What If Everybody Did It (WIEDI)?

Most people, I think, tend only to think about their actions and interactions as one-offs. That is, we think “what happens if I do this” and consider the impact from that perspective. But what if we considered the outcomes and impacts if everybody (or even a lot of people) do the same thing? We might act differently. And maybe we should think that way more often. Let’s talk about What If Everybody Did It (WIEDI)? (Don’t worry, there’s a tie-in to open source and community in here, too…)

The big picture

Most of the time, people don’t seem to consider actions in aggregate unless it’s pointed out. Consider littering. In the United States it used to be just normal for people to throw garbage out of the car, because there weren’t norms against it. That’s not surprising when you consider that car ownership didn’t really become mainstream until the 1930s and 1940s, and then things like fast food (and the packaging that supports it) became more mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s.

So people just chucked their garbage out the window with great regularity. And, you know, how big a deal is it if one person just tosses a paper bag or drink cup out a window? Inconsiderate, sure. But it’s pretty big country. One jerk tossing trash out the window all over the place is not going to do much in the grand scheme of things. Where’s the harm, right? The harm is in aggregate.

Litter used to be ridiculous. It’s still a problem, but it used to be so much worse. What happened? To greatly oversimplify, they ran a big PSA campaign in the 70s to stop littering, and it changed (many) people’s behavior. Litter is still an issue, but less of one. Why?

Not just because they made littering look like the irresponsible practice that it is, but because they showed the negative impact when everybody litters. If one person throws garbage out of the car window, the impact is small. But when everybody does it, it’s a massive eyesore. They made people think about WIEDI. But, pretty much, just about litter.

What if we considered all, or even many, of our actions through the lens of WIEDI?

  • If one person picks up some garbage, that’s nice but won’t have a great impact. If everybody makes a practice of picking up garbage, things will look much nicer.
  • If one person is rude to service workers, that’s awful but isolated and lower impact. If everybody is rude, it’s brutal and demoralizing for people in service jobs.
  • If one person contributes a bug report or patch to open source projects they use instead of just complaining about bugs, it helps a little bit. If everybody does that, open source projects will be healthier.
  • If one person DMs or emails event organizers a question they could’ve looked up (or waited on), it’s no big deal. If everybody does it, it puts an even bigger burden on the organizers who are trying to handle the event.
  • If one startup withdraws all its money from a bank that’s struggling a bit, they can handle it. If everybody does it… well, we know that one.

Community impact

If you work in a community facing role in open source or tech, the impact of individual behavior at scale becomes immediately obvious. You’ll find yourself fielding a lot of requests or behaviors that, individually, have little impact. At scale, they tend to be very noticeable. Sometimes for the good, sometimes not.

Consider conferences. Lots of people want individualized attention for their conference submissions, feedback on why they weren’t accepted. Seems kinda reasonable on an individual level, right? Why can’t you take 15 minutes to look through the submissions and tell me why mine wasn’t accepted?

If one person asks, that’s no big problem. If two people ask… that’s 30 minutes. And if 20 people ask… well, there goes a day or two. And that’s assuming there’s no further discussion or objections.

On the positive side, think about well-curated wikis. They’re rare, but when a project has a strong culture of updating info on the wiki (or whatever) it’s great. If everybody does a little work to update a project’s info, it’s not heavy lifting for a single person and the net effect is fantastic.

And some community norms spring out of WIEDI. Take the ASF’s guidelines around “if it didn’t happen on the mailing list, it didn’t happen,” and other guidelines around consensus that explicitly give a time limit for feedback (lazy consensus). Why? Because those norms came out of understanding what happens if “everybody” (or just a lot of people) make decisions offlist and/or turn up two weeks after something is decided and want to reopen a discussion. It’s unworkable. Is it a problem as a one-off? Not usually – but the cumulative effect is awful, so it’s better to have a community norm that codifies the behavior that helps projects run more smoothly.

Individually our impact is (usually) small. If I’m the kindest, most considerate person I can be or the biggest jerk I could be, my impact is limited. But if we all move in one direction or the other, the potential is enormous. So think about WIEDI and try to aim for the kind, considerate, constructive ways you might make an impact and move the needle — however slightly — towards the good.

Bring it to other people’s attention, too. “Hey, what if everybody did that?” Not just for negative things, but also positive. “Hey, thanks for updating the wiki about that thing. If everybody does that, we’ll be in great shape!” or “great bug report, if all bug reports were that detailed my job would be so much easier!”

Try to think about WIEDI a few times a day, for little actions and for big actions. Returning shopping carts. Chipping in some money for a GoFundMe. Going to a local restaurant or coffee shop instead of a chain. Deciding not to poke somebody for an update you don’t actually need, but you’re just itching to find out a little sooner. Being understanding about mistakes instead of complaining.

I’m sure that you can think of plenty of examples yourself. Would love to hear some examples or other people’s thoughts of WIEDI in action.


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