The Kickstarter I’ve been running for Seltzer (a tool for managing cooperatives) finished last night, at just shy of 1/3 of the funding goal. While the project wasn’t successfully funded, the crowdfunding campaign was far from a failure.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned an incredible amount about who is actually interested in Seltzer, and how much they’re able to participate. I received dozens of encouraging messages from organizers and administrators telling me how much they needed software like Seltzer. And I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who did pledge money to the project. I know many people stretched themselves to give generously. But, in the end, it wasn't enough to fund the project. Several people have told me I should have done an Indiegogo so I’d still get the money that was pledged, but here’s the secret: the campaign was as much about gauging interest as it was about raising money. The main goal of Seltzer has never been to create an application with a specific set of features, but to cultivate an open source community that could work together on an application that meets their common needs. No amount of money can buy that. Now I know that the time isn’t right, and I can apply myself more effectively elsewhere.
So what specifically did I learn? I had expected most of the support to come from people and organizations that were already using Seltzer or at least knew what it was, but I found just the opposite, which might mean that the existing version is actually good enough for everyone using it. I’d also expected many more small-dollar donations but was surprised to see that I got more $40 donations than $10 or $20. Data management isn’t sexy, so I realize now that those small dollar donations needed a more exciting reward to overcome the "sign into Kickstarter" activation energy.
I’d also expected more support from existing hackerspaces, both in the form of larger pledges and encouraging members to make smaller pledges. Members of a few spaces did take this on, but not as many as I’d planned on. The biggest challenge was establishing and maintaining contact. If I could do it again, I’d have started reaching out to hackerspaces months earlier and held regular calls to keep the momentum going. Volunteer organizations move slowly, and are easily distracted.
I’m a little sad that the campaign didn’t get funded, but it’s important to know when to end a project gracefully. So what does this mean for the future of Seltzer? Well, I won’t be developing a new version any time soon. Instead I’ll continue answering questions and reviewing bug-fixes, but no new features, on the existing version. Edit: And don't forget, you can still write your own modules to integrate with the existing code! I’ll also continue organizing people around cooperative software and linked data. If you want to be involved, join the cooperative software mailing list. I’ll also keep following exciting tech developments like JSON-LD. Who knows, maybe there will be a resurgence in interest for Seltzer later on, and I'd certainly consider another crowdfunding campaign, maybe over summer in some future year. In the meantime, it looks like I'll have four-day weekends for the rest of the this summer, so I should be able to relax a bit and catch up on reading and other side-projects.
As a programmer, I know that code can be beautiful. As an artist, I know that code is not art. I don’t mean to say that code is in any way less, just different. And the difference is important, particularly when it comes to asking for support.
It’s a very exciting time for artists, as many turn to crowdfunding to support themselves. Either through single-shot funding campaigns, or ongoing patronage, artists are asking their fans for direct financial support, and fans are happy to give. The Boston-based musician Amanda Palmer has led the way, raising over a million dollars on Kickstarter to produce her most recent album. She reflects on the campaign in her book, The Art of Asking. In a passage that hit particularly close to home for me, she recounts a conversation with her mother, a programmer. As a teenager, Amanda had accused her mother of not being a “real artist” and years later, her mother told her:
You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t see my art, but… I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just… nobody could ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you couldn’t hang them in a gallery.
Amanda came to recognize the unappreciated beauty of her mother’s work, and I have no doubt it was beautiful. But art is not just about beauty.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a client’s office in San Francisco, at a tiny desk overlooking the Highway 101 onramp, listening to music and writing code. The music was beautiful, but more than that, it showed me an entirely new perspective, that somehow felt deeply familiar. And in that moment, I felt a little more connected to humanity, and a little less alone. But I was sad to realize that my work would never help anyone else feel that way. I remembered a quote from Maya Angelou:
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Art catches and holds people’s attention by helping them feel new things. My work as a programmer, on the other hand, was forgettable. In fact, there’s a thing in software called the principle of least surprise: the better your code is, the less people even notice it exists. For a while, the thought of being unnoticed and forgettable left me with a sense of loss.
Relief came when I realized that although my code might never touch someone directly, it can (and has) helped artists who do. Just as the artist inspires the cancer researcher, the programmer empowers the artist. While the thought put an end to my mini existential crisis, some consequences remain, and that brings us back to asking for support.
Fans like Amanda Palmer’s give because they want to. They’re grateful for the gift of art, and they want to reciprocate. Emotion is a great motivator. But what about code? Software is complex, and beautiful, and important, but it doesn’t inspire the same emotion or generosity, because you never see the beauty. You can describe the types of things software will make possible, but that can seem overly abstract. I would like to think that crowdfunding can work for software as well as art. In fact, I’m currently running a campaign for software to manage makerspaces and other cooperatives. But how can programmers create the same connection with their users that artists create with their fans?
