There is always an “us” but not always a “them”

Let me get this out of the way—this is a post about another post about a dynamic that may or may not exist within a community of people around an open source software project that is undefined because anyone is free to participate at any level they want. Even if you dig WordPress, this may not be a post for you. If it's not, feel free to come back tomorrow.

Also, comments are turned off. Feel free to write your own posts and link back to this post as a response. Or tweet about it. Or subtweet about it. Or again, ignore it (that's always a possibility, you know).

I spend my days as an outsider.

Sometimes by choice. Other times by fear and/or insecurity. And other times by things beyond my control (like ethnicity). And here's the crazy part of my reality—it never matters what you think about how I think about being an outsider.

You can say that I'm an “insider” but it's based on your perspective and opinion and it has no impact on me. If I feel like I'm an “outsider” then it's likely to be my reality. Regardless of what you tell me, I will act like certain things are not available or right for me.

It is a prison I create for myself.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm talking about a dynamic where I might consider myself an outsider but you don't. There are definitely cases where no matter how much positive thought I muster, I won't be an insider. That too, may be beyond your or my control.

I state all this to make my core point that there will always be an “us” because of how I see the world around me and whatever group I feel a part of. But the “them” that I perceive may or may not be reality.

WordPress is many things

WordPress is many things to me, and maybe to you. It's an open source software project that powers a ton of websites.It's a hosted solution that offers both hosting and software to give you free websites. It's a community of people that contribute code to that software project. It's a larger community of people that share with each other in a variety of ways including but not limited to code. Maybe it's even more for  you—a place where you found belonging, a tattoo, or a movement.

It offers every person the same rights—beyond the four freedoms—to engage it as deeply or as limited as  you like.

WordPress offers everyone the same thing

Take as much as you like. Give as much as you like. It's totally up to you.

  • Want a free site? Go for it. No cost to you.
  • Want to learn about it? Guess what? There are tons of free articles and websites available to you. No need to even buy a book.
  • Want to answer questions on the forums? Go ahead. No tests to evaluate your performance ahead of time.
  • Want to spend a weekend at a conference? Organize it? Speak there? Or volunteer? Go for it. Not a lot of paperwork to prove you're qualified.
  • Want to contribute code to the project? Patches welcome. No need to also deliver the unit tests to prove your code won't have ancillary consequences on the code base (someone else will have to volunteer time to check it out).

Everyone can engage as deeply or in as limited a way as they like.


I was once sitting in a car filled with people smarter than me—particularly when it comes to contributing code to the WordPress project. One of the contributors who was in a leadership role I can't remember asked the car what they thought should be fixed in WordPress.

My answer: the status label, “won't fix.”

If you don't know tons about WordPress, or what it looks like to contribute code to the core project, then you may not know that you can submit a bit of code to be included in the project.

Pause for a second to consider how amazing that is. Just a second. Because tons of software projects won't let you do that. This one does.

But just because you want to change the software doesn't make it so—even if you write the change you want to see.

And one of the ways you find out that your idea has been rejected is by the status change on the issue you created.

You created an issue that said something like, “There's a super-serious issue to me right here. And I've attached the super clean way of fixing it.” And what you got back, sometimes just minutes later, is a status change to your issue, and the new status is “wontfix.”

I think, more than any other dynamic, this one deflates the most well-intentioned newbie who is trying to contribute code.

But the issue isn't the idea that the patch or ticket was rejected. That is a normal part of software. It's verbiage. The label should be called, and I'm joking here, “OMG thank you soooo much for this awesome work you've done but at this point, for one of a variety of reasons, we can't roll this in and I hope to get you more info on it but right now I'm doing tons of additional work, sometimes for free.”

We get to choose some things, not others

A long time ago I started working on a plugin. It was an extension for WooCommerce. The code was so-so. Ok, not great. But it was going to do some amazing things. Ok, decent things. It was bringing crowdsourcing features to WooCommerce. But only if you used Stripe, because I hated Paypal.

The WooThemes folks told me that I had to support Paypal in order to get it all approved. That was their right to tell me that. And they were kind, polite and clear.

And I killed the project and walked away. But not mad.

Because we all get to choose how much we want to be engaged.

We don't get to choose every step in the process of our engagement, because we're not the only ones working on this code. And that sometimes means we have to make decisions about what we're willing to do or not do, to stay engaged.

In this case, I didn't feel rejected. I didn't get a “wontfix.” I got clear communication and rationale. And because I disagreed with it, and I was willing to lose the money and time investments, I walked away.

In this case, there was a specific “them.” It was the people at WooThemes who made the policy that I would have to abide by in order to get an extension listed on their store.

The “them” could have been listed on a piece of paper. We could have all looked at the list and agreed who “them” was.

But that's not always the case, and honestly, more than we care to admit, the “them” is not as clear cut and is a product of being hurt.

Poor communication and rejection

I have never tried to submit a patch to core. So some of you may discount all that I am saying here.

