Open source software communities have a noble intention: to work together over the internet to create something that benefits everyone. But hostility and bias often flourish in communities where there are no consequences for contributors who display non-inclusive behavior.
Toxic cultures have discouraged many talented developers from contributing necessary improvements to even the most important projects for the Web.
It’s a contributing factor to the reality that only 3% of open source contributors are women and that the majority are male and white. For the health of the internet, such lack of diversity is grim. Open source is everywhere now, so it means a very homogenous group of people is responsible for software the entire world interacts with every day.
In the fight for inclusivity and healthier communities, Codes of Conduct have surfaced as one of the most important (and sometimes controversial) instruments for change. They are valued especially by underrepresented groups in open source, including women, as a tool of empowerment for calling out bad behavior.
Today, Apache, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and WordPress all have Codes of Conduct for their open source projects. One established community after another, including those with founders who have controversial communication styles, like Linus Torvalds of Linux, have had to reckon with community members who called for a full stop on rude and aggressive interactions.
“Codes of conduct are vital to open source communities,” explains Coraline Ada Ehmke, a developer and open source-advocate who created the Contributor Covenant, a Code of Conduct text adopted by thousands of open source projects in just five years.
“A Code of Conduct is a way of expressing community values,” she says.
A core value could be to foster an open and welcoming environment for everyone: “regardless of age, body size, disability, ethnicity, sex characteristics, gender identity and expression, level of experience, education, socio-economic status, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation,” as it says in the Contributor Covenant.
That may not seem controversial. But time and again, some contributors find it unsettling or even infuriating when new rules and processes are introduced to govern language and behaviors they are used to, and may not believe are harmful.
“There are best practices for how to write documentation, or share an idea with a group of potential strangers, in a way not likely to cause offense,” explains Jory Burson, a consultant and educator who helps open source communities build healthy cultures.
Emma Irwin, an open project and communities specialist at Mozilla, says a Code of Conduct is toothless unless it is actually enforced. “Trust comes from enforcement. Stability comes with enforcement. If you have a Code of Conduct and don’t enforce it, you can actually cause more harm,” she says.
The boundaries of such enforcement are still being tried and tested, as open source communities wrestle with how to create the best conditions for equality and diversity. For instance, should an expulsion from one community lead to expulsion from another?
Codes of Conduct were initially only introduced at open source conferences and public events to stem disagreements that veered from technical to personal matters.
In 2014, after signing a pledge to only attend conferences with Codes of Conduct, Coraline Ada Ehmke began contemplating a similar approach to online communities.
“I started thinking of ways that we could advance the cause of inclusivity in the wider tech community,” Ehmke recalls. “Since I have a long history of working in open source, it seemed logical to me that these communities of maintainers and contributors also needed a social contract to express and enforce community values of improving diversity and being welcoming to people of all kinds, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented in tech.”
“So the Contributor Covenant was born,” Ehmke says.
“In the last seven to eight years, the practice has shifted from needing the Code of Conduct for events, to needing it for the digital space,” Burson says. “It’s a very good progression.”