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A yarn about software development culture

Note: This is a republished version of an article from an old blog.

Richard Stallman resigned and/or was pushed out of the FSF, depending on your alignment.

People put up with his behavior because he helped start the free software movement. But after a point you have to wonder: how many potential contributors were put off because software development as a culture makes excuses for great men with underdeveloped interpersonal skills?

I have a theory that people in tech who tolerate this behavior can’t imagine doing anything else. Dealing with this kind of behavior takes time and energy, and risks becoming a pariah. So they optimize! They live and breath code, and can’t imagine that someone would be drawn to it and not feel such a pull that they would put up with anything to be a part of that culture. From that perspective, avoiding difficult conversations—minding that their interpersonal skills might also be lacking even if they see the problem and want to say something—is a rough optimization so they can focus on code and intellectually stimulating conversations.

Unfortunately, like all premature optimizations, avoidance of conflict leads to more problems than it solves. Not everyone who would make a great developer sees it as their only option. Many see the culture and run off to the less toxic cultures around one of their other hobbies. Like knitting: oft-mocked by toxic people, but just as technically challenging as any software project. If you think debates over code licenses get loud, try knitting pattern licensing.

This culture put me off going further into tech for a long time because the pull wasn’t strong enough to make the value proposition compelling. Instead, I went to music. I put up with irritating EDM bros because I love listening to and making electronic music even if it drives me to want to quit sometimes. And, I’ll admit, I avoid taking people aside to talk about their behavior because I’ve been burned so many times doing that. I could be better about this.

This kind of situation is even bad for a person pushing people away. Making excuses for their behavior denies them the opportunity to grow and learn to make sharp critiques in a way that makes the recipient learn and feel better about the work they did in the process of making the subject of critique.

Time for a personal story!

I used to make a lot of bad, lewd puns every time a chance presented itself. A friend pulled me aside and said they appreciated my humor, but felt like my misses took away from the hits because I had no filter, no standards. By realizing they were right and doing the work to step up my pun game, I was happier and made a lot more people groan.

Richard Stallman had to leave in 2019 because people made excuses for his behavior for decades. This could have been prevented anywhere along the way. Genius doesn’t matter if the vessel for that genius repels equal geniuses who feel like they have better options.

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Patreon’s Future

It’s easy to say Patreon’s fate was sealed the moment it took venture capital (VC). It’s widely understood that VC locks a company on a trajectory with three possible outcomes: acquisition, IPO, or yet another “our incredible journey” shutdown. The received wisdom is that all of Jack Conte’s sincere pleas for patience and trust are meaningless because he no longer ran the company once the VCs got in. As someone currently relying on Patreon for more than bare sustenance, this was…deeply troubling.

Patreon lets you export your patrons, email included, but not connect directly to Stripe. They aim to be a full-service creative destination, and giving you a way out doesn’t serve VCs who see a half billion dollar valuation. I’ve been around the e-block a bit and know exactly how it goes when companies get destination ambitions. See: AOL, Twitter, Facebook. All three followed the same path of closing off ways for third-party tools to access the services while they ate a growing market. Patreon hasn’t done that yet. Watch for it.

Companies with dreams of dominating (or saving) the world have four stages:

  1. They start out as a way to get somewhere and connect with people. Patreon connects creators with supporters’ bank accounts in a secure way.
  2. Then they become a destination, one of many points of interest along the way. Patreon has enough accounts that it’s easiest for a supporter to go there when they want to support someone even if the creator has a presence on sites like Ko-fi or Gumroad.
  3. Then they become prisons as a source of relief and prosperity turns into an obligation. Patreon is on the road to this stage. It isn’t yet so bad that people hate it, but most creators on there see that something is wrong.
  4. Something else comes along to remind people of what they lost, and the company rarely survives without losing most of its market. See: Ko-fi, Gumroad’s under development membership platform, or Substack.

Every company had an AOL keyword in their ads. Then it was a Twitter handle or a Facebook page. You already see Patreon pages mentioned in YouTube videos and podcasts.

Patreon is at stage 3. No one ever knows what #4 looks like even if they can make educated guesses.

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What ActivityPub means for musicians

The gist for people not extremely online: ActivityPub is the latest in a series of protocols aimed at letting different technologies speak with each other. It’s like HTTPS, which brought this post from my web server to the program you’re reading this in. Below that is TCP/IP, and different protocols at the ISP level like DNS and BGP.

Yeah, it’s a lot of acronyms. It’s enough to know that ActivityPub is a protocol that typically runs on HTTP, and it’s gaining steam where previous protocols in the same category like XMPP and OStatus got little traction outside tech circles.

For musicians, this means you will soon have options beyond Facebook and Twitter. Independent developers are hard at work on tools that handle events like Facebook, music like Soundcloud, short posts like Twitter, and things you probably never thought of. They all speak the same protocol.

Right now, it looks like what you do now but…distributed. It’s nice because there are enough people on the ActivityPub network to be seen, but not so many that you fall below the noise floor if you aren’t relentless.

