I don't talk about it much, since by the time I bridged up into adult Scouting I never wanted to see another Girl Scout cookie again, but the OTW is not my first majority-female volunteer experience. No matter how long I live, I'll never have a longer volunteer commitment than Girl Scouting: I've been a member of the movement since I was five, which makes it 21 years and counting.
Now, I've not been an active member for all of those years, but thinking back on it, we had some major, major wank. My Council grew from encompassing one county in New Jersey to now representing 9+ counties of the state's 21 over the course of my 13 years as a Girl Scout. Every single one of those mergers, unions and enlargements was accompanied by major drama, wank, and tension at all levels (including, at one memorable meeting, the representatives of one county council backing out of their pre-agreed "yes" vote on unifying and walking out of the hotel directly. It took nearly a decade for the original unification plan to go through). Individual people from the Board down fought, left, were stressed out, felt unappreciated and disrespected--but in the end, my council pulled through, because we had a mission that we believed in and that inspired people, and in the end despite our individual difficulties, we were able to make it work for the sake of that mission and the people--mostly girls and women--we served, including ourselves.
I'm bringing this up not because I think it excuses the painful display that the OTW and the AO3 have put on over the past few weeks and especially this past weekend, but because I think in the end that none of this is by itself is Org-ending. I can't agree with Naomi Novik's statement
that "the level of vitriol in this election has been really awful and destructive"; if anything, I think it's better that we air our differences now, and if we don't feel like we can do it internally, then externally is better than nothing--and I do think that OTW staffers and volunteers have a right to discuss Org policy on their journals, provided they don't indulge in ad hominem attacks or violate internal confidentiality.
I found cimorene
's post Skip this babbling if you cringe at the mention of OTW
a comforting dose of perspective on this point, in particular. Volunteer organizations by their nature are never going to be 100% functional, and this isn't the end of the OTW. We need to do a lot better, obviously, but I persist in believing that great improvement is well within our grasp, let alone our reach.
Granted, I speak from something of a privileged position in that very little of what people have written about over the past few weeks has been surprising to me, and I do think there are some people out there professing surprise who really should have known better. That question aside, and while the past weekend in particular has been anything but the OTW's finest hour, I have found the debacle of the latest AO3 code deploy to be painfully instructive.
It's important to remember, right off the bat, that today, 14 November 2011, marks the two-year anniversary of the AO3 entering open beta
, and I really do think that the firestorm that exploded around the AO3's most recent code deploy shows just how deeply it's been taken to heart by a large, varied group of users. Let me be clear: Users have the right to be angry, and critical, about the shortcomings of the AO3's code deploy
. Fandom as a whole felt similarly angered when Delicious' new owners did something very similar recently, albeit with even less warning, and these reactions are legitimate
. People have the right to complain, either to Support or in their own journals/blogs/tumblrs/Twitters/whatever,
and indeed, users complaining (aka "feedback") is a vital part of how things get improved. Furthermore, given that over 25,000 users have posted nearly 250,000 works to the Archive over the past two years, it seems disingenuous to be surprised by the existence of harsh criticism. The AO3 has consistently exceeded AD&T's usage projections since the beginning of open beta. This is not a product to which its users are indifferent.
I have nothing to do with the AO3 beyond wrangling tags, and I don't know lim
at all, whether within the OTW or outside it. What is completely unacceptable is personal criticism directed at her. The coding work, however, is not lim herself, and criticism of the code is completely valid.
And as facetofcathy
writes in I'm more interested in the math than the emotion today.
The default skin as it is right now, fails the most basic test of universal design. The skin designed specifically for low vision users--which seems to only change font sizes, not make any changes to colours, still uses the original skin lavender and grey scheme. It also fails this most basic test in many areas.
This was not one person's responsibility to catch before deploy, and it's not one person's responsibility to fix now. I'm not concerned here with whether one person or many people involved care about accessibility. I am concerned with an organizational failure to ensure that the default view of the site is safe and comfortable to use for everyone, or if not, easily fixable by everyone. I am concerned about a lack of visible commitment to applying the principles of accessibility to the site from the beginning. I am particularly concerned that accessibility at the archive not be viewed through the lens of a separation into groups of identified disabled people (blind people using screenreaders, low vision users needing larger fonts) and a falsely normative everybody else.
I'm just going to quote ellen_fremedon
, in her post Institutional problems. Institutional change.
, because I can't say it better:
I am heartbroken for lim, and I'm sorry she feels this is necessary. But I have read one too many comments*-- and really, one would be one too many-- tearing into the entitled fans who drove her to this point by daring to criticize her work.
