the library of alexandra


No Tech Saviors in Hobbyist Spaces

when i first started to explore independent web spaces in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, i felt an overwhelming sense of divide between professional developers, especially those within tech where i was, and hobbyists, especially beginners. i already knew this was partially due to the developer-centric spaces that already created this reputation years ago, and the culture seemed to steady on that course.

stackoverflow, like the rest of the internet, became incredibly hostile; developer chats and forums were and are full of just straight-up ignoring beginner questions or folks trying to reach out for some camaraderie around building websites; and even tools used by everyone like github are not immune to toxicity within discussion zones (emphasis mine):

"... We considered a comment toxic if it could have made anyone want to leave the discussion, including a newcomer," Miller told us. "This was intentionally done because traditionally speaking in many open source projects, toxicity is often dismissed as a naturally occurring and necessary aspect of the culture.

However, many open source contributors have cited toxic and continuously negative behavior as their reason for disengaging (see Section 2 of our paper for more details). Because of this, it was important to consider toxicity that could be considered toxic to a wide spectrum of open source contributors."

where did this come from, this notion that development has to be toxic, that online collaboration has to be mean-spirited or passive aggressive?

collaboration in hobbyist spaces does not necessarily mean that folks don't know how to ask questions or provide detailed bug reports. however, if you're taking questions in earnest and in good faith, why not extend some grace toward the person who might not know how? work with them so that next time they have better understanding. if you actually help, there will be a next time, and often, it's improved. immediate growth! something you had a hand in. if it annoys you to answer questions, are you the right person to be answering them? who cares if you're right when you're cold or rude?

for some reason, despite there being levels to this, "hobbyist" is colloquially equated to "beginner," which is not necessarily true. my hobby, which began for me in 1998, comes from using web development as a means to express myself—to make something that's completely my own, not a template or profile or theme. i wanted to have it without having to squeeze money out of it or justify it somehow by having it generate income.

the process of web development itself takes on many styles, varieties, and paths, depending on who's doing the coding. there are best practices, of course, but HTML and CSS aren't set in stone. there's so many different ways to get to the same output, and that's what makes coding and web development akin to an art form for me. for instance, not everyone is going to use a static site-generator, and that's okay!

in groups surrounding web development, folks are often not just reaching out for help because they're stuck or trying to find the most professional way of building their websites. while questions come up (and they should), they're trying to build some sort of community around this thing that feels nebulous and intangible and hard to talk about with others in real life, especially if you come from a creative or non-technical background. assuming that these communities exist within the binary of being helpful or not is short-sighted; it's so much bigger than just that. it's gotten to a point where we have to coax beginners to ask more questions rather than lurking (and fizzling out of web development), because they have been made to feel like their questions are not worthy of a thread.

creating a space that is welcoming first and foremost is one of the reasons why the 32-bit cafe community began in the first place. of course, we have members who are professional developers, "techbros," engineers—whatever you want to call them—of varying ages and experience levels, but the ones who stick around long-term have decidedly—and without asking—left their egos at the door. we as a community try to be helpful as possible, even if questions aren't asked in a specific way or in a particular format. we help guide folks into the most effective way to ask questions rather than demand it of them. we try to weed out trolls and toxicity the best we can and quickly. one of our rules and cornerstones of our community is centered around always coming from a place of good faith and giving folks the benefit of the doubt—something desperately missing from internet culture at large. we try to create an environment where people want to help each other and encourage each other, because that's how people stick with a hobby that feels isolating like web development can. otherwise, newcomers and seasoned developers disengage; toxicity reigns.

from a minority of people, there seems to be this unspoken, unwritten assumption that, when entering a hobbyist space as a professional, you are the only expert—the only one who "knows" what they're doing. i cannot express to you how false that notion is.

these folks might think that being welcoming is a sign of naivete, ignorance, or some mix thereof; that we don't know better; there's some sign of weakness; there isn't technical know-how behind the scenes. i'm not sure where this disconnect happens or exactly why, but after two years of volunteering full-time in these independent web beginner-focused spaces, i have noticed that there are certain types of folks who tend to follow a pattern.

