Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

People and their Walled Gardens

I wasn’t the only one to notice a discussion about moving Python-related resources to GitHub recently. An article on LWN covered the matter and was followed by the usual assortment of comments, but having expected the usual expression of sentiments about how people should supposedly all migrate to Git (something I completely disagree with for a number of reasons), what I found surprising was a remark indicating that some people use GitHub as their “one stop” source of code for any project they might wish to use. In other words, GitHub is their “App Store”, curated experience, or “walled garden”: why should they bother with the rest of the Internet?

Of course, one could characterise such an interpretation of their remark as being somewhat unfair: after all, the author of the comment is not pushing their comment to GitHub to be magically pulled by LWN and published in a comment thread; they must therefore be actively using other parts of the Internet, too. But the “why bother with anything else?” mentality is worrying: demanding that everybody use a particular Internet site for their work to be considered as being something of value undermines freedom of choice, marginalises those who happen to prefer other solutions, and, in this case, cultivates a dependency on a corporate entity whose activities may not always prove to be benign. Corporate gatekeepers frequently act in ways that provoke accusations of censorship or of holding their users to ransom.

Sweetening a Bitter Pill

Many people seem to be infatuated with GitHub, perhaps because it offers conveniences that might make Git more bearable to use. I personally find Git’s command line interface to be incoherent in comparison to other tools, and despite praise of tools like gitk by Git advocates (with their claims of superior Git tooling), I find that things like the graphlog feature in Mercurial give me, in that particular instance, a proper graphical history at the command line in an instant, without messing around with some clumsy Tk-based interface with a suboptimal presentation of the different types of information (and I could always use things like TortoiseHg if I really wanted a graphical user interface myself). So maybe I wouldn’t see the point of a proprietary Web-based interface to use with Mercurial, especially since the built-in Web interface is pretty good and is in many ways better than attempts to provide similar functionality in a tool-neutral way.

People do seem rather willing to discard many of the benefits of the distributed nature of Git and are quite happy to have a single point of failure in their projects and businesses: when GitHub becomes unreachable in such environments, everything grinds to a halt, despite the fact that they all sit there with the code and could interact with each other directly. Popularity and the “network effect” seem to be the loudest arguments in favour of dumping all their code on some distant servers, with the idea being that “social” project hosting will bring in the contributors. Although I accept that for potential contributors who have no convenient way of hosting their own code, such services provide an obvious solution – “fork” the project, pull, make changes, push, dispatch a “pull request” – and allow them to avoid having to either provide hosting for their own code themselves or to coordinate their work in other ways, everything now has to go through the same infrastructure and everyone now has to sign up for the same service, adhere to the same terms and conditions, and risk interruptions to their work caused by anything from downtime and communications failures to the consequences of litigation or such services being obvious targets for criminal or politically-motivated misbehaviour. Not only do the custodians of a project no longer control their own project, but they also put that project at considerable risk.

Perhaps all the risks would be worth it if “going social” attracted contributors. When looking at project-hosting sites, I tend to see numerous forks of project code that mostly seem to have been created enthusiastically at some point in time, only to now be dormant and have seen no actual changes committed at all: whether the user concerned created a fork in an aspirational moment not unlike making a New Year’s resolution, or whether they have done it to demonstrate their supposed credibility (“look at me: I forked the Linux kernel!”), neither kind of motivation is helping such projects get any contributions of value. Making things easier is not a bad idea in itself, nor is getting the attention of the right people. The issue here is whether one finds the right people on such project-hosting sites, or whether one merely finds a lot of people who aspire to do something but who will still do very little regardless of how easy it supposedly is.

Body of Convenience

Although the original discussion is mostly concerned with the core development of the CPython implementation and the direction of the Python language, it is hard to separate the issues involved from the activities of the Python Software Foundation. Past experience suggests that some people involved with both of these things do not seem to prioritise ethical concerns – it is no coincidence that the word “pragmatic” appears in the LWN coverage – and it disappoints me greatly that when ethical concerns about GitHub’s corporate culture were raised, few people seemed interested in taking them into consideration. Once again, the label of “ideology” is wielded, together with the idea that doing the right thing is too complicated and therefore not worth pursuing at all, leading to the absurd conclusion that it is better to favour the party shown to have done wrong over all other parties who, as far as we know, have not done any wrong but should be suspected of it, anyway.

