There’s a labor issue in open source committees. This is nothing new. It has existed since “open source” was coined as a term (Feb 1998). There is an optimistic view that “Eyeballs Tame Complexity”. The more people working on a project, the less complex it is. After all, with so many people working it, progress should be easy. More people should mean more commits. However, at least according to my experience over the last decade, “small” projects often fall to a handful of people who do all the labor. In the case of the Twine Cookbook, this was me.
400+ pages and 300+ hours over almost 4 years
For ELO this year, I have a roundtable discussion coming up with Chris Klimas and Taylor Howard called “Platform as a Service: A Roundtable Discussion of Community Labor and Platformization of Twine and Ink”. In the submission, we wrote about this issue, how the labor of narrative tool platforms always falls on a few people to keep up its “structure.” In the feedback on it, one of the reviewers, meaning well I suspect, asked that we cover the gendered labor of the Twine Cookbook. When I read it, I laughed. Yes, there are definitely some deeply problematic issues surrounding the expectations of (emotional) labor in way too many online communities that lands on feminine bodies. But as it comes to the Twine Cookbook specifically? Gender politics play a role, I’m certainly not very traditionally masculine in my approach and actions, but I’m not sure the reviewer was aware of the people — person — behind the project.
When the Twine Cookbook was announced in 2017, I had all kinds of plans. I had been reaching out to authors I knew and active developers whose work I loved. I was excited to get code from many different people! The Cookbook was going to be a reflection of the diversity of the community! Then, slowly, no one replied to me. And then those who did turned me down. What was going to be this wonderful mixing of different styles and approaches collapsed over the next several months into the work of mostly one person: me.
There is a pronoun change that happened after a year of running the Cookbook. It shows up in the “Lessons Learned from Running an Open-Source Textbook for a Year” post. In 2017, it was “we”. By 2018, it became “I”. In 2021, as I write this, it is finally a “we” of sorts, but only because “I” decided to step down last year.
There is a story I tell when, about two years ago, I was homeless. At the time, I was sleeping in my car and had only two weeks of clothes with me. One Saturday morning, needing to try to get an update out of the Twine Cookbook, I drove to the parking lot of a nearby Starbucks, pulled out my laptop, and then climbed onto the folded-down backseat of my car. Leaning on the suitcases of all of my clothes, I worked for two hours (my laptop’s battery limit at the time) from the back of my car using the Starbuck’s WiFi from my car. Why didn’t I go inside? I didn’t have money to spend on coffee or anything else, really. Why not go inside anyway? I was hiding my homelessness from many people, including any strangers inside the Starbucks early on a Saturday morning. (It was not a great time for me.)
I tell the above story because it illustrates an issue I’ve seen with other communities. Those who are passionate about a project invest their time. Nearly always, as with the Twine Cookbook, this is invisible. The pillars of platforms are always these passionate and invested people. And, like me, they burn out over time. As I write this, and shared earlier on Twitter, my total time on the Twine Cookbook is around 300 hours. My time with the project was also supposed to end last year, when I announced I was stepping down, but continued for almost another year because there was no one else for several months to take on the project.
I’m proud of the Twine Cookbook. It’s a great model for how other tools could present information and examples. (I liked the model so much I also created an Unofficial Ink Cookbook and most of a book on Ren’Py, until the just over a week of 14-hour days of video editing for Narrascope 2020 and the initial months in quarantine kind of broke me for awhile.) But the Twine Cookbook, and other projects of its type, cannot stand on the backs of one person. They just can’t. Whomever that person is will burn out eventually. There needs to be community support and backing for tool documentation and collections of examples.
I really wish I could end this with a “And here’s the solution!” But I don’t have one other than to prevent myself from doing the same workload again, and helping others to see they should not do the same. Sometimes, sadly, a community has to decide if it wants to support projects or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, say like the replacement for philoma.la that still hasn’t happened, for example, then it has to die.