There’s a typical pattern in technology.

  • Someone makes a technology that does the thing people already do, but different.
  • Early adopters rush in because hey, new thing!
  • Everyone else struggles to understand it. They usually compare it to earlier, failed efforts to replace the current thing. They’re right 99% of the time.
  • The tools people use for the old thing turn user-hostile and try to keep people from leaving as the new thing takes over. Twitter got an early start by killing off its developer ecosystem. They know how this goes.
  • Thousands of posts appear on the new thing in the theme of “I’m glad I made an account and kept a presence here early!”

Most people who already find adequate success on Twitter and Facebook will struggle to justify the time and effort, but it’s coming. ActivityPub is happening.

Right now there are a few main platforms that run on it. For example: Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed, Nextcloud. It’s tempting to assert that these will be the thing but, historically speaking, they probably won’t be. There are too many issues and splits for them to last.

The platforms that carve out new frontiers like this always end up a footnote. Ask the average internet user about Usenet, or AOL, or any of the vanguard of Web 2.0.

That sounds like I’m saying “don’t bother.” What I’m actually saying is “don’t repeat the last mistake.” Yes, go make a Mastodon account. Make one on Pixelfed. Find a Funkwhale or PeerTube instance. Write your novel on write.as. Organize an event on Get Together. You can benefit from it now, but make sure you have a way to tell people where you are once better tools sprout up in the ruins of the ActivityPub vanguard.

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ActivityPub Could Be The Future

I’ll admit, I’ve spent the last several years disillusioned with technology. All the quirky little tools people made gave way to ad-fueled companies that refused to play well with others.

This is the first time I’ve been excited for a new technology in memory.

ActivityPub is to HTTP what HTTP was to TCP/IP. TCP/IP bridged disparate systems and allowed them to communicate reliably. HTTP allowed the various services built on TCP/IP to communicate with each other reliably.

ActivityPub goes one step further and provides a way for users on those services to communicate in a way that has the appearance of directness. I can follow, for example, Blender’s videos on PeerTube from my Mastodon account. Or I can use a blog platform that speaks ActivityPub and let people follow it from other services. It’s all the best features of Twitter with the flexibility of RSS. And unlike Twitter, your Mastodon profile will probably never lose its RSS feed in a company’s pursuit of profit. The main project already funds itself through Patreon, as do most of the larger instances.

It’s still early. We could be looking at a situation like Usenet and Gopher where neither ended up being The Thing because AOL soaked up the nascent public internet, then Facebook soaked up the nascent commercial web.

Right now the popularity of Mastodon carries ActivityPub while projects like Plume (blogging), Pixelfed (image sharing), and others work toward their potential.

I have noticed a tendency for people supporting older, similar protocols to wonder why ActivityPub got so popular while their own stagnated. We could speculate. If people knew Ostatus at all, they understood it as a protocol for making Twitter clones. XMPP spoke XML in an age of JSON, and it was perceived as an instant messenger protocol.

Both focused on liberating people from commercial silos. Mastodon had some press to that effect regarding Twitter, but people on there have come to care less as its native and diverse community grows to a self-sufficient level.

Twitter and Facebook are struggling to cope with their place in a massive cultural shift and shaky transfer of generational power. As I write this, Facebook has just lost 25% of its share price on the announcement that it expects weak growth.

I think the growing ActivityPub federation has a good chance. No one interacts with my tweets anymore. Meanwhile, I get response on Mastodon that reminds me of the early days of Twitter, before they betrayed their developer community and hired a legion of people to cut ad deals.

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Lifestyles of the broke and nameless

It’s 9:06 PM. I’m staring down the barrel of another failed project. This whole nightmare started in 2009 when I graduated into an economy where all the once-valuable skills of my Network Administration degree (with a focus on Linux!) were now outsourced to “software as a service”—like Google Apps and Amazon Web Services—and to other countries where labor exploitation was more blatant. This was right after the economy went into a generation-defining nosedive. The economists claim the economy has seen a full recovery and then some, but I don’t know anyone who feels whole. Their definitions need work.

I accepted my path into IT was closed off and tried making a living online. I sold t-shirts. EBooks. Photo prints. I tried affiliate marketing and ads. I got an ad revenue check once. DistroKid paid for itself through referrals. Music is the closest I’ve been to a big score through album sales and Patreon. $60 dollars a month after years of sincere and consistent effort. At least it’s something.

But not really. It’s not enough to move for better job opportunities. All the “beginner” jobs here are taken by retirees who discovered the party and businesses they supported for decades screwed them over. I can’t even muster a “fuck you, grandma.” I’m not that bitter. Yet. Whine more about the “War on Christmas” as I pay for my toffee snickerdoodles. All while Republicans raid Social Security and FEMA for vanity projects like wars and walls, with the help of Democrats “compromising” right over the edge, then maybe I can learn to hate you the way you hate “millennials,” whatever that is. I’ve already resolved to use the self checkout next time and forever after. Blame yourself.