The Acute Pain and Chronic Reward of Public-Facing Work

November 17, 2015

Doing public-facing work, be it open source programming or writing, is an open invitation to allow internet commenters into your life. It can introduce anxiety, aggravate depression, induce anger, and more. There are certainly benefits and positives, but they are often more nebulous, revealing themselves over time in the form of "visibility" or "recognition". The criticisms manifest immediately and acutely.

A number of "I'm quitting my work on open source" posts have recently made the rounds on social media, with a common theme being that it's often quite literally thankless, that it consumes one's life without returning rewards, and demands that one work unpaid, on the weekends and at nights, to satisfy users... and for what? Here is one example, and Julia contributor John Myles White has indicated he is pausing his open source work as well. I'm sympathetic to these pieces, and think they extend well beyond just open source work to all forms of public-facing work, be it writing, design, or music.

When you produce public-facing work, especially if that work is free to consume, the negative criticism often flows fast and free. "Why didn't you do it this way?" one commenter will ask. "You didn't include this feature" another will complain. "This is alright, I guess, but I don't see why you don't just use this other thing" will be a common refrain. Responding to these comments is a losing move. Responding only provokes more criticism or facile points about how what you produced could have been good if only you'd produced the thing that the commenter would have produced. The fact of the matter is that the commenter didn't produce anything but criticism -- you were the one that produced something original, but it's hard to hold on to that viewpoint.

You'll be accused of being too "sensitive" if you get upset at some of the more baseless criticism. You'll be told you have a "thin skin". You'll be told condescendingly that the criticisms apply to the work, not to you as a person (this is an especially common refrain among software engineers). While it's true that you need to be able to divorce your ego from your work in order to receive constructive criticism, it's also true that many people treat this line of thinking as a license to act like jerks. Very vocal jerks. And they'll be the quickest to respond to your work, they'll drown out the quieter voices that say "thanks!" or "looks good, I'll check it out" or "Really enjoyed this." They'll dominate the voices that try to respectfully engage in a discussion about how something might be even better than it already is, perhaps by submitting a pull request or by writing their own post.

Doing public-facing work is an invitation to allow trolls to judge your work, to fill your social media notifications with criticism, and to make you question your motivation for doing the work in the first place. It's a tremendously frustrating feeling as you've often spent your nights, your weekends, your spare time working on producing something that others can enjoy for free. You've declined invitations to do other things, you've skipped out on activities you enjoy, and you've spent time away from loved ones in order to produce something you think will bring joy to others.

If you think I'm working up to an answer about how to deal with these problems, or why doing public-facing work is really worth it despite this, you may want to stop reading now. I am not. There is no easy answer. Producing public-facing work is an emotional roller coaster with slow climbs to highs and quick plunges to lows. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, they will likely be exacerbated the more attention your work receives. It is incumbent on the consumers of your work to treat you differently, but this is almost certainly a non-starter.

Some concrete steps I have taken that have helped me some -- limit the number of people you follow on social media and only receive notifications from those people you follow. This may make you seem more aloof and earnest comments and questions from consumers of your work may go unanswered. Don't read any threads discussing your work on sites like reddit or Hacker News, no matter how strong the temptation. Ironically, this may also make you feel more anxious or depressed as one of the primary reasons for doing public-facing work is to reach people. You can only hope that those people who really want to reach you will find a way other than one-off comments on social media.

It's true that one of the most rewarding things in life is to receive an unsolicited email from someone telling you that your work has been influential or helpful to them and to thank you for doing it. I'm not exaggerating when I say those kinds of emails really warm my heart and make me grateful that I did public-facing work. However, those emails are far outnumbered by the "I read your post, can you schedule a quick call with me and go over it more in detail?" emails. I have started deleting those without response.

The irony of taking to a public-facing blog post to talk about this isn't lost on me. I suspect that criticism of the viewpoints and pains that I've laid out here will follow. But I think these are points that need to be made, if only so other producers of public-facing work know that their feelings are not unique to them and to let consumers of this work know how it feels to be visible.

So, please. Take a minute to thank those people who do public-facing work that you have benefited from. Be thoughtful and mindful about how you offer up what you perceive as "constructive criticism." Make sure you've read the work carefully before doing so. Know that the "simple improvement/solution" was probably already considered by the author because she has spent many, many hours thinking obsessively about the work already. If you're considering doing public-facing work, know that it can be a challenge and that the rewards may never seem to catch up to the costs. Seek out others who have done public-facing work. They'll appreciate that you did.

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