When we label someone an "abuser," we let them off too easily and invite future abuse into our communities.
Willow Brugh recently wrote a thoughtful post about how communities respond to abusive behavior. She writes, "If we simply kick out anyone who messes up, we end up with empty communities, and that’s not a new future." She calls for alternatives. The post sparked a lively twitter debate, with many arguing that abusers are aware of what they're doing and that placing the onus of "reforming" them on a community is overly burdensome. But, the rare sociopath aside, the very idea of an "abuser" is an anti-bogeyman that prevents us from dealing with the realities of abusive behavior in our communities, and importantly, in ourselves.
At this point, I should note that I'm no stranger to abuse. As a hackerspace director for many years, I was often in the position of responding when someone posed a threat to the safety and comfort of other members, and proudly, often the first person those members turned to for help. I've seen friends and family affected by abuse from strangers, relatives, police, lovers, and spouses. And, I've experienced abuse myself. I know the sting of betrayal, and the long-lingering doubt that comes from being mistreated by someone you trusted. I also know how difficult it is to recognize when your actions are hurting someone you care about, and how much work, dedication, and time it takes to change the thinking and habits behind those behaviors.
Discussions of abuse often insist it's a conscious choice. When asked about dealing with mean people, the terrific advice columnist Captain Awkward wrote:
I vote that you believe hard in the Mean Guy and view the rest of his personality through that lens. Because Sexy Guy is mean. And Sad Guy is mean. And I get it, because when you hate yourself and feel terrible, it makes it more likely that terrible things will escape your mouth. But at the end of the day, being depressed does not excuse being mean. Mean is a choice.
Yes, abuse is inexcusable, but the belief that it's a choice is both incorrect and harmful.
Consider the way a typical two-year-old treats others. They hit, lie, steal, threaten, scream, and any number of other behaviors that, if committed by an adult, would be undeniably abusive. But those children are not evil, they have not made a calculated decision to harm others. Their behavior stems from the inability to look past their own needs and consider the needs of others: in short, an underdeveloped sense of empathy. When I've worked to resolve conflicts in the hackerspace community, the abusive behavior I've seen has always stemmed from the exact same thing. If the offenders had been able to look past their own needs and emotions, they would have had to be either stupid or evil to act as they did (apologies to the Daily Show) but they couldn't.
Crucially, if someone believes abusive behavior is the result of a conscious choice, and they never made such a choice, they conclude that there is nothing wrong with their behavior. They then believe the problem must lie entirely with someone else. In other words, abuse is not a conscious choice, it is a lack of the conscious choice to empathize. Similarly, the false binary of "abuser" and "non-abuser" allows victims of abuse to assume that they could never become abusers themselves, when in fact, victims of abuse are the ones most likely become abusive (see Breaking the Cycle of Abuse: How to Move Beyond Your Past to Create an Abuse-Free Future). This is absolutely not an excuse for abusive behavior, but it suggests a completely different approach to understanding and responding to it. Have you ever looked critically at your own behavior towards others and considered that it might be abusive? If not, there's a good chance that, at times, it has been.
So how should we respond to abusive behavior within a community? I think Willow is right that we need something better than vilification and ostracization. When we say "we're kicking that person out because they're bad" we lose a crucial opportunity for the community to have a dialog about which behaviors are appropriate, and why. Also, no one sees themselves as "bad," so in such a system, they have no incentive to reflect on their own actions. In a wonderful video about how to tell someone they sound racist, Jay Smooth favors the "what you did" conversation over the "who you are" conversation, saying:
That conversation takes us away from the facts of what they did, into speculation about their motives and intention. And those are things you can only guess at, you can't ever prove, and that makes it way to easy for them to derail your whole argument.
What's more, when we label someone an "abuser" we fail to see them as people, modeling the very lack of empathy that causes abuse in the first place, furthering a vicious cycle. Should the recipient of abuse be forced to empathize with their abuser? No, of course not. But the response of the community, if it is to remain healthy, must be based in empathy. In practice, this means first and foremost, supporting and protecting the safety of anyone who was abused, and if at all possible, providing clear expectations to the perpetrator, along with an opportunity to meet them, and the consequences for not doing so. Some people will choose to continue harmful behaviors, and in doing so, choose to remove themselves from the community, but those who remain learn not to place blame, but rather to empathize and take responsibility for their own actions. People aren't problems. Problems are problems and people are people.