Thoughts on Radical Transparency

There was a very interesting discussion happening last week between Chad Whitacre (founder of Gittip) and Shanley Kane (CEO and founder of Model View Culture) which ironically has been chronicled on Medium and in the Gittip bug tracker. I say ironically, because the conversation was about how Gittip’s radical transparency policy negatively affects users from disenfranchised groups, and of course it is being hashed out in public for everyone to see. In this particular case, this is actually a good thing because we can all learn from it.

If you’re not familiar with Gittip they are a crowd funding company whose aim is to provide hackers and technologists with a way to channel the good will of the community into a semi-stable income stream. Unlike Kickstarter, where you back a specific project with a one-time donation, Gittip allows you to set up a recurring, weekly donation for an individual whose work you appreciate. In a way it is similar to Patreon but for coders rather than creators and entertainers.

One interesting aspect of Gittip is their “radical transparency” philosophy. Whereas most companies on the market right now are turtling up behind their firewalls and triple-encrypting their hard drives least their secrets leak out into the blogosphere, Gittip is doing the exact opposite, trying to be as open in their internal communications as possible. They eschew private email in lieu of social media and public bug trackers and they live stream and post their meetings and discussions to Youtube. The idea is that opening their decision making process to public scrutiny will foster trust and loyalty among their users, at the same time keeping all the employees on their best behavior. This sort of public accountability does appeal to me a lot. Being a certified nerdy white boy, the concept of “radical transparency” gives me warm fuzzy feels. But, as Shanley pointed out to Chad, this is not everyone’s experience.



Most of the Gittip’s top earners happen to be women and members of other groups that are marginalized and discriminated against in our industry, for whom it is simply not safe to participate in transparent and open communications. Shanley herself already received a lot of “criticism” for trying to unfreeze Gittip’s peaches. And I’m putting criticism in quotes, because what I’ve seen was mostly name calling and thinly veiled aggression. But this what Shanley does: she speaks on behalf of marginalized people, and she knows how to deal with the inevitable harassment that comes with the territory. She is willing and able to mitigate a lot of the risks involved with speaking out against the status quo and trying to educate people who already think they know everything. Not everyone has this sort of luxury. Not everyone who wants to risk getting doxxed and harassed IRL merely for sharing their personal lived experience during a live call or an “open” interview, merely because that experience differs from the established meta-narrative accepted by the community.

For what it’s worth, Gittip does seem to be treating Shanley’s criticism seriously. They are currently trying to establish user advocacy positions within their organization. Their role would be to reach out and talk to end users and annonymously relay their concerns up the command chain, while at the same acting as a barrier between the user and the community. This would allow them to maintain transparency while at the same time protecting identities of their users, creating a relatively safe channel through which they can report problems or voice their displeasure with the company, without fearing a community backlash.

What do we learn from this? Perhaps that our personal experience is very limited, and does not apply to everyone. As a straight, white, male programmer my scope of reference is extremely narrow. Because of my work and my hobbies I spend most of my day in a virtual echo-chamber among people who are just like me, and share most of my views and biases. Peaking outside of that chamber is hard, because it requires conscious effort. It means you have to listen to people with radically different opinions, and life experiences. But ultimately doing so will make you a better person. In fact I would say that listening to opinions and experiences of people different from you is a crucial step towards understanding the human condition. It is something we absolutely must do if we ever hope to transcend it, and carry on to the next stage of our evolution as a species.

I mentioned it before, but technology can be an enabling factor that gives you access to thoughts and opinions of all kinds of different people, from different paths of life. All you need to do on your end is to cultivate an open mind.

Transparency is undeniably a good thing. It is something we want to see more of out there in the corporate world, as well as in politics. But we have to manage transparency against the safety and personal privacy of both end users and employees alike.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Radical Transparency

  1. switchnode UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    I could probably write a wall of text here, but I think I’d better limit myself to this observation for now: the idea that organizational transparency is necessarily antithetical to personal privacy is bizarre to me. I’ve written in favor of radical fractured pseudonymity before, and I’ll probably continue until ‘nyms and handles become irrelevant.

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  2. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I didn’t know about the Gittip issue, but I heard about Shanley when she and her MVC co-founder went on Hanselminutes, and again when the Twitter blocking issue sprung up on Hacker News, and I have to say I really like the cut of her jib. It takes guts to be so public and hard-hitting about these issues, especially if you commit the sin of being a woman. She can be harsh, but like the Brecht wrote,

    The headlong stream is termed violent
    But the river bed hemming it in is
    Termed violent by no one.

    I don’t really have a strong opinion on radical transparency, other than the fact that my appreciation for privacy makes me feel uneasy about it. Selfishly, I’m pleased that there are reasons higher than my preference for being left alone to care for the protection of people’s identities, but I confess that I probably wouldn’t have considered these matters. My only mitigating attribute is that I usually shut up and listen when such issues are raised.

    Regarding the broadening of my horizons, MVC itself seems like a good source, but I have to admit I still haven’t read any of its articles. I did find another publication which is unlike everything I generally read – which mostly pertains to tech, startups and economic theory – which I’ve been quite enjoying, called, n+1 magazine. Now that they have a digital-only issue, I’m seriously considering subscribing.

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