With the PSF taking diversity and equal opportunities seriously, one might expect people to “join the dots” on this matter and for people to be engaged in showing that the organisation is unconditionally committed to such causes and is willing to use its public influence for the common good, but I suppose that since GitHub is not a “Python company” anyone with a problem with the corporate culture in question is simply out of luck. Once again, ethics stand in the way of the toys, and “pragmatism” is a nice term to use to indicate that the core Python development community and the organisation that supports it should have as narrow a focus as possible, even if that means neglecting the social movements that brought about the environment that enabled Python to become the successful technology that it is today.

(The matter at the centre of those ethical concerns was wrapped up either definitively or inconclusively depending on who you wish to believe and how credible you regard the company’s own review of the matter to be. This article does not intend to express a view on that matter itself, but does stress that where ethical concerns have been raised, those concerns should be addressed and not ignored.)

Easy Way Out

Python is getting a lot of competition from other technologies these days. For example, Google’s Go stole some thunder from Python both within the company and elsewhere, and there are people who admit to switching to Go in order to remedy some of the long-standing issues they experienced with Python implementations (mostly related to performance and scalability). As I noted before, had Python implementations, libraries and the language definition been improved to alleviate concerns about Python’s suitability in various domains, Python would be in a stronger position than it is now: a position which arguably resembles that of Perl at the height of its popularity. Sure, choosing Python for your next project in certain domains is an easy decision (just as Perl devotees used to annoyingly insist that people just “use Perl”), but there are plenty of other areas where Python has more or less forfeited the contest: how is Python doing on Android, for instance? People who do Python or Django all-day-every-day may not see a problem, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fundamental problem waiting for a remedy.

It is understandable that people want to play the popularity card: if there’s an easy way of clawing back the masses, why not play it? Unfortunately, there may not be an easy way. Catching up with the development backlog may actually be achieved more effectively by addressing other shortcomings of the development workflow. And there’s an assumption that a crowd of ready-to-start contributors are lurking on GitHub when, despite the aforementioned evidence of people only wanting to play inside the walled garden, anyone sufficiently motivated to improve Python would surely have moved beyond a consumer mindset and would have sought out the development community already.

Python development is a relatively well-resourced activity compared to many voluntary endeavours, and the PSF is responsible for much of the infrastructure that supports the developer communities around Python. Although many benefits are derived from things like the mailing lists hosted at python.org, there are always those who are enticed by other providers and technological platforms. In matters relating to the PSF, the occasional Google spreadsheet or form has been circulated, much to the dismay of some people who would rather not have to use online resources that may require a Google account (and if not that, then maybe a fast computer and cheap energy to power all the JavaScript). Bringing up additional PSF-driven services requires time and effort that may be in short supply (as I have experienced in recent months, despite the help of various stalwarts of the community, including one kind enough to drop my name into this particular debate!), and efforts to just procure help and bypass the community have arguably caused an even greater burden on volunteers, even leading to matters as severe as the temporary abandonment of valuable resources such as the Python Job Board (out of action since February 2014).

Concerns about the future relevance and popularity of Python itself may not be so easily addressed and overcome, but that is a topic for another time. But the task of rebalancing relationships – between the PSF, the core developers, and the community volunteers who keep the wheels turning on the Python online assets – is one that cannot be ignored, either. And retreating to the comfort of today’s favourite walled gardens is perhaps too much of an easy way out that ignores the lessons of the past (despite assertions to the contrary) and leaves such relationships in their current, somewhat precarious state, undermining those trying to uphold the independence and viability of the initiative, potentially causing even more work and inconvenience for infrastructure volunteers, presenting an incoherent collection of project resources to contributors, all in the vague hope of grabbing the attention of people who cannot otherwise be relied upon to look further than the ends of their own noses.

Maybe people should be looking for more substantial remedies than quick fixes in walled gardens to address Python’s contribution, popularity and development issues.

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