The Open Source Bikeshed.

“Him” or “They”? English language aficionados haven’t yet decided what to do with a singular pronoun of unknown (or irrelevant) sex. On Stack Exchange’s English Language and Usage site you can find lots of questions like this one, explaining the context.

Let’s talk about code. When coding, we also write documentation. When writing documentation, we tend to use the English language. According to Wikipedia, roughly 5% of the world’s population speak English as their native language. For the rest of us, “Him” or “Them” in documentation is an even more remote grammar challenge than for native speakers. Some may argue that it might not be as critical as maybe fixing a bug in a core banking system that causes the bank to “lose” 1 million [your currency] per minute.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to trivialise the historic context. But if you’re not really into that context, discussing over “Him” vs. “Them” is just as interesting as discussing over “ISO 8859-1” vs. “UTF-8”. There’s a clear tendency towards doing the “better thing” in the long run (i.e. “Them” and “UTF-8”), and it’s good that better things are being established. But most people acknowledge that fact and then get back at fixing that other critical bug. In other words, most people don’t want to discuss the bikeshed.

However, this is not what 80 people on this GitHub pull request think. They take the time to publicly discuss

  1. The correct use of “Him” or “They” or “She” or “Them” or “One”
  2. The implications of the maintainer closing the pull request as “too trivial”
  3. The implications of the implications of people reacting to the offence

Now, if you follow OSS related blogs, or twitter, you will find lots of people getting incredibly involved with this topic. Take Joyent – a sponsor for the project at hand. On their blog, they reacted to this incident:

But while Isaac is a Joyent employee [having accepted the grammar-fixing pull request], Ben [rejecting the pull request] is not—and if he had been, he wouldn’t be as of this morning: to reject a pull request that eliminates a gendered pronoun on the principle that pronouns should in fact be gendered would constitute a fireable offense for me and for Joyent.

Joyent then continues by stating things like:

(Especially when that poor behavior transcended into the gobsmackingly inappropriate as Ben tried to revert Isaac’s commit.)

And then

Indeed, one of the challenges of an open source project that depends on volunteer effort is dealing with assholes


A reaction to the above made it on Hacker News, leading to another heated debate about the fundamentals of society, reproaches from all sides.

The Bikeshed in Open Source Software

We’re doing Open Source ourselves. We try to do it professionally, as we’re trying to make Open Source our business model. As with any business, it is not always easy to remain professional. People have weaknesses. People have convictions, visions and a cultural background. But there is one thing that Open Source has, unlike closed source businesses. It is immensely open and public. This means that a rather trivial situation about a very local problem that would otherwise be settled among 3-4 involved employees suddenly escalates, turns public and leads to tremendous ranting, shouting, insulting on social media, such as:

  • Blogs
  • Twitter
  • GitHub
  • Hackernews

People have invested a lot of energy into this particular Open Source bikeshed, going as far as publicly pilloring one of the people involved over their use of pronouns in the English language. As it seems ever so often, Open Source is not about software. It is about people, in all of their good and bad ways.

Leave a Reply