Thursday, July 28, 2011

Merit Isn't One Thing

Technical communities can be notoriously rough places socially. It is common to hear people say "it seems that way because we are a meritocracy, we don't care about anything but merit."


It is my philosophical habit to look for words people are using in some particular way different from my own. It is trivial to see that a meritocracy requires a definition of "merit". I also notice that all communities are meritocracies. That is, a group tends to elevate those among them in which they see the greatest merit—according to the group's definition of merit. So, this is clearly not a distinguishing characteristic, nor any sort of explanation for the unfriendliness of (unfriendly) technical communities.

Instead, we find that these communities employ a very narrow definition of merit and therein lies the problem. Merit, in this usage refers exclusively to technical skill employing whatever the community coalesced around. In programming communities, it's programming skill. If you can write fantastic code, then in a programming meritocracy, you are accorded great social power.

The truth is, of course, that programming skill is only one small facet of a person. It is important if programs need programming. It is unimportant if a friend needs friendship.

In times when our technical communities were smaller, and attracted people of a particular ilk who tolerated or even enjoyed the harsh style of social interaction they found, all was well. Today these communities are far larger and, more diverse, both in terms of types of people and of the interests of those people.

It's time for the definition of "merit" to change, to expand. Given the amount of time I spend in and around technical communities, if they were not as diverse as they actually are, I would be very unhappy. All sorts of people and all sorts of merit are needed to make a coherent, sustainable and enjoyable community. I love your code, thank you for working on it so hard and making it available, but, even if you didn't do that, I would want to be your friend.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another meaning of "merit": Helps others solve problems.

Thu Jul 28, 05:08:00 PM EDT  

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