And, seriously? One volunteer coder is allowed to take on sole responsibility for a massive, massive archive project and works 14-hour days to get it done with hardly any oversight or backup; in the immediate lead-up to both an organization election and a huge event for the archive, the project is rolled out hurriedly and with significant bugs (though far fewer than one would expect in the circumstances); users complain about the bugs; and the overworked and burned-out volunteer takes sole credit and resigns publicly without anyone in the organization's leadership stepping in and stopping her from falling on her sword--
--and somehow, this is the fault of the users who complained about the bugs?
The OTW didn't make the AO3 for people to tiptoe around in it as in a museum or a mausoleum. It exists for the users, and if it's not serving their needs as well as it ought (or even as well as it did before the latest deploy), people saying so is completely valid, and completely vital. The Board acknowledged as much when it posted yesterday November 2011 AO3 Deploy and Reactions: an Apology from the Board
, issuing a public apology about the deploy and the reaction to it. In her follow-up post on a personal note
, departing Board member Hele Braunstein, who initiated the apology, writes that "admitting my mistake and apologizing is not a hardship, and I think it is the right thing to do."
Of course, Braunstein was planning to depart well before this latest development; the same can't be said of lim
, who now joins the ranks of OTW volunteers who have felt they had no choice but to leave. Her post is brief: apology and resignation
I agree with those people who have found in lim
's case in particular an emblem of the Org's current problems. Like facetofcathy
writes in I'm really angry and sad and horrified and upset
, lim should never have been made to feel that she was Atlas, holding up the world. As anatsuno
put it in someone needs to pass me the really good drugs
, "I believe lim shouldn't have been a position to code the new skins system and the new skins on her own. i appreciate all that she gave the Org by doing so, and I am absolutely sorry that she gets to feel like shit now - it sucks beyond the telling of it - but it is already a sign of dysfunction that she was in this position at all to begin with." No one coder should be putting in 14-hour days on anything, let alone on a volunteer project, and that lim apparently did so, alone, for months on end raises troubling questions.
writes in Main AO3 CSS Coder Resigns Over New Deploy
Ultimately, the fault lies with the person who pushed to rush out this deploy before it had been robustly tested. The person who touts themselves as an architect of AO3, who presumably looked at the CSS and gave it the stamp of approval. Before the new skins and code had been given a public beta-testing, like Dreamwidth does all the time.skud
The fault lies with Naomi Novik, for rushing out an unready deploy, for not, apparently, believing in public beta testing, for ramming this out for Yuletide when it was so screamingly unready. There's stress-testing code for Yuletide. Then there's stress-testing the endurance and will of your volunteers, by launching something that's not ready that is also supposed to be a reflection of their hard-work.
, a professional software developer, has reviewed the AO3's code commit history in Github, transparency, and the OTW Archive project
and makes what is an even more damning assessment in light of the expertise she brings to bear:
This does not seem, to me, to be a well managed project. This is a project where the project lead is acting as a gatekeeper, commiting huge swathes of code (sometimes on behalf of third parties) with inadequate documentation, and allowing extremely poor branch hygiene (skins project mixed up with other changes, for example) to infect the main branch, leading to a buggy release. This should not have happened, and, I suspect, would not have happened if the OTW’s technical leaders had had, or had sought the advice of people who had, experience with distributed open source software development projects and the tools they typically use.
(Worst of all, I think that this poor management is directly responsible for lim resigning. As a relatively inexperienced coder, she should have been shown how to use a branch for her work. If she wasn't able to for some reason, and needed the project lead to proxy her work, the project lead should have made a branch for it. Without this in place, her code was all mixed up with the stuff that had to be done for this Yuletide release, and so she was forced to rush and work 14 hour days to get it in. That sort of overwork just leads to more errors. None of this would have happened if the project lead had insisted on proper branching for each sub-project -- a simple process that any open source software team lead should do as a matter of course. And lim thinks it's her own fault, which is the worst thing of all.)
The November deploy has not changed my convictions that Novik's perspective on the Org is disturbing: this is the result of believing that there's no problem with volunteer retention and burnout. Furthermore, as skud
Now I think it is fantastic that the AO3 welcomes and trains up new developers. Seriously, I think it is one of the best things about the project, and I would love it if the open source world at large (indeed, the whole tech community/industry) would do more of it. But it needs to be balanced by having people who know what they’re doing. It needs technical leads who have more experience with large-scale web app development than a single web app that was known not to scale. Most of all it needs project managers who know how to manage a project of this scale, following best practices and so forth.
