An Interview About Gittip With Ellen Marie Dash (duckie)

Community management, open company principles and more.

by The Editor & Ellen Marie Dash (duckie) on June 9th, 2014

We sat down with Ellen Marie Dash (duckie), a contributor and user advocate at crowdfunding platform Gittip, to talk about community management, open company principles and what Gittip has done right and wrong so far.

Editor’s note: A growing number of individual activists and social-justice focused groups in tech are using Gittip. I am one of the top individual receivers and givers on the platform, and Model View Culture uses Gittip too. I’ve also been one of its most outspoken critics.

Funding itself remains one of the primary issues around building sustainable programs and organizations led by diverse people and focused on their needs. The way that crowdfunding platforms are built and run, and how they engage the community, is an important issue which we hope to explore both through this interview and subsequent stories. – Shanley

So, you are a contributor to Gittip. Can you tell us a bit about what Gittip is and what you do as a part of the team?

Gittip is basically a way to give money to people and teams that you believe in on a weekly basis. A lot of the crowdfunding platforms out there are about funding specific things or funding people until they finish a specific thing, but Gittip is more about funding a person. The idea is that you appreciate what they do in general enough that you’re like, “here’s money, do your thing.” As a receiver, you have a lot of people giving small amounts to you because you’re doing something they appreciate, and if enough people do that, you could dedicate all of your time to doing that thing. That’s kind of where this originated, the ability to get funding to do something without having to necessarily have a full concrete plan in place before hand.

Homepage of Gittip. There is a banner that says 'Sustainable Crowdfunding Inspiring Generosity,' and the question 'Who inspires you?' with a text box to enter a Twitter username. There's also an option to browse communities on Gittip.

I haven’t really contributed significantly to Gittip from a code standpoint, even from the start — I started working on Gittip over a year ago. I’ve mostly been contributing in terms of discussion, and I fell in the user advocate role before it existed formally. There’d be a long community discussion, and I’d go in and pull out the actionable items from that discussion, and that kind of evolved into the user advocate role that I’m in now.

Who uses Gittip, and what kind of things do people use it for both as givers and as receivers?

It’s still mostly developers, which really isn’t the goal. The idea is that anyone can join and can be giving and receiving some amount — basically an economy centered around giving. Right now we have activists, and various companies as well. Gittip itself is on there, and we have some artists of various sorts. There’s some musicians, and I believe there are also some people that draw comics on there. But we want to expand that, and helping with that technically falls under my job now.

So Gittip has a reputation of being for developers, or at least it started off that way.

It did originate with software developers, but it’s not limited to that and we don’t want it to be. And having the name be Gittip, unfortunately implies that. We tried to change the name once we decided to work on attracting people that weren’t developers, but it was so entrenched that we couldn’t. So, we settled on changing the pronunciation from “Git-tip” as two separate words to “Gittip” as one word.

Tell me a little about the team that’s working on it Gittip. It’s an open source project – what does it look like at this point, who works on it, what does working on it look like?

I’m not particularly involved in the overall development of the main site, most of my code contributions have been for the widgets, but it’s a pretty informal thing. You basically go to the Github page, and you can look through the issues. If you find one that you can do something on, you just pretty much do it. As far as I know that’s enough to get added to the Gittip team.

Lots of the actual collaboration happens on IRC and Github, and we figured out pretty quickly we needed some sort of logging in the IRC channel so we could link to conversations from Github. There would be a conversation about something and then it will move into an existing Github issue or become a new Github issue, so we needed some way to keep track of that without copying and pasting the entire thing to an issue.

I’d say the one big thing we learned is it’s very hard to schedule a meeting of any sort once more than 3 timezones are involved. We’re still trying to figure that out.

A lot of your top users are diversity advocates, organizations working on social justice in tech, activists, etc. How do you see Gittip fitting into the activist space and being used by people in that space?

To be entirely honest, I don’t know. I have not talked to them enough to know yet, and I feel like that’s a major disservice because they are some of our biggest users. I’m still working on figuring this out, but to my knowledge we haven’t really done any sort of real community-building at all besides just being like “Hey, look at this site, you should sign up.”

And that’s not really the way to do it. I feel like the approach we’ve been taking is kind of impersonal, kind of just more of a blanket explanation of what Gittip is, and not really any explanation on how it could be used, or even looking into how it could be used by anyone.

Gittip has ascribed very vocally to the concept of “open company”. Can you talk about what that is, and how your concept of that is evolving?

It’s one of those things that’s subject to interpretation, but the idea as I understand it is that the company is “open” in the sense that if someone wants to contribute to it, if someone wants to work there, they can with minimal friction. For Gittip, this means that you can hop on Github, and if you contribute code or you jump in enough conversations, you just get added to the team.

The Gittip Github Issues page, featuring open technical issues on the platform.

The other side of an open company is around transparency. This is really where lots of issues have come up for us. The approach that we had was basically just “here’s all of this information about Gittip.” But it wasn’t even really information, it was all of this data that we had. And we just threw it out there, without regard for basically anything. We basically made sure that user information wasn’t exposed and that was the gist of it. That’s proven to be a problem.

We are starting to reign in the transparency aspect a bit. The approach we started with could very accurately be described as “radical transparency,” and in my experience a thing that can be described as radical has a very high likelihood of being either intentionally or unintentionally exclusive. The big issue I’ve been noticing is that we kept pushing for all of the discussions being out in the open, but not everyone feels safe or even just comfortable doing that. So that’s disserving both the people that are trying to give us feedback and Gittip itself, because by doing that we aren’t getting that feedback, so we can’t really improve. The option for publicly discussing stuff is great, and if everyone involved is comfortable with it I actually prefer it, but that should be the choice of users, not the default choice.

So one of the biggest things that’s been going on in the past couple weeks is we’ve been looking at where we need to look at pulling back the transparency to make people feel more comfortable, both when using Gittip, as well as either discussing things with us or getting involved. We’re trying to find that balance because, really, we went too far, we never pulled back, and we didn’t realize that.

What advice would you have for people considering adopting open company principles?

You can go all-out, but end-users are always first. No exceptions.

That’s really where the issues come up is when the end-users are put either at the same level or below the open company principles in terms of importance. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it ends up with the same thing: people don’t feel comfortable or safe using the product or discussing issues with it. You can have transparency and openness be the core values of your company, and still put users above that, and I think that’s actually necessary for it to be a viable model for pretty much any length of time.

Where do you want to see Gittip being in six months as far as user advocacy and inclusivity?

I want to see Gittip at the point that another transgender woman, specifically one of the many who are considerably less stubborn about being open than I am, would feel comfortable as a user and as a contributor. I feel like we’re going in the right direction, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point. Where I’m starting is just getting out there and contacting people on Twitter or privately, and I’m basically like: “Are you using Gittip? If not, what made you decide not to? If you are, then what are the issues?” I’m trying to figure out how I can make it more welcoming to more people, and how I can make them more comfortable using it.