Creating a healthier community, together
This is a long article, my friends, but stick with me to the end. It will be worth it.
For anyone who’s been involved in Joomla as a contributor, event attendee, or even just social media follower, it’s a bit of an open secret that not everyone has a good experience in this community.
Disagreements and conflicts are a fact of life when you are working with other people, but sometimes we see them escalate and get personal.
This isn’t a Joomla-only problem; lots of open source projects face similar challenges. It’s why Codes of Conduct exist, but often, that’s not enough.
Let’s talk about why these conflicts happen and what we can do about them.
“OMG, why are you so toxic?”
Oof. That’s a hard sentence to read, isn’t it? Let’s pretend it’s directed at me because I said something critical about Joomla.
I’d be pretty hurt. To me, that one question is loaded with lots of implications:
- The speaker is pretty fed up with me for some reason
- Anything I said has been completely dismissed as invalid
- Beyond that, I feel like I’m being accused of trying to hurt Joomla.
Like I said… oof. There goes the chance of any constructive discussion.
Let’s flip the script and pretend I said that to someone else. (I would never, but this is hypothetical, right?)
From my new perspective, I’m:
- frustrated that my work isn’t appreciated and all I get is negative feedback
- putting in a lot of time and effort which is apparently wasted
- hurt and angry
That’s pretty “oof” too. Lots of feelings. It’s not okay that I take them out on someone else, but it’s not coming from nowhere.
Why does this happen? And why does it happen so often in Joomla?
Written communication is hard.
Even for those who grew up speaking English, it’s too easy to misinterpret a message or comment and read feelings into it that weren’t there.
Add in translation apps, different communication styles that come from our cultural backgrounds, and the way our individual brains are wired, and it can get really complicated.
We’re people. It’s natural to want to attach more meaning to things than might be there.
For example, I am a pretty sensitive person myself, and I have anxiety on top of that. If I get a message that says something as simple as “Hey, where were you?” after a missed meeting, my brain will escalate that all by itself!
- Are they mad?
- They must think I’m incompetent.
- They’re never going to want to work with me again.
- Maybe I’ll get fired from the project.
- I’m not fit for this career after all.
Whoa, slow down, brain. The reality is usually more straightforward:
- Where was Crystal? I hope she’s okay. I better check in on her.
If I respond to the message with the mindset of “they think I’m incompetent” instead of just answering the question as written, my phrasing is going to be a whole lot different. My superpower? Creating conflict where there is none.
Now, this is something I’ve been aware of for a long time, so I’ve worked really hard on adjusting how I read messages. Most people don’t read into things as much as I do—but many do this at least a little bit.
I’m no psychologist, but I think this is a big part of why things can escalate so quickly.
Take a look:
Conversation when Crystal is extra anxious:
Conversation when Crystal is okay:
Hey, where were you today?
Like I mentioned in my email at 2:39pm yesterday, my daughter had a doctors appointment. I was under the impression that work life balance is important to X Corp so I hope this doesn’t present a problem for our working relationship going forward. Thanks for understanding!
My daughter had an appointment. How did the meeting go?
Wow. What a difference, right? My anxious response doesn’t really read as anxious or concerned—it could come off as pretty aggressive.
Not sure how to read something? I like to use “The Judge” from goblin.tools — it uses machine learning to analyze the objective tone of the message. It’s good to use when you receive a comment that you’re unsure about, or if you’re writing something and want to make sure you will be understood.
Here’s what it says about my message above:
“Based on the text, it seems that the writer might be feeling worried or anxious about how their message will be received. They are expressing concern that their daughter's doctor's appointment might cause conflict with their work responsibilities. Additionally, they are seeking reassurance that their commitment to work-life balance will not negatively impact their relationship with X Corp. Despite this emotional undercurrent, the writer is attempting to present their message in a professional and respectful manner.”
Nailed it. If I were to see that before sending my reply, I would probably adjust because having an “emotional undercurrent” could be easy to misunderstand.
There are two things I’d like you all to take away from this:
- How we respond to things often has nothing to do with the original message, and everything to do with our mental state when we read it.
- When we get a message that could be offensive, like my anxious reply, keep in mind that the other person might have something else going on affecting how they write at the moment. Again, chances are it doesn’t have anything to do with you.
A community of trust
That being said, we are a community. As a community, we have a responsibility to each other to be kind and respectful, understand the impact of our words, and to hold each other accountable when we witness unkind behavior or see someone get hurt.
When I attended FOSS Backstage in Berlin earlier this year, I attended an excellent talk called “The code of conduct has been broken. Now what?”
A big point that stayed with me is that it is everyone’s responsibility to hold each other accountable to the code of conduct.
This works well in communities where we trust each other to be honest and open. When we feel safe, we can hold each other accountable, and apologize when we mess up. It also means we trust leadership to fully address any issues in a fair and equitable way.