Several people have begun making explicit comparisons between Dreamwidth and the AO3, with the AO3 coming up far short, and I also find these comparisons extremely salutary. As helens78
discusses in Morning update, AO3
It's not every service that has such incredibly vivid, visible changes, where it's obvious that the coders' work is making a difference every single day. From what I've read, Dreamwidth is almost unique within the tech industry for having that kind of welcome for baby devs and feedback for coding work.
And goddamn, I want AO3 to work like that. I want an AO3 babydev community, I want people who are encouraged to write two-byte fixes, I want AO3hacks where you can work on a test environment without knowing how to be your own MySQL admin (or whatever database is behind the guts of AO3), I want an exposed API so I can create an Android client for AO3 instead of just having to bash my head against a mobile skin, I want to be able to work on AO3 without having three months of radio silence between the question "Do you want to help with a project?" and finally getting more information about what that project might be, I want to be able to work in an environment that doesn't run headlong into my anxiety disorders and cause me to recognize, with epic amounts of regret, that I simply cannot function in the environment in which I would be expected to work.
As Novik herself says in about the election
, "at this point, I have to let my work speak for me, and I hope it does." As other people have noted, there is more than sufficient reason to question the management of the AO3 on a purely technical level under Novik's aegis, and that leaves me even more convinced that she should not win a seat on the Board at this time: the Board's role, after all, is to manage the OTW as a whole. Novik is a brilliant coder, without question, and indeed a visionary who has done brilliant, wonderful things for fandom. But that doesn't mean that she is therefore qualified to fill a seat on the OTW Board at this juncture, and the assumption that excellence in one area therefore leads to excellence in a very different area is highly problematic.
Let me link you to some excellent posts around these issues: jennyst
, Various notesjuniperphoenix
, On sustainability in the OTWjulia_beck
, responsibility and failureepershand
, Let's talk about AO3 skinsskud
, AO3 coding for the non-OTW coderakamine_chan
, I am angrylucyp
, People are just people, like youawils1
, On working with AD&T @ the OTW, and Naomi in particular.minim_calibre
, [AO3] Practical suggestions. no finger pointing.loligo
, more growing pains at the OTWunfunny_fandom
, Professional fandom
And finally, I'd like to quote from oliviacirce
's post on civic responsibility
, because Olivia says just what I think:
I cannot overstate how much I respect and value Naomi Novik and her contributions to this community. I think it's easy, in a debate like this, to start pointing fingers and blaming individuals, and I don't want to do that (I don't think any of us want to do that, but it does happen). But this is exactly my point: the OTW is an organization that represents a community, and organizations are not actually about individuals. Naomi Novik is a visionary, and I think we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for everything she has done and will continue to do for the OTW and the AO3 and the community at large. But the thing about organizations is that they grow and change. They grow up, and you have to let them, because that is the way things are supposed to go. I am not convinced that Naomi Novik is interested in seeing those changes through, and I am not convinced that she would be the right person to do so even if she were interested. Founders, rockstars, visionaries -- they are incredibly important, but sometimes they shouldn't be the people on the ground. Sometimes, you have to step back and let the thing you started become bigger and stranger, become something different than you imagined. Delegating isn't about stepping back in to take charge, and organizational leadership is not about control; it's about empowering people, and then it's about trusting them to do their jobs. That's how organizations -- good organizations -- work, and that's the only way they get better. Not to overstate the point, but ultimately? We change or we die.
The OTW does not have to represent All Of Fandom -- I don't think it could even if it wanted to, and there's a level on which any overarching organization goes entirely counter to the incredibly chaotic, democratic, ground-up way that fandom fundamentally works. But the OTW is a platform, regardless of whether or not Naomi Novik and Francesca Coppa wanted it to be a platform in the first place, and it's a platform for Fandom-with-a-capital-F. As a platform, it cannot be just about the Archive, or just about history and preservation (although those things matter very much). It also has to be about this moment, right now. It has to be about letting everyone in, because that is what fandom does, and it has to be about making those doors accessible to everyone who might want to come through them. It has to be about listening to the community at large, in all of its glorious, contradictory, impossible differences. And more than anything else, it has to be about acknowledging problems and working to make them better.
Because really, what is fandom if it isn't seeing the worst and the best in the things that we love, and transforming them into even better things?
Unlike Olivia, I can tell you who you think you should vote for, and I have, in entries such as OTW Election: It's five o'clock somewhere edition
. But like Olivia, my most fundamental belief is that you should vote if you are eligible to do so. The OTW won't work without participation.
Again, thank you.