The recent welcome announcement that GitHub was replacing a rug celebrating the concept of a meritocracy in open source software development has had a lot of people wondering, "What's so wrong with meritocracy?" To answer this, we are publishing an excerpt from a post by Ashe Dryden, "The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community."
Ashe Dryden is a programmer, diversity advocate, writer, and speaker. She blogs regularly at http://ashedryden.com and her work is almost 100% funded through community donations at http://gittip.com/ashedryden.
Meritocracy is the belief that those with merit float to the top – that they should be given more opportunities and be paid higher.
We prize the idea of meritocracy and weigh merit on contribution to OSS. Those who contribute the most, goes the general belief, have the most merit and are deemed the most deserving. Those who contribute less or who don't at all contribute to OSS are judged to be without merit, regardless of the fact that they have less access to opportunity, time, and money to allow them to freely contribute.
As the people who exist within this supposed meritocracy don't exist within a vacuum, we also have to realize how our actions affect others. Meritocracy creates a hierarchy amongst the people within it. Some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly. This creates an atmosphere where people who would otherwise be deemed meritorious within this system choose not to participate because of a hostile, unrewarding environment.
A lot of people hold the idea of meritocracy close. I believe they mean well, too, but they aren't necessarily seeing the whole picture. We all want a system where we feel we can be rewarded for what we contribute: that society's injustice toward certain groups of people – most specifically geeks, many of us who grew up feeling abused, persecuted, and ignored (blog post coming on this soon) – would be rendered irrelevant. In striving for that, our community has become a microcosm of society at large.
The idea of a meritocracy presumes that everyone starts off and continues through with the same level of access to opportunity, time, and money, which is unfortunately not the case. It's a romanticized ideal – a belief in which at best ignores and at worst outright dismisses the experiences of everyone outside the group with the most access to these things. A certain demographic of people have three or four steps above other people, so the playing field is not even.
For more reading on the meritocracy in open tech/culture, see:
The Paradox of Meritocracy: Belief that a workplace is a meritocracy may increase gender bias, not lessen it
Questioning the Merits of Meritocracy: Discussion of specific open source software projects that embrace meritocracy (as of 2009)
How White Male Tech Writers Feed the Silicon Valley Myth of Meritocracy: On the intersection of race, class, tech, and blogging
GitHub donates private repositories to women learning open source software: A collaboration between GitHub and Ada Initiative to compensate for extra barriers for women learning open source software development