within a short span of time, this pattern usually involves joining a space that is already on a course and moving forward, then:

suddenly, something happens. it turns out the community they joined knows more than they thought. the community might have differing opinions about how to approach a technical issue, varying ethical concerns about tools/services, or responses the person may not have heard before or understand. it makes it seem as though the individual was never there to collaborate in the first place, only to help "run" things. regardless of the reasoning, they suddenly go dark completely, never to be seen or heard from again.

i've grown to calling these types of folks tech saviors, people who think they're going to "save" a community from itself or launch a community into the stratosphere single-handedly, as if that's what every space needs or wants. i promise you, not all communities want to go "viral"—whatever that means in 2024—or have a popular project that careens the developers into some kind of indieweb micro-fame. not all communities care about explosive growth or want to churn out projects that are often competing with other volunteer projects anyway. i care far more about supporting people building their own websites and web projects, in whatever form that takes, rather than trying to become an overpopulated space that loses the reason why hobbyists wanted to be there in the first place.

there should be more spaces that foster good community, create inclusive and approachable methodology, and maintain smaller spaces rather than aiming to get as big as possible, losing all personality and usefulness in the process.

the 32-bit cafe is not unique, though. there are many more communities like it, sprawled across the web that more professionals should get involved in. however, use your knowledge to help, not co-opt. these spaces aren't necessarily hostile to "techies"—the cafe is certainly not—but how you approach joining a community is certainly telling.

if you're a professional hoping to help in independent web spaces, i've come up with some tips as someone embedded in this side of the web for a while. they're certainly not universal to every community, but i think they're a general set of guidelines to approaching these hobbyist spaces online and offline.

  1. leave your ego at the door. don't go in assuming you're the most knowledgeable in the community or that you're the only professional in a sea of beginners. get to know the community. decide whether or not you'll participate in the community itself before jumping in to spearhead projects. we'd rather you put your efforts into a community that you actually are interested in supporting or a project already ongoing that's aligned with what you want to do.
  2. build trust by showing up. in the cafe, we talk about consistency over intensity. what we mean by that is when you show up to help with projects repeatedly and contribute over time (even if it's not very much!), that means so much more to the longevity of the personal web, rather than coming in like a storm, helping with projects every day for two weeks, and burning out, never to be heard from again. ease into the community and have folks get to know you, which is where trust in your abilities will come from.
  3. leave your assumptions at the door while you're at it. for the most part, folks within this sphere aren't trying to build portfolio work, though there are some hobbyists trying to use the skills they use in their day jobs to accomplish personal projects or goals. some hobbyists just want to build webpages from scratch. some hobbyists are building weird, wacky web projects that might be strange to you. find out why they're doing it. ask questions of the community, get to know people, and understand motivations for having a website in the first place.
  4. ask questions about what's needed, what projects need help, and what's currently being worked on rather than assuming you know the best route for the community to take. solutions you think of might have already been considered and decided against for a multitude of reasons.
  5. not everyone is trying to be the __best__ developer, much less a professional one. some folks are just trying to get to a point where they can produce what they're picturing in their mind. let them do that and get to a point of wanting to grow on their own. we've found that folks who are encouraged in finishing their projects tend to increase their own difficulty over time. give them that space to do so.
  6. everyone's journey is different. respect that and respect your own journey. examine your own reasonings for joining communities and what you want to get out of it yourself. even if the way someone is approaching their website could be made easier by using a tool or software or method you know of, approach the problems they ask about rather than trying to solve for issues they aren't.

ultimately, the non-corporate web thrives when it's built by a well-stirred mix of folks: artists, writers, designers, musicians, developers, laypeople, craftspeople—everyone. when i said the web is for everyone, i meant it. that means opening up our development-centric spaces to foster encouragement, supporting people on their journey wherever they are, and refraining from telling people to "google it" as though we all haven't noticed a drop in usefulness in that search engine.

there were web cliques in 2003 with 800 members in it. creating a website 20 years ago was far more common than it is now, and it was far less approachable then. gatekeeping web development doesn't make, and hasn't made, the internet better. if we're going to save it from the clutches of a corporate stranglehold, we collectively have to let more people in.