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Open Source Devs Challenge GitHub on Support Issues

A large group of GitHub-using developers is calling for changes to the open source code repository, changes they can't enact on their own because GitHub itself isn't open source.

The protest, primarily about support issues, was lodged in the form of a GitHub project last week that consists solely of a READEME.md file, a staple of GitHub projects used to provide information about a project along with project source code. In this case, the README.md file contains only "An open letter to GitHub from the maintainers of open source projects."

"Many of us are frustrated," reads the letter, which starts out by praising GitHub. "Those of us who run some of the most popular projects on GitHub feel completely ignored by you. We've gone through the only support channel that you have given us either to receive an empty response or even no response at all. We have no visibility into what has happened with our requests, or whether GitHub is working on them. Since our own work is usually done in the open and everyone has input into the process, it seems strange for us to be in the dark about one of our most important project dependencies."

The letter was reported to be the brainchild of James Kyle, who works for CloudFlare Inc. in San Francisco and who focuses on the Babel JavaScript compiler in his open source contributions.

Kyle told one media outlet that a list of complaints he started to draw up in a Twitter thread gathered input from many others and was winnowed down to three main concerns to present to GitHub management:

  • Issues are often filed missing crucial information like reproduction steps or version tested. We'd like issues to gain custom fields, along with a mechanism (such as a mandatory issue template, perhaps powered by a newissue.md in root as a likely-simple solution) for ensuring they are filled out in every issue.
  • Issues often accumulate content-less "+1" comments which serve only to spam the maintainers and any others subscribed to the issue. These +1s serve a valuable function in letting maintainers know how widespread an issue is, but their drawbacks are too great. We'd like issues to gain a first-class voting system, and for content-less comments like "+1" or ":+1:" or "me too" to trigger a warning and instructions on how to use the voting mechanism.
  • Issues and pull requests are often created without any adherence to the CONTRIBUTING.md contribution guidelines, due to the inconspicuous nature of the "guidelines for contributing" link when creating an issue and the fact that it often contains a lot of information that isn't relevant to opening issues (such as information about hacking on the project). Maintainers should be able to configure a file in the repo (interpreted as GFM) to be displayed at the top of the new issue/PR page instead of that link. Maintainers can choose to inline content there and/or link to other pages as appropriate.

"Hopefully none of these are a surprise to you as we've told you them before," the letter states. "We've waited years now for progress on any of them. If GitHub were open source itself, we would be implementing these things ourselves as a community -- we're very good at that!"

The move prompted a retort from GitHub-praising coding enthusiasts in the form of their own READ.me file in their own project: Thank you, GitHub.

Started by Xavier Noria, the thank-you letter had about 312 signatures, as of today, compared with 1,249 signees to the protest letter.

"Before 2007, the way to participate in open source was fragmented," the thank-you letter reads. "Each project had their own workflow, patches circulated in e-mails, issues were reported in a myriad ways, and if anyone wanted to contribute they had to figure out every project's rules. Then, a handful of people took the challenge to build an awesome platform and as a consequence of their hard work, their platform earned its hegemony. Nowadays doing open source is infinitely easier thanks to you, GitHub. You've provided the tools and the social conventions to make those days a thing of the past. Your impact in the open source movement is unprecedented."

The protest also drew an official response from GitHub, which provided the following to multiple media outlets: "Open source is critically important to GitHub and we take this feedback very seriously. We are working on several of the initiatives discussed, and will look for proactive ways to engage with open source maintainers to continue to make GitHub a great experience for their communities."

The letter also generated a response on Hacker News comments from Jono Bacon, director of community at GitHub since last November. Although new on the job, Bacon said he can "ensure the right eyeballs are on this." Additionally, he said, "I also want to explore with my colleagues how we can be a little clearer about future feature and development plans to see if we can reduce some ambiguity."

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for 1105 Media.

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