But I've worked in companies of brilliant people that have had thousands of people and contributed in non-profit organizations that have thousands of people. And in both cases, I've had to do the work to navigate the constructs of the organizations to make a name for myself, to become a trusted leader in those contexts. And in the WordPress ecosystem, without writing code, I've had the opportunity to do similar.

So take this for what it's worth.

The reason a “them” exists in large organizations is a function of people. I put that in quotes because only sometimes does the “them” actually exist. But talking about “them” exists almost all the time. Even when the organization has a clear vision and goal and we should all be going after the same thing.

Because people are people.

And they make assumptions about power. About authority. About how decisions get made (this is where I would sing a line from Hamilton, “The room where it happens” if we were talking across the table).

Even when those assumptions are incorrect, they “feel” right.

Because we assume that they must be happening. Meetings, conversations, back-channel discussions. And that's not to say sometimes key people aren't eating together and talk about stuff. But we all make larger assumptions.

That alone isn't enough to drive the “them” dynamic. It's the foundation for what comes next.

And what comes next is poor communication and rejection. And that's what creates a “them.”

I don't care if you're volunteering for the Red Cross, a church, working at IBM, or helping with WordPress. It's when you want to help out and the communication is poor, and you feel rejected, that you assume there's a “them.”

That's not a WordPress thing. And when people talk about clearing out all the current leaders (at whatever level they're assuming they would do this), what they don't grasp is that the new folks that step into those roles will likely make the same poor communication mistakes with others and we'll be right back in the same place about “them.”

There is always an “us.” But there is not always a “them.” Sometimes it's the construct we create to protect our own sense of worth and self.

Hear me here. There are multiple answers.

The first logical conclusion from the above is that we need to be better communicators. That's true. But like I said, WordPress offers people the freedom to engage at whatever level they like. That means it becomes harder if we start putting in additional criteria like, “make sure that if you reject someone else's idea you put in enough of your volunteer time to educate them and get them to a place where they're feeling good.” That's a much taller order than letting people engage at whatever level they like.

But let's be clear, better communication will always help.

The second logical conclusion is that you don't have to feel rejected even if your idea is rejected. When I navigated a government research lab filled with thousands of people who were way smarter than me, and more experienced than me, I learned that rejecting my ideas didn't mean rejecting me. That lesson prepared me significantly for navigating the lab – and every other place I've ever contributed.

Yes, you have the right to walk away. You have the right to comment (on other posts) and complain about your rejection. You even have the right to make assumptions about a “them.” Nothing stops you from any of that.

But if you learn to communicate better yourself, and express your ideas in ways that are more helpful, things may improve. And even if they don't, learning that the rejection of your idea doesn't equal the rejection of you will help you live a much happier life.

The third conclusion is that when your self-concept is strong, and you've learned to communicate well, and others have communicated with you well, you can get to know strangers and build friendships.

When someone comments about a new idea for the next release of WordPress and someone else disagrees with your suggestion, you can dig in deeper. Ask more questions. Assume they're not “against” you. And eventually, you can even start recognizing names. One day you may even meet them in person. And enjoy yourself. And realize that someone, over time, you've become friends.

Some of my closest friends are WordPress people.

But going from stranger to friend takes time, energy, and a willingness to stay in it when your toes get stepped on.

Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't make them part of “them.” And in these cases, there may not even be a clear, articulated list of the “them.” It's just the folks that turned your idea down.

One last note

I'm not writing this to shame a single person. The person I'm writing to is a person who has had an idea rejected and because of others and what they've read, is now fearful of getting more engaged. I'm writing to tell you that you can still dip your toes in the water. Or not.

You can engage as much or as little as you want.

But I don't want you to worry that you might cross some angry “them” that may or may not actually exist. And to be honest, I've been involved in the community for more than five years without contributing a line of code to core, so trust me when I tell you that there are a lot of ways to use your skills, whatever they may or may not be.

But let me end with one last note. To do that right, I have to make one last distinction.

Guilt and shame are two different things. Guilt suggests something you've done is wrong. Shame suggests it's you, the person, that is wrong. I've done many things that I'm guilty of. I hacked core when I shouldn't have. But I don't have to be ashamed because of it. I'm not bad. My actions were wrong.

No one should feel shame. Not when reading this. Not when reading a response to their ideas – in trac or in slack, or anywhere else. So if you've felt shamed in some way when your idea was rejected, I am sorry. That shouldn't have happened.

Here's my one last note.

Just because you felt it once, doesn't make it right for you to do it yourself to others.

I was surprised, to say the least, that some of the comments on the article that spawned this response were doing the very thing they were complaining about. They were upset about something that “them” had done, while actively doing it to others in the discussion.

If you're guilty of that, you should not feel ashamed by me calling you out on it, but you should feel some guilt and clean that up.

I got the living crap beat out of me as a kid. Doesn't make it right to beat my kids. When your world gets crappy, get some help. See a counselor. If you're dealing with shame and hurt and it's turned you into someone who is doing it to others, seriously, go get some help. Don't pass it along.

Break the cycle.

That way we can all engage at whatever level we all want. Safely.