is an important way to “pay forward” everything this community has given me.
My first formal contribution was reviewing themes for WordPress.org. I found out about the volunteer theme review team when I was researching how to submit a theme I was working on to be included in the theme listings at WordPress.org/themes.
It turned out that the wait time was months long for an initial review. So, I signed up to be a reviewer, expecting that I would help reduce the time it would take for my theme (and other themes) to be reviewed. What I didn’t know was how much I would learn about building themes simply by reviewing other themes.
Giving my time freely to the community was paying off in ways I didn’t expect.
Several months later, with the theme review queue still months long, a new incentive program was introduced to address this issue. Under the new system, the reviewers who completed the most reviews would get to choose a theme to be included in the featured themes list on WordPress.org.
This offer of increased visibility was too good to pass up–especially for a theme shop who used the free “lite” versions of their themes to attract new paying customers to their premium themes.The people with the most to gain financially started racing to get the most reviews completed. All the non-trouble tickets were gone. For me, reviewing themes went from being a fun way to learn more about theme development to a chore. So, I stopped.
This program was recently shut down by the WordPress foundation because as Jen Mylo— an Automattic employee, tasked with aiding the WordPress open-source project—wrote: the incentive program amounted to “a form of pay-for-play, where someone gives something of value (in this case reviewing time and expertise) in exchange for something of value (advertising in the form of a featured theme listing). That’s pretty much the opposite of how contributing to the WordPress project is supposed to work.”
The incentive program was shut down earlier this year, and last time I checked there were over a hundred themes still waiting to be reviewed.
I’m not going to argue with the merits of the theme review incentive program or with the decision to shut it down, as the decision has already been made. That said, it’s an interesting program to look at as it represents a situation where idealism and pragmatism were out of balance.
The idea that theme developers should pitch in with reviewing themes for inclusion on WordPress.org makes sense, in an ideal world. But reality showed that the system wasn’t pragmatic enough to meet the demands.
Idealism Isn’t Enough
Idealism is a good thing. So is the desire to give, which drives so many of us in this community. We can never lose sight of the fact that for tens of thousands of us, myself included, WordPress is our job, in one way or another.
I’ve learned so much from creating free software and being part of the WordPress ecosystem. One of the most important things I’ve learned is the difference between idealism and pragmatism. While idealism may be at the root of many great things, it’s pragmatic idealism that gets things done. As Richard Stallman says:
If you want to accomplish something in the world, idealism is not enough—you need to choose a method that works to achieve the goal. In other words, you need to be pragmatic.
The GPL is designed with this type of pragmatic idealism involved. When we put code under the GPL, we grant our end users plenty of of freedoms. The one “freedom” the GPL restricts is the ability to combine GPL-restricted code with proprietary code or to make a derivative work of its proprietary. Some would call that no freedom: The same logic dictates that I don’t live in a free society because the government has taken away my freedom to murder people.
By prefacing the work we do with the GPL, we create a feedback loop where the work that we do to improve the tools we need benefits the community, attracting more contributors to the project, which ultimately benefits us. This is a system that we see in the relationships between Automattic and WordPress, CopyBloger and Genesis, or—for an example outside of WordPress—Canonical and Ubuntu.
Of course, there are other ways to benefit from contributing to WordPress besides creating the next WordPress.com or Copyblogger/Genesis. The WordPress community is full of people who achieve monetary success by contributing to the project. For many people, it is literally their job, because either Automattic or Audrey has hired them to work on WordPress core, or WordPress.org.
There are others, like Helen Hou-Sandi, whose employers enable them to be full-time contributors to WordPress.
Paying people to contribute is not the only way to motivate contributing large amounts of time to WordPress development. Mark Jaquith—one of the lead developers of WordPress—is a high-priced freelance WordPress developer and consultant, who can command high rates because he is one of the lead developers of WordPress.
Making Acknowledgment into Currency
WordPress does a great job of acknowledging contributors of code to core, putting the name of each contributor to a release on the credits screen. Top contributors even get their photos there. For a freelancer to get their photo or name included on the contributors screen, or for a company to have their employees included there is important for attracting new clients.
Not all contributors to WordPress are core contributors (or even developers) though. There are jobs out there for people who want to get paid to contribute to WordPress in other ways. For example, a WordPress evangelists—like the role that Suzette Frank fills at Media Temple.
There needs to be more ways of rewarding non-professional contributors. We need to make sure that all forms of giving to the WordPress community translates into a form of currency that makes those that give more attractive to clients, and makes their products and services attractive to potential consumers.
For any open-source project that wants to sustain contributors, acknowledging contributions is important. As Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant, points out in his book Give and Take “Professionally, few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead. We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting.”
Grant’s book is an incredible guide on how to succeed in life by giving to others, without expecting direct compensation and without getting taken advantage of. What he stresses is that since “research shows that givers usually contribute regardless of whether it’s public or private, but takers are more likely to contribute when it’s public,” by creating a system that acknowledges contributions, we can “sustain generalized giving as a form of exchange.”
The theme incentive program was one strategy to address the issue that idealistic concepts, like paying it forward, aren’t entirely successful when not everyone is orientated to that ideal. It was designed to give people public acknowledgment of their contributions. Instead it became a way for people to buy access to potential consumers.
One great example of how to increase visibility of project contributors can be seen in the site for the Underscores starter theme. The site shows every single person who has contributed to Underscores—with their gravatar, name, number of contributions, and a link to their GitHub profile. If you’d like to see just how easy it is to accomplish this, take a look in the source code for the site.
Again, this only works for developers that contributed code. Recognizing other types of contributors isn’t easy, but it’s something that needs to be built into the process of asking for contributions of any type to any project.
Being the Right Type of Giver
Acknowledging contributions is important, but so is balancing how you contribute to the community. As Grant points out, there is a difference between what he calls “pathological giving” and those who give freely, but strategically. The former tends to fall to the bottom of the pile—in terms of happiness, fulfillment, and income—while the latter rises to the top.
This is the difference between creating a blog that gives great content freely without the author receiving any direct compensation, and creating a blog that serve’s the author’s ideal clients. In both cases the blog’s audience takes freely, but only in the latter can the author expect to benefit from giving away the content.
When open-source projects like WordPress are at their best, they create ways for people to benefit from contributing freely. For the most part, the WordPress community does a great job of acknowledging contributors. What’s more important is for you, as an individual member of this community, to find the right way to give freely, expecting nothing in return, knowing that what you give will come back around to you.
How do you give back to the community?!