The Blue Drop Matrix

Episode 16  |  April 25, 2018

Summary

In this episode, Matthew Tift discusses DrupalCon Nashville, the movie The Matrix, and various ways to understand the Drupal community. He plays clips from the Driesnote and Steve Francia's keynote, describes some of his experiences at DrupalCon, and offers ideas for what it might mean to understand "the real" Drupal.


Additional Notes

The theme music used in this episode comes from the Open Goldberg Variations. This episode is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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Transcript
Matthew Tift:
Recently I attended DrupalCon Nashville earlier this month in April 2018. It's an exciting time for Drupal. I spent a lot of time discussing the community. I attended a three-hour leadership workshop, some sessions concerning Drupal governance, a community working group update, a Drupal Association board meeting, as well as a few other sessions about being human and growing the community, plus some other technical sessions. It was a week that was a reminder of how much of an effect Drupal has had on my life personally, because I've spent a lot of time in the community.
I've also spent a fair amount of time studying the community. I've done some research looking at commit credits to understand who sponsors Drupal, and I've written a number of articles about the cultural construction of Drupal and other topics about the Drupal community. Sometimes it feels I walk this line between someone who studies the community and someone who participates in the community. So I felt like I could relate a little bit to the keynote speaker on Wednesday, Steve Francia from Google. He described Drupal in a way that made it sound like Drupal was a significant effect on both his life as well as how he participated in other free software communities. He talked about building communities in Mongo DB, and Go, and Docker, and Hugo, and in each of those instances it seemed like he was drawing on his experiences in the Drupal community and honestly trying to replicate it. He'd talk about how Drupal served as a role model for not just the communities that he participated in, but also for open source projects generally.
Here's how he ended his talk.
Steve Francia:
Drupal now finds itself in the position where no project has ever been. No other community in open source has ever survived this long. There's a reason for this. For 17 years, Drupal has pioneered open source. At each stage of Drupal's evolution, you have risen to the occasion and pushed the boundaries of what is possible. You saw the need and without any examples to follow, boldly went where no project has gone before.
My message to you today is don't stop. Don't stop stepping up. Don't stop being courageous. Don't stop asking the hard questions. Don't stop innovating. And don't stop caring.
I can't tell you what comes next. All I can tell you is we are watching. What you do matters. It matters to Drupal, and it matters to open source. You're showing us all the way to go. Thank you.
Matthew Tift:
I was sitting in the audience feeling a little bit moved by what he was saying. He had nice things to say about the Drupal community, and he was pushing us to keep going forward. He wants us to keep innovating.
We also heard similar messages on the Tuesday keynote. Tuesday is traditionally the day at DrupalCon where Dries Buytaert gives his state of Drupal presentation. Dries also focused on growing the community. He actually focused on three broad areas.
First he talked about updates to Drupal 8, things like statistics about Drupal 8 use, the stability of modules, and a roadmap for what's next. Then he talked about growing adoption of Drupal, technical considerations, content creator experience, site builder experience, things like that. In the last part of his update, he talked about fostering the community. He shared what he called his alpha version of Drupal's values and principles. It's a remarkable document that captures a lot of the key ideas that people associate with the community.
In addition to that, he's looking for feedback. He wants more feedback from the community about growing this document. But in his version of it, he talked about impact, about respecting one another, and enjoying what we do. At one point, he was talking about the value that we strive for excellence, and that we embrace change. Here's another brief clip with Dries more than an hour into his talk. This is what he had to say.
Dries Buytaert:
The second one is strive for excellence. I think a lot of people can probably relate to this one I think. In the community, we're never happy, right? We always wanna do better. We're not afraid to constantly re-evaluate ourselves. We're not afraid to change things. Just think about going from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8, right? We're always trying to do better. So the second value is all about that.
Matthew Tift:
It seems like there's quite a lot packed into that short clip. He says, "We are not afraid to change things." He says, "We are always trying to do better." And "In the community we are never happy." I don't disagree with what he's saying, but it did make me wonder about the implications for this. I get the underlying message when he says "We are never happy." The implication is similar to what Steve Francia was saying in that we are trying to do better, we want to innovate. But does that mean, then, if someone is happy that that person doesn't share the values of the Drupal community? Clearly, that's not what Dries meant.
