I Love MDN, or the cult of the free in action

Yesterday or so a new initiative I Love MDN was unveiled. People can show their appreciation for the MDN staff and volunteers by leaving a comment.

I have a difficult message about this initiative. For almost a day I’ve been trying to find a way to bring that message across in an understanding, uplifting sort of way, but I failed.

Before I continue I’d like to remind you that I ran the precursor to MDN, all by myself, for 15 years, mostly for free. I was a community volunteer. I know exactly what goes into that, and what you get back from it. I also burned out on it, and that probably colours my judgement.

So here is my message, warts and all.

I find I Love MDN demeaning to technical writers. It reminds me of breaking into spontaneous applause for our courageous health workers instead of funding them properly so they can do their jobs.

It pretends techincal writing is something that can be done by 'the community', ie. random people, instead of being a job that requires very specialised skills. If you deny these skills exist by pretending anyone can do it, you’re demeaning the people who have actually taken the time and trouble to build up those skills.

In addition, I see the I Love MDN initiative as an example of the cult of the free, of everything that’s wrong with the web development community today. The co-signers unthinkingly assume they are entitled to free content.

Unthinking is the keyword here. I do not doubt that the intentions of the organisers and co-signers are good, and that they did not mean to bring across any of the nasty things I said above and will say below. They just want to show MDN contributors that their work is being valued.

Thatr’s nice. But it’s not enough. Far from it.

Take a look here. It is my old browser compatibility site after four to six years of lying fallow. Would you use this as a resource for your daily work? There are still some useful bits, but it’s clear that the majority of these pages are sadly outdated.

That will be MDN’s fate under a volunteer-only regime.

What we need is money to retain a few core technical writers permanently. I Love MDN ignores that angle completely.

Did you sign I Love MDN? Great! Are you willing to pay 50-100 euros/dollars per year to keep MDN afloat? If not, this is all about making you feel better, not the technical writers. You’re part of the problem, not the solution.

Here’s our life blood — for free

MDN Web Docs is the life blood, the home, the source of truth for millions of web developers everyday. [...] As a community of developers we have access to all of this information for free ♥️

That’s not wonderful. It’s terrifying.

We get everything for free hurray hurray, also, too, community community community, and, hey! with that statement out of the way we’re done. Now let’s congratulate ourselves with our profound profundity and dance the glad dance of joy. Unicorn-shitting rainbows will be ours forever!

I Love MDN hinges on the expectation on the part of web developers that this sort of information ought to come for free — the expectation we’re entitled to this sort of free ride.

(That’s also the reason I never contributed to MDN. I feel I’ve done my duty, and although I don’t mind writing a few more articles I very much mind doing it for free.)

This is all made possible by a passionate community, inspirational technical writers, and a small, but determined team of developers.

Hogwash. The passionate community has nothing to do with anything, unless they’re willing to pay. A profoundly unscientific poll indicates that only about two-thirds of my responding followers are willing to do so. The rest, apparently, is too passionate to pay. It’s just along for the free ride. That isn’t very comforting.

Working in the long run

Rachel Andrew puts it better than I can:

The number of people who have told me that MDN is a wiki, therefore the community will keep it up to date tells me two things. People do not get the value of professional tech writers. Folk are incredibly optimistic about what "the community" will do for free.

So you once wrote an MDN page. Great! Thanks!

But will you do the boring but necessary browser testing to figure out if what you’re describing is always true, or just most of the time? And will you repeat that testing once new versions have come out? Will you go through related pages and update any references that need to be updated? Will you follow advances in what you described and update the page? If someone points out an error six months from now, will you return to the page to revise it and do the necessary research?

If the answer to any of these questions is No you did a quarter of your job and then walked away. Not very useful.

And if the answer to all of these questions is Yes, hey, great, you’ve got what it takes! You’re really into technical writing! We need you! Now, quick, tell me, how long will you keep it up without any form of payment? Quite a while, you say? Great! Try beating my record of 15 years.

The problem with expecting volunteers to do this sort of work is that they burn out. Been there, done that. And what happens when all volunteers burn out?

Yes, new volunteers will likely step up. But they have to be introduced to the documentation system, not only the techincal bits, but also the editorial requirements. Their first contributions will have to be checked for factual errors and stylistic problems, for proper linking to related pages, for enough browser compatibility information. Who’s going to do that? Also volunteers? But they just burned out.

It doesn’t work in the long run.

Money

What ought to happen is MDN (or its successor) securing the funding to retain a few core technical writers on a permanent basis. Without that, it’s doomed to fail.

Now there are two ways of securing funding. The first one is appealing to big companies, particularly browser vendors. I can see Google, Microsoft, and Samsung chipping in a bit, maybe even quite a lot, to keep MDN running. (Apple won’t, of course. They’re on their own cloud.) This could work, especially in the short run.

But will we be well served by that in the long run? You might have noticed that all companies I named use a Chromium-based browser. What about Firefox? Or WebKit?

I have no doubt that the Chrome, Edge, and Samsung Internet developer relations teams are totally serious about keeping other browsers on board and will not bend MDN new-style to their own browsers in any way. They’ve shown their commitment to browser diversity time and again.

What I doubt is that the final decision rests with them. Once MDN new-style funded by the browser vendors has been running for a while, managers will poke their heads around the corner to ask what we, as in Google, Microsoft, or Samsung, get in return for all the money we’re spending. More attention for our browser, that’s what. Make it so!

That’s why I prefer the second option in the long run: funding by the web community itself. Create an independent entity like Fronteers, but then international, get members to pay 50-100 euros/dollars per year, and use that money to fund MDN or its successor.

Now this is a lot of work. But I still feel it needs to be done.

But who will do it? Volunteers? We’ll run into the same problem that I sketched above, just one step removed. I briefly considered starting such an initiative myself, but I found that I am unwilling to do it for free.

And I know exactly what it takes. I founded Fronteers for free, and it took me half a year of mind-numbing work, including fending off random idiots community members who also had an opinion. Even though others stepped up and helped, my first burn-out was mostly caused by Fronteers’s founding, and I am unwilling to do it all over again for free.

So there we are. On balance, it’s more likely we go with the big-company solution that will work in the short run but will give problems in the long run.

Unless the web development community stops expecting a free ride, and starts to pay up. Initiatives such as I Love MDN don’t give me a lot of hope, though.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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