What if that trust has been broken?
Leading by example
If you no longer trust Joomla and OSM leadership to handle community conflicts, that’s valid. I know that for those of you who feel this way, that trust might not come back. I see you. I apologize, truly, for failing you and breaking that trust.
We have not had a great track record for handling conflicts in the past. We have been inconsistent at best; at worst, possibly negligent.
We have a code of conduct, but if it’s not enforced fairly, it is just empty words.
We have our community values, but if we don’t stand by them, they’re meaningless.
We have our go-getters and beacons of positivity in the community—but often, they stand alone, and burn out.
This isn’t okay.
Again, I’m sorry.
The first step to change is admitting there is a problem.
I can say with confidence that I know we have a problem with creating a safe, healthy, happy community and environment to support each other. All the #jPositivity in the world can’t fix issues we don’t admit to.
So, this is me, admitting to them. We must do better for our community—for you. You deserve it.
Here are a few things that I am personally working on, and hope to see happen:
We will find an ombudsman. An ombudsman can help us mediate situations that seem to have no solution, and provides a safe, external place for community members to seek support when faced with conflict. Unlike an internal corporate HR department, the ombudsman is impartial, and has the only goal of finding a fair and equitable resolution.
We are working on nominating a new Advisory Board who can help guide us on community safety and engagement, among other things.
Based on guidance from the above, I hope we can update our code of conduct to make it more clear and specific, with a more transparent conflict resolution process.
We are working on putting together a working group focused on project sustainability, which would help guide the creation (or revision) of our processes related to finances, community and developer engagement, and overall project strategy.
We will have regular “meet the board” calls that are open to anyone in the community to attend and ask questions, or just share a coffee with us.
- I'd like to provide resources for the community to help make working together easier, and help with conflict resolution and accountability.
This is what I’ve come up with so far, and I’m open to honest feedback and ideas. We can’t do this alone—in order for us to make Joomla a happier place, we all need to commit to a better future.
What do you think? What else can we consider as we work on this all-important task?
A minor request
We’re at the end of this article now. Thank you for sticking with me through it.
I’m writing this the evening before my birthday. It will be published afterwards, but I would still like to make a small birthday request from you, if I may:
Reach out to someone in the Joomla community who has impacted you, and tell them "thank you".
This could be the developer of a feature who has made your life easier, the creator of your favorite extension, your favorite magazine author, or just someone who always makes you smile when you see their name pop up. (If you're not sure how to reach them, feel free to acknowledge them in the comments of this article and I'll do my best to get it to that person.)
So much of this article was focused on the negative impact words can have. I hope to remind you that words can hold power for good, too. Expressing gratitude can be a quick and easy way to make someone’s day a little bit better.
As for me, I would like to thank you, the reader. Yes, you personally. Thank you for caring enough to read this article. If you plan on commenting below, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me, whether you like the article or not. I appreciate that you care about our community just as much as I do.
We can do better, and we will do better. I believe in this community, and I believe in you.
Upwards, and onwards—together, as a whole.
Lovely article! Some great and valid points that definitely resonate, particularly the two takeaways. Reminds me of when Benjamin messaged with some urgent marketing requests on the Easter Bank Holiday weekend when my in-laws had just arrived, I'm afraid I did respond a bit negatively, probably because I was stressed. I did quickly follow up with an apology, to which Benjamin was very sweet and made light of it. So shout out to Benjamin Trenkle for being kind to me...
Louise, thanks so much for commenting and sharing your experience with this too! I think we all can relate to being too stressed or overwhelmed or distracted or.... (insert emotion here)... and writing to someone in a way that we don't intend. I just did something similar with a client yesterday!
Like you mentioned, following up with an apology helps a ton. We've all been there, so I think most people are understanding when we own up to it. It makes me nervous sometimes, but it's always worth it to clear the air!
Thank you for your article, Crystal.
While the article acknowledges that there are unhealthy elements within the community and there are procedures intended to protect people from harm, the processes for doing so are bureaucratically administered and intimidate people from reporting issues that affect them.
Certainly there is a code of conduct but, in the absence of an impartial Ombudsman, it is left to the vicissitudes of the OSM Board of the day to reinforce the community values of liberty, equality, due diligence and trust. These values lie at the core of collaboration; moreover a willingness to collaborate with others.
Unless action is taken, and there's a will to change the situation, change will not occur. In the words of John Stuart Mill, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I do not doubt that there are only a few people who take pleasure by inflicting pain on others; I submit that these kinds of people—people who have no moral compass or conscience—exist only because their actions are not held accountable by those whose role is to protect the community. That being said, unless OSM Board is able to eliminate the red tape and improve the overall conflict resolution processes, those whose lives are made miserable by a few cannot expect to have their problems solved.