If we are never happy or content and we embody that value, then can we also embody the other principle, the last one that he mentioned, which is be sure to have fun.
In this episode, I'd like to investigate these ideas a little bit further. What does it mean for our community when we want Drupal to always be better? Better software, better marketing, better community. How does that affect the people in the community.
To help answer these questions, I'm gonna talk a little bit about red pills and blue pills. If you know what Drupal is, chances are pretty high that you've also seen the movie The Matrix. But I won't make any assumptions.
In the movie The Matrix, the main character is Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. Neo doesn't know it yet, but he's not living the life that he thought. His body is in a gooey substance in a pod, and robots have taken over the world, and they use AI to make everyone, including Neo, think they are just going about living their lives.
Another character, Morpheus, played by Lawrence Fishburne, gives Neo a choice. He offers Neo two pills. He says, "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
This is a popular metaphor. Pretty well known. There's books written all about the red pill. But in general, the red pill signifies something like waking up to reality, truth, or knowledge, or freedom. The blue pill on the other hand represents something like blissful ignorance, or security, or happiness, or something along those lines.
In the movie, the Matrix is control. Morpheus says to Neo, "I'm trying to free your mind, but I can only show you the door. You're the one who has to walk through it."
It's a relevant question to ask, what does The Matrix possibly have to do with Drupal? What does this movie about human beings who are essentially turned into batteries for robots have to do with an open source software project which people can choose to contribute to or not? For the purposes of this episode, the blue drop and the red pill provide something of a framework. A way to examine Drupal. And a way to think about what it means to experience Drupal as Drupal. None of us can really ever say, "That is Drupal. This thing that I see before me, these people, these are definitely Drupal, and these will always be Drupal, and that's Drupal Drupal Drupal..
Sometimes it's easy to forget that. Sometimes we think about Drupal as this thing when it is constantly changing. So when I was at DrupalCon, maybe everyone else had taken the red pill except me, and everyone else saw what Drupal really is. That could be the case. But none of us really know.
What we do know is that there is nothing particularly natural about our idea of what Drupal actually is. Drupal is a collection of habits, a collection of processes, a collection of code, people that get together, and we develop habits that we think we have to do in some cases. I've gotta go check my issue queue for updates. What do I need to work on? Who's commented on my patch? That kind of thing. And in a way, we continue to build Drupal and we have these ideas about what we have to do. In a way, this can be like taking the blue pill. We've now got Composer. We've now got semantic versioning. Is there some point when this is considered complete? It seems that the keynotes at DrupalCon will say it's never complete.
Now that we have decoupled API-first sites, that's just a step along the way. Now that we have a DrupalCon that's more predictable and has a code of conduct, that's also just a step along the way.
At this point you may be thinking that this description is applicable to any free software or open source project, that all of these projects are constantly changing. We're constantly adding code, and sometimes people contribute and sometimes they don't but not every free software project is the same.
Another quote from The Matrix. This is shortly after Neo has taken the red pill. Sorry about the spoiler. But he takes the red pill and Morpheus says to him, "Welcome to the desert of the real." Now this quote has a long history. Slavoj Žižek wrote a whole book with that title. But the main idea is that there's this process of crossing over. We have to be prepared that what we might see on the other side is not so enjoyable looking.
In the movie, the world is a pretty desolate place without any sunshine, and it's all these robots and pods and kind of a grim place. But it's a place that is nonetheless the real world.
What perhaps I haven't mentioned to this point is that not everybody is enjoying this process who's part of the Drupal community. That's part of the reason why I wanted to record this episode, is that when I was at DrupalCon, there were quite a few people that I talked to that seemed rather upset. They thought that Dries maybe didn't say the right thing or he didn't consult the right people when he was working on his values and principles statement. Some people were not happy with certain actions by the Drupal Association. Other people were criticizing the community working group. Talking to people individually, I confirmed that they were really kind of upset, that they thought there was something wrong with this process, this process that continually evolves, that it was causing them stress.
