Burnout and the quiet failures of the hacker community June 29, 2023 on Drew DeVault's blog

This has been a very challenging year for me. You probably read that I suffered from burnout earlier in the year. In some respects, things have improved, and in many other respects, I am still haunted.

You might not care to read this, and so be it, take your leave if you must. But writing is healing for me. Maybe this is a moment for solidarity, sympathy, for reflecting on your own communities. Maybe it’s a vain and needlessly public demonstration of my slow descent into madness. I don’t know, but here we go.

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. 🎂 It was another difficult day for me. I drafted a long blog post with all of the details of the events leading up to my burnout. You will never read it; I wrote it for myself and it will only be seen by a few confidants, in private, and my therapist. But I do want to give you an small idea of what I’ve been going through, and some of the take-aways that matter for you and the hacker community as a whole.

Here’s a quote from yesterday’s unpublished blog post:

Trigger warnings: child abuse, rape, sexual harassment, suicide, pedophilia, torture.

You won’t read the full story, and trust me, you’re better off for that. Suffice to say that my life has been consumed with trauma and strife all year. I have sought healing, and time for myself, time to process things, and each time a new crisis has landed on my doorstep, most of them worse than the last. A dozen things went wrong this year, horribly wrong, one after another. I have enjoyed no peace in 2023.

Many of the difficulties I have faced this year have been beyond the scope of the hacker community, but several have implicated it in challenging and confronting ways.

The hacker community has been the home I never had, but I’m not really feeling at home here right now. A hacker community that was precious to me failed someone I love and put my friends in danger. Rape and death had come to our community, and was kept silent. But I am a principled person, and I stand for what is right; I spoke the truth and it brought me and my loved ones agonizing stress and trauma and shook our community to the core. Board members resigned. Marriages are on the rocks. When the dust settled, I was initially uncomfortable staying in this community, but things eventually started to get better. Until another member of this community, someone I trusted and thought of as a friend, confessed to me that he had raped multiple women a few years ago. I submitted my resignation from this community last night.

Then I went to GPN, a hacker event in Germany, at the start of June. It was a welcome relief from the stress I’ve faced this year, a chance to celebrate hacker culture and a warm reminder of the beauty of our community. It was wonderful. Then, on the last night, a friend took me aside and confided in me that they are a pedophile, and told me it was okay because they respected the age of consent in Germany – which is 14. What began as a wonderful reminder of what the hacker community can be became a PTSD episode and a reminder that rape culture is fucking everywhere.

I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. Our communities have tolerated casual sexism and misogyny and transphobia and racism and actual fucking rapists, and stamped down on women and queer people and brown people in our spaces with a smile on our face and a fucked-up facsimile of tolerance and inclusion as a cornerstone of the hacker ethic.

This destroys communities. It is destroying our communities. If there’s one thing I came to understand this year, it’s that these problems are pervasive and silent.

Here’s what you need to do: believe the victims. Stand up for what’s right. Have the courage to remove harmful people from your environment, especially if you’re a man and have a voice. Make people feel welcome, and seen. Don’t tolerate casual sexism in the hacker community or anywhere else. Don’t tolerate transphobia or homophobia. Don’t tolerate racists. If you see something, say something. And for fuck’s sake, don’t bitch about that code of conduct that someone wants to add to your community.1

I’m going to withdraw a bit from the in-person hacker community for the indefinite future. I don’t think I can manage it for a while. I have felt good about working on my software and collaborating with my free software communities online, albeit at a much-reduced capacity. I’m going to keep working, and writing, insofar as I find satisfaction in it. Life goes on.

Be there for the people you love, and love more people, and be there for them, too.

  1. And fuck Richard Stallman and his enablers, his supporters, and the Free Software Foundation’s leadership as a whole. Shame on you. Shame on you↩︎

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