in Community, PHP

The Community Toxic

There’s a famous line in the movie Bruce Almighty, where the protagonist is describing a cookie as being like a community. He opines that a community is made up of hardworking and dedicated members, with a few nuts thrown in, that make a cookie great.

The PHP community is lucky that our “cookie” contains few nuts but many hardworking and dedicated individuals. There are dozens if not hundreds of developers working daily to improve PHP, and to make the community, the product, and the environment better for current and future developers.

And yet, no community completely escapes from having toxic members. These members aren’t just a little off, or strongly opinionated in a potentially distracting way. Instead, they are so aggressive, so forceful that they actually threaten the fabric of the community itself. What do you do with these people?

The toxicity of narcissism

There’s a fine line between self-promotion and narcissism. The best members of a community walk it every day, working hard to make sure that promoting their efforts, products, contributions and collaborations never crosses that invisible boundary that turns people off, or worse, destroys whole communities. The problem is, some people neither recognize the line, or don’t care.

The dictionary defines narcissism as extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type. People who fit into this category are actually toxic to the community as a whole. Communities work well when everyone contributes, but a narcissistic person doesn’t contribute; they assume they’re better than everyone else and they adopt the position that they alone should dictate how people think, act and behave.

What to do about it

Community options for dealing with narcissists are limited. The nature of narcissism causes those who are narcissistic to refuse help, or to believe that everyone else is wrong while they are right (even in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary). And yet, people who act in this way are destructive to the community at large.

However, communities can do certain things to help alleviate the toxicity of narcissism. We can ignore the rants of those individuals, not feeding their personality. We can stop letting them play the victim. And we can move on to building a better community, with the hope that those who need help will receive it.

Communities can’t let themselves be destroyed by the bad behavior of a few members. The PHP community is first and foremost a professional community of people who use PHP as part of their jobs. It’s up to us to “circle the wagons” and protect our own, lest the community become so toxic that nobody new wishes to join.

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Brandon Savage is the author of Mastering Object Oriented PHP and Practical Design Patterns in PHP
  1. One of the ways of ensuring the health of the PHP community is to reduce the opportunities for toxic types to exert their influence. If the PHP community were better structured and formalized, that would be a start.

    What the community needs is for the PHP project to have a communication standard, a moderated Internals List, a mission statement, a vision statement and bylaws. Some of these thoughts have been expressed by others previously to no avail. By outright rejecting these ideas, the PHP project remains oblivious that some in Userland now regard the project as being run by anarchists with an abject disdain for any kind of formality. That perception strikes me as distorted and hyperbolic but it is out there nonetheless …

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