I hope then that this idea of examining Drupal for what it is can be helpful. Perhaps even thinking about me recording this episode could be a useful framework, because if I thought that everything I have to say right now was perfect, then I probably would take a long, long time creating this episode, and it would never be quite right, and I wouldn't have quite the right words if I was constantly saying that maybe I should write this as an article, maybe this would be better as a talk at Drupal camps or DrupalCons. Maybe that would reach more people, or maybe ... We can go on and on, constantly questioning ourselves.
I've given a number of talks at DrupalCon. Some of them were well attended. One of them I was told was the most well attended session at a DrupalCon. And another talk that I gave had a very small audience.
I can't specifically point to how effective any of these podcasts or articles or talks are. None of them are perfect. So I finally had to settle on, I've got some ideas to say about DrupalCon Nashville, and I'm gonna do so in a podcast with a transcript, so people can listen to it, or they can read it. And if I judge all these words that I'm saying, it's not gonna be very fun to record. If I'm constantly thinking, "Oh boy. What are you thinking right now? What is the person listening going to think if I accidentally said the wrong word?"
Many of us are okay with making mistakes, and that's one of the wonderful things about the Drupal community is that we understand that it's a process. We do that with the sense that people are coming to the project with good intentions. That's not always the case, of course. We'll never get to the perfect Drupal. I think that's okay. But what we can do is we can look at what actions produce which results. Is there some event that happened in the Drupal community that caused bad results? That too can be a tricky proposition, unfortunately, because we've all probably had the experience where maybe we did something that we thought was going to be awesome but turned out to be not so awesome, or something that wasn't so awesome that had a good conclusion.
For example, let's say you finally get your first module on drupal.org. "Yes. I've got a module on drupal.org. I've written code. It's the first code I've ever written, and I'm so excited I have it out there." And guess what. People love it, and they're using it, and they're submitting issues, and your module continues to grow in popularity. All of a sudden, you might feel like you have to work on it. That thing that started off giving you such a high now might be a source of stress.
That's the kind of thing that can be good to notice, that this action started off, it produced a good result, but then it produced stress. That stress is having negative results. That's the thing that many of us need to be on the lookout for.
We can also know that there are certain instances where we do something that doesn't work out so right. Maybe you show up at the Drupal issue queue, and you are upset that something just isn't working. Again, this is probably relevant to any free software project. But you show up thinking, "This should not be this way. This is dumb." So you post an issue, maybe one that doesn't use the word dumb, and it turns out other people agree, and then maybe something good comes from that experience that started off as a frustration.
This whole process of whatever it means to take the red pill can mean just looking at those experience without attaching labels to them. Perhaps the community working group did something that you don't agree with. Rather than saying they're wrong, they're bad, it can be useful to say, "When they made this choice, it affected my life this way. I would like to do whatever I can to make sure that this particular thing doesn't happen again." But that also is a slippery slope, because the community working group can't make everyone happy. Dries can't make everyone happy. Drupal can't make everyone happy.
As we work towards these goals, we can say, "I think this change would be helpful. I think it would be helpful for me, and I think it would be helpful for everyone else." When it meets those two criteria, then we can try and do our best to make it happen. But it's also important to consider that we can't tie our own happiness to that result actually happening, because we'll never guarantee that that's going to happen.
So if you're walking around DrupalCon, and you're feeling stressed out, and you're trying to make something happen or you can't figure something out, it's okay that that's the case. In fact, this kind of thinking where we understand that something about the Drupal community or the Drupal software is imperfect, that can bring about a sense of happiness. It's not rejecting Drupal. It's a process of understanding it for the way it is and removing our negative judgments about it. We're just saying it's imperfect.
That for some people is taking the red pill. It's noticing that there is a great deal of mental negativity around this particular issue or this particular problem in the community or with the software. It's very natural to look at these types of situations and think, "This must happen. This is very important to me. I need this feature. I have to do my job." That can be dangerous, really, because once we start thinking that Drupal or the community has to do something for us, then we're tying our own happiness in that community to some external factor.
