Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Why all open source maintainers are jerks, the Drake equation hypothesis


This blog post is meant to be humorous. It is not a serious piece of scientifically rigorous research. In particular it is not aiming to justify bad behaviour or toxicity in any way, shape or form. Neither does it claim that this mechanism is the only source of negativity. If you think it is doing any of these things, then you are probably taking the whole thing too seriously and are reading into it meanings and implications that are not there. If it helps, you can think of the whole thing as part of a stand-up comedy routine.

Why is everybody a jerk?

It seems common knowledge that maintainers of major open source projects are rude. You have your linuses, lennarts, ulrichs, robs and so on. Why is that? What is it about project maintenance that brings out these supposed toxics? Why can't projects be manned by nice people? Surely that would be better.

Let's examine this mathematically. For that we need some definitions. For each project we have the following variables:

  • N, the total number of users
  • f_p, the fraction of users who would like to change the program to better match their needs
  • f_r, the fraction of users with a problem who file a change request
  • f_rej, the fraction of submitted change requests that get rejected
  • f_i, the fraction of of people who consider rejections as attacks against their person
  • f_c, the fraction of people who complain about their perceived injustices on public forums
  • f_j, the fraction of complainers formulating their complaints as malice on the maintainer's part

Thus we have the following formula for the amount of "maintainer X is a jerk" comments on the net:

J = N * f_p * f_r * f_rej * f_i * f_c * f_j

Once J reaches some threshold, the whisper network takes over and the fact that someone is a jerk becomes "common knowledge".

The only two variables that a maintainer can reasonably control are N and f_rej (note that f_i can't ever be brought to zero, because some people are incredibly good at taking everything personally) Perceived jerkness can thus only be avoided either by having no users or accepting every single change request ever filed. Neither of these is a good long term strategy.


  1. shouldn't this be:
    J = N * (f_p + f_r + f_rej + f_i + f_c + f_j)

    1. No, because each term is defined as "fraction of the previous term".

  2. How can the maintainer control N?

    1. It is assumed that N is either fairly large or that the goal is to get more users (or both).