Earlier this week, DMN Communications posted a blog entry about the Top Open Source technical writers on the Web. This was in response to Ivan Walsh’s Top 50 Technical Writers on the Web, which had a notable lack of any open source technical writers. Karsten Wade—someone I respect very much—followed up with Calling out superrockstars considered harmful, in which he argues that top-ten lists drag down morale.

This is particularly interesting to me, and not just because I happen to be on that list. (Or, at least, one Shaun McGance is.) It’s interesting to me because we discussed recognition programs during the recent Gnome marketing hackfest. (And, by the way, a big thanks to Google and Novell for their sponsorship.) I was generally supportive of the idea, though wary of alienating contributors who don’t get the recognition.

I think Karsten has a valid point, but I don’t want to throw away all individual recognition. I don’t think there’s much point in throwing a parade for our Owens and Federicos. Yes, they rock. We all know they rock. Putting them on a pedestal doesn’t accomplish anything. The only thing it can do is disenfranchise the people who don’t think they can ever reach that status.

But the story is different for people who haven’t yet made a name for themselves. Two of the people on the list are teammates of mine. They’re relative newcomers, compared to an old fart like me. Giving them public recognition can inspire them to stay on. I’ve seen a lot of contributors come and go. Slowing that revolving door is a win in my book.

Furthermore, I think there’s value in lifting up what we do. A list like this shows interested folks that there are open source people out there who love technical writing. People who strive to provide more than dry stereo instructions. People who are earnestly trying to help users. Then again, maybe calling out vibrant communities of writers would do the same.

Lastly, the fact is that open source rides on the shoulders of individuals. We are not interchangeable parts. In open source, we bring our own ideas and inspirations to the table, and we shape what we do. We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for our rockstars. There are people on that list that I admire. Their work inspires me to be a better writer. And I have no doubt their respective projects would be worse off without them.

Maybe the list would have been less alienating if it had been more personal. List the poeple that inspire you, but don’t pass it off as anything but your personal list of heroes.

So back to the idea of recognizing Gnome contributors, is this doomed to be a well-meaning idea gone wrong? Is there any way to publicly recognize people who have done great work without alienating everybody else?

Comments on the blog please. I’m very interested in what you think.

6 Responses to “On Individual Recognition”

  1. Juanjo Marin Says:

    For me getting credit for what I’ve done is enough recognition. I think the key point is making easier to contribute and to improve the visibility of your work on GNOME.

    Maybe having a place where you can check all your contributions is a good start, something like ohloh for GNOME, with personal feedback from the community.


  2. Mel and I have been having follow-up discussions. She has a natural discomfort with the situation of working as an open community person for Red Hat. There is a clear barrier to participation in our @redhat.com team — you have to be hired by Red Hat and made a part of the team. Clearly not like other teams in open communities. Very cliqueish, especially if we as a team are not careful about that. So, my blog post was more fodder for the ongoing discussions around this that our team has. Important stuff to talk about.

    We have a sensitivity in our team around wide public praise specifically because of the experience I mention in this comment:

    http://iquaid.org/2009/11/11/calling-out-superrockstars-considered-harmful/#comment-3676

    We made the mistake of backing a “Fedora Award” that brought this whole topic forward and made it very clear what a mistake the whole idea was.

    OK, so how does this help your question?

    One thing I probably glossed over in my post is the idea of a recognition spectrum. It’s not all or none, and it has to be scaled to fit the size and interaction of a group. For example, group/team recognition works great. Then let the individual teams work out amongst themselves keeping people stoked about their work. I do that formula with e.g. Fedora Docs. I’ll do a blog post about how rocking the group is, with such a huge amount of work done, etc. Then I’ll post something another time to just the list, highlighting the achievement of individuals.

    Think of it like a recreational soccer/football team. (A rec team isn’t competitive, just friendly competition, sort of like FLOSS.) Each team gets kudos for how well they play games. Within each team, the coaches, captains, and invididual members give in-team praise for practice and game play.

    I love to do something at e.g. a FUDCon where we embarass someone with in-room praise and applause. Those are the situations where our humanity can overcome our feelings of disenfranchisement. You are in the room showering praise on a great person who doesn’t get enough of it. That’s when the, “Hey, everyone, three cheers for Foo!” is perfect. Just as, five minutes later, Foo is getting teased for something else.

    Not every social interaction, such as rewarding praise, translates equally well to the wider online world.

  3. shaunm Says:

    Thanks for your input, Juanjo.

    As for “something like ohloh”, there is Pulse, the everything tracker I started developing to help the documentation team.

    http://www.gnome.org/~shaunm/pulse/web/

    I need to dust it off and get it running again. There’s a scoring system in there, because I was hoping to highlight people who’ve recently put in a lot of work. But now I’m not so sure about that, because of some of the divisive karma-chasing I’ve seen in the Launchpad community.

  4. Juanjo Marin Says:

    And AFAIK, the GNOME bugzilla disappeared after the migration

    Yes, I think Pulse could be used for tracking data, but apart from that I think I could be nice to have more social content, with features similar to linkedit

    – Give thanks and recommendations
    – Have different cute views of your work
    – Add nice comments from mailing list or bugzilla
    – list contributor of the project


  5. I think it’s bad to list off top ten lists with no rationale, just names.

    Say what the person did to be there. Otherwise how are people going to aspire to achieve better if they don’t even know what it takes to get named on the list?


  6. Shaun,

    Pulse looks interesting. One thing my team at Red Hat works on is trying to find ways of proactively measuring community health, which is essential for any contributor-focused community. Next time you have a few minutes, ping me on IRC, I’d love to talk about possible collaboration around Pulse.

    Here are some parts we’ve been trying or working with:

    https://fedorahosted.org/ekg/
    https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Dashboard
    http://github.com/mpdehaan/lookatgit


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