Perhaps some of you are listening to this thinking, "Why should I care about other people's happiness? Drupal's my job. Drupal is what I sell. Drupal is how I make my living." The truth of the matter that a lot of us intuitively understand is that people in a community that are not happy are probably not going to stick around in that community.
So what can we do to make people happy in the community? Can we tell them just to let go of all their negative judgment? Well, no. We can suggest it, but that's really up to each individual person. We can set guidelines. We can say you must obey by these rules or you're not allowed. And when people cross those guidelines, we can say that those actions are no longer welcome.
The last DrupalCon had two full tracks dedicated to being human and building the community. But there are things that we can do in our interactions in the community, whether Drupal or any free software community, that we can do to make that community more welcoming and help ensure that other people are enjoying themselves.
For example, I was reading a book on the way to DrupalCon, and it was about some research into altruism in humans. The research suggests that when we are in a rush and we think we have to get somewhere, we don't notice the people around us. Naturally, we can't notice their needs.
I was reading this on a plane. I arrived at DrupalCon, and DrupalCon is a place where I am rushing from one thing to the next, and I realized that was me. I realized that I needed to get to this session, I needed to get to this seminar. I wanted to talk to that person. In so doing, it's difficult to stop and have conversations with people.
Now I can't make everyone happy. It's not like I have to stop and talk to every single person and never do that thing that I want to do. But in general, once I was aware that I was rushing, it makes the experience more enjoyable for me, because when I could stop and talk to that person that wanted to talk to me, that brought about a sense of joy..
Of course, this world of DrupalCon doesn't just exist in a bubble. Those types of ideas followed me when I came home. My interactions with my kids. I make an effort to put down my device or close my laptop when my kids want to talk to me. So I realized that same sense of rushing is also important, that if I am rushing, that I have to get this thing done and have to get that thing done, that it just means I'm not going to be able to notice what's going on with my kids. That to me is a pretty important part of my life. I can take these experiences in DrupalCon, I can take these experiences dealing with other people in the Drupal community, and I can apply them to my own life. So it's not like we're just talking about Drupal.
That notion too can be rather uncomfortable for us, because we want to just think that we're creating code. We're just solving business problems. We're just creating ambitious digital experiences. So many times, people are reminding us at these Drupal events and Drupal articles and podcasts that it's important to consider the community and to consider the effects of your actions on the other people around you.
At Lullabot, where I work, and at so many other agencies in the Drupal community, we try and live these values. We try and base our decisions on the reality of our lives. That may sound a little weird. The way we translate that is be human.
We know that our company is full of human beings, and we also know that our company has a lot of people that enjoy Drupal development. So when we say in our marketing messages that we're a Drupal firm, it refers to the fact that these are the types of things that we like to do. We like to build Drupal modules, write books about Drupal, write articles about Drupal, work with clients to solve their problems with Drupal. What we are not is a bunch of people that want to be working all the times and neglect our families and friends and other activities that we want to do.
And we know that someday Drupal will come to an end. None of us are under the assumption that Drupal will last forever. I don't know of any software that will last forever. Everything comes to an end at some point. So at this point we are enjoying it. At this point we have a lot of clients that solve their business problems with Drupal. At this point working with Drupal is enjoyable. At this point we can do these activities and see positive results it's certainly not perfect, but it is a system that has been working and that continues to work. It's also a system that is based on the idea that happy people work well together and get cool things done.
Where did the founders of Lullabot learn these lessons? That's right. The Drupal community.
Okay. I'm mindful that this is starting to sound a little bit like an ad for Lullabot. So let me shift gears back to Drupal, and what I was talking about before, the Drupal community and DrupalCon Nashville. Because Lullabot, like Drupal, is not all happy happy fun fun all the time. People get upset. People disagree. People start to praise something and criticize something else and think that things out to be a certain way. Once we realize that the external factors, the leader of the project or the groups tasked with helping the community solve disputes, that they can't solve all of their problems. That is when I think some of the real magic can happen, that it's okay to have people disagree, and it's good to have people say what they think might be helpful and then to have others discuss that.