Thank you for acknowledging the existence of the problem. My only hope is that OSM Board will take swift and decisive action to redress the problem. Leading by example should not be a catch phrase. OSM Board members need to lead—not just by example—by demonstrating that bullying, menacing words and deeds and abuses of power will not be tolerated and that there will be swift, decisive action taken against those who abuse others.
Michael, I'm glad to see your comments here! Thank you for reading and sharing your perspective, your insight is valuable and appreciated.
(I had written a whole long reply, and then I clicked something and it all disappeared into the ether, so I will try to summarize what I was saying.)
In short—you are correct on all of your points. Apologies, admissions of fault, and conversations like this are meaningless if they are not followed up with direct action and change.
From what I can see in the community and from conversations with many people, the willingness and desire to change are there. We just need to keep taking steps in the right direction. This is the first of many steps; as we continue, I believe we'll gain momentum and the red tape will fall away piece by piece. My scissors are ready!
If anyone reading this wants to get involved directly with improving the health of our community, please reach out to me directly: https://volunteers.joomla.org/joomlers/114-crystal-dionysopoulos
Michael, thank you again for your honest feedback. You have been a very active and vocal member of the community, which is so important for us to be able to understand the full picture of the Joomla project and it's many aspects.
Crystal, your article touches a delicate subject people do care about, obviously, since it has been read well over a thousand times already on the day it was released and a the time of this comment.
So, a big thank you :-)
Dear Crystal, for some reason I opened this Joomla Magazine issue (I haven't done this for years) and this was the first article that I saw. Touching article, thank you for that.
I'm not working with Joomla! since 2018 when I was designated to an AI project - although I kept some personal projects with Joomla! after that (not anymore nowadays).
While I was reading your words I reminded many awful things that have happened to me on this community - and that I saw happening to others.
Community gave me so many good memories and I am thankful for that. On the other hand I have a long list of things that I wish I could forget. Really
But answering your bday request (btw happy birthday!!!
(...) But answering your bday request (btw happy birthday!!! the community and I have many people around the world to thank. But you, Crystal, are the one I want to show my gratitude now: for all the times you told me "This is not ok" and "I'm sorry for that" even when you were not involved. You have a rare empathy which makes you a rare person. So if you say you are working to make a better community I do believe. Because I can't see anyone else better to talk about this than you.
PS: thank you for sharing that judge tool - I will try it and add to one other tool that you sugested me many years ago and I use till today.
Ana, I was so happy to see your name pop up here! I'm so glad you happened to see this and that the article was meaningful for you.
I remember talking with you about some of the situations you faced when I was first joining the community, and I'm so sorry all that happened. I hope to improve some of the factors that cause these situations to happen over and over again. It can't fix the past, but it can make the future better.
Thank you for sharing all of this here, and once more...I'm so happy to connect with you again! You have always been such a bright spot in the community for me.
Great article, thanks. One suggestion I would love to see with an ombudsman and dispute resolution would be the anonymity of names so people who have been in the community the longest would e treated identically to a new community member where possible.
Hi Eoin, thank you for commenting. This is a great point that's been on my mind as well. Since the current reporting and resolution process does not allow for anonymity, I can't help but wonder who might have not felt comfortable bringing problems to light because they felt they didn't have enough history in Joomla, or conversely, too much. The ombudsman being external would help because they don't have the same frame of reference, but all of our processes need to be updated to be safer for those who are experiencing or witnessing harassment.
I totally agree, even with the best intentions there will always be some bias even if you don't mean to have it. Especially if someone has done a lot for the community vs the other and it's kind of a 50/50 case. This is a great step in the right direction. Whilst I'm here, this is me reaching out to the Joomla community and saying thank you. Not only for this article and the explanations you provide which are super helpful (and the tool you link to), but also for your talk on UI at Joomla Day UK a few years back. It was very inspiring and I had no knowledge of UI before that. Great job.
I hope this article is a catalyst to bringing Joomla back to it's rightful place in the web world. Brilliant article
As someone who left because of toxic behavior, I want to thank you, Crystal, for expressing your thoughts and feelings, some of which many of us may have experienced through the years. Since your article has posted, I have been contacted by several long-time Joomlers who thanked me for getting them involved in the project, or for making a suggestion of whom they should specifically contact to get involved on a deeper level. That is so nice to hear and it makes me feel good about the things I did when I was active. I still love Joomla. I use it every day with clients. I have friends whom I have known since 2010 and am still in contact with today. Joomla is getting better under your leadership. Keep being you. You are making a difference.
Dianne, I'm so glad to hear that people have been reaching out to you. I owe my involvement in the community to you, too; had it not been for your support and belief in me for the Joomla Event Traveler program, I would not have gotten as involved as I am now! Thank you for everything you have done over the years.