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[P]
The Volunteer Affliction

By pongo in Culture
Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 02:48:26 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Culture

Do volunteers have a responsibility to those who benefit from their work to own up to mistakes a volunteer might have made? Or does the "volunteer" tag magically absolve oneself of all culpability? This is my take on a malady I'll refer to as "volunteer affliction": The belief that one who has taken on a volunteer role has absolved themselves of all responsibility for their own actions.


A virtual show of hands from those who have experienced the following scenario: You're subscribed to a low-volume announce list on a subject that interests you. One day, you check your mail, and discover you've suddenly been subscribed to the dev list, an extremely busy list that's filled your mailbox with scores of messages. You make some discrete queries, and discover an error was made when the list was moved to another list manager. Furthermore, you discover that the list manager has taken the position that it is your responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to remove your e-mail from the new list.

All well and good, except you believe that it isn't your responsibility to correct the mistake, and the list manager should own up to his/her mistake and make it right. So you suggest, publicly, that the list manager correct their mistake by either (1) comparing new and old list subscriptions, and removing those that appeared in the new list after the move, or (2) remove all subscriptions with a request that those who are interested can resubscribe at their convenience.

Seems reasonable to me: Make a mistake, fix it. But then you receive a scathing response from the list manager: "I'm a volunteer, I maintain this list on my own time, there are thousands of subscribers, and you dare suggest to me that I spend my valuable time fixing the problem?"

It's then you realize the ugly specter of "volunteer affliction" has raised its head. It's a malady which manifests itself in the thinking processes of those who volunteer to do something for others. In the course of spending one's valuable time in this volunteer work, the afflicted individual begins to delude himself into believe that, as a volunteer, they are no longer responsible for their own mistakes. The afflicted reason this out by figuring that since they are spending their own valuable time helping others, the others they are helping should be willing to spend their own valuable time fixing the volunteer's mistakes.

I've seen this affliction over and over, yet nobody seems to recognize it as a problem. Most of the time, those directly associated with the afflicted volunteer will bob their heads in blind agreement, even going so far as taking up the position themselves ("volunteer affliction by proxy"). So in the end, you, who asks only that individuals be responsible for their own actions, are mercilessly flamed as an ungrateful bastard undeserving of the charity being offered.

One of the favorite defenses thrown up by the those with volunteer affliction is the "until you've walked in my shoes" defense. Of course, it's almost always the case that those volunteers who bring up this defense know absolutely nothing about you, yet feel confident enough to throw this in your face, as if your own personal time spent following an issue isn't worth nearly as much as one who publicly brands themselves a "volunteer."

Is it really too much to ask that volunteers not only own up to mistakes they might make, but to also take responsibility in fixing whatever was broken? Since when did the title of "volunteer" automatically strip oneself of culpability? Or am I (a volunteer myself, although I've never brought it up as a defense for mistakes I've made) completely out of line?

To paraphrase from George R.R. Martin's excellent A Storm of Swords, a young and petulant King Joffrey is apoplectic with fury at the way one of his subjects has spoken to him. "He can't talk to me that way!" he blusters. "I am a king!" To which his faithful right-hand Lord Tywin replies, "If you have to call yourself a king, you're no king."

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Poll
Should volunteers take responsibility for their actions?
o No, not unless you've walked in my shoes. 4%
o No, I don't have any more of my valuable time to spare. 6%
o No, you ungrateful ingrate. 22%
o Yes, it's part of the job. 66%

Votes: 72
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by pongo


Display: Sort:
The Volunteer Affliction | 43 comments (38 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
Taking it too far (4.28 / 7) (#2)
by NightRain on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 12:27:37 PM EST

Ok, so in this case, the guy made a mistake. Should he own up to his mistake? For sure. But I mean honestly, you want the guy to manually unsubscribe hundreds of addresses by hand because he made a harmless mistake? It's easy for you to fix, and it's easy for everyone else that was affected to fix, so what reason other than a perverted need to see the 'right thing' done is there for him to do it himself?

The article has an interesting point, that could be important in issues where money, health etc are at stake. But you picked a bad example. It makes you appear as ungrateful and whiny dramatically reduces the impact of what you are trying to say

Don't vote, it only encourages them!


Conflict Resolution (5.00 / 1) (#39)
by Bear Cub on Tue Jul 10, 2001