There was one particular moment near the end of the conference, and there is a session that was called the Dries Q&A, where people were asking Dries various questions about all kinds of topics. The questions were getting filtered through a moderator. But near the end somebody made some comments about their ideas for how we could get more ladies in Drupal. Their suggestion was that if we wanted to have more ladies, that the ladies should work together to help make Drupal more inviting to women.
It seemed as if not everyone in the room agreed with that particular point of view. So someone else spoke up and suggested that it's the responsibility of everyone in the community to help make the community welcoming to everyone else. Specifically, that it is the people that already are influential in the community that have a responsibility to speak up, that we should not in fact leave that task to the under represented groups.
The reason I'm bringing up this particular exchange is because it was someone in the audience that made the comment, that reacted to the first comment. This wasn't Dries speaking up and offering his opinion. This was an exchange where someone who had obviously strong feelings about this subject spoke up in a kind and friendly way without criticizing or judging per se, and this had a seemingly good chain reaction, because someone else spoke up about their interactions with the Drupal community, and people seemed to be a bit more upbeat.
So perhaps there was some irony in that the person who seemingly had the most power in the room, Dries, was not the person to speak up to say that the people with the most power should be the ones to say something.
Let's not drill too much into that or read too much into that. The point instead that I'd like to make is that Drupal is what we make it to be. Whatever stories we're telling about Drupal, that's what Drupal is for us. And to the degree that we want to believe the stories we are telling about Drupal, we can make choices about which actions we would like to undertake.
If Drupal is just software that you use to run your business, then you can choose to look at it that way. If Drupal is something that's deeply personal to you, that's affected your life on multiple different levels, then you can invest more of your effort into it. And that each of these options are okay. Once we get to the point where people feel like they have to be doing something for the Drupal community is the point at which we start to run into problems. The Drupal community does not need you to survive. Your specific input, no matter who you are, is not a necessary ingredient for Drupal's success.
This is a tough idea for people to swallow. Some people think that they need to be the one to do something or that it will not happen. But the truth is that nothing has to happen. That's another way of looking at the red pill, is understanding that there isn't some specific condition that needs to happen in order for there to be good in the world.
Of course, we should still strive for excellence as our values and principles currently say, but we don't need to put conditions on what excellence is. Is it possible that right now, in this moment, that Drupal is excellent? Is that a possibility? Can we entertain that notion? That right now, Drupal is excellent. Maybe. I'm not sure. Even calling Drupal excellent sounds a lot like a value judgment. So maybe that's not the most useful question.
I'd like to end, though, talking about one aspect of the Drupal community that I was reminded of at DrupalCon during Steve Francia's keynote address. This is what he said a little over an hour into his talk.
Steve Francia:
I know of no other project that has been able to match the spirit, friendliness, and inclusivity of the Drupal community. This is why the first DrupalCon was so life changing for me. I've never seen anything like this before. It is truly a family to so many of us. You care about each other as you work on the code, helping each other in issue queues or with sprint mentoring. What is even more important is that you support each other in life and create truly meaningful friendships.
Without Drupal, the world of open source would be a very different place.
Matthew Tift:
Once again, he provides us with quite a few complimentary statements, and he believes that in the Drupal community we create truly meaningful friendships. If that is indeed the case, then that could be perhaps the most powerful and important aspect of growing the Drupal community and helping others feel welcome in the Drupal community.
When you think about it, the code's going to change, the people in the community will come and go. But few things in life can be more important than having people around us to help us make wise decisions. It's very hard to get anything done that's meaningful in the Drupal community without help. Without working with other people. It's a community of people working together. And when those people are friends that positively influence our actions, that can be an easy way to help us continue to make more positive choices, both for the Drupal community and for the code and for our lives in general.
When we make choices that affect the Drupal community, then we're likely to consider not just the effect those choices will have on ourselves, but also our friends who are also using the software and participating in the community. If we are making choices based on our needs and the needs of our friends, it's more likely our choices will benefit everyone.
Perhaps this is another way to understand what the red pill is for the Drupal community. Recognizing the importance of friendship and welcoming new friends into the community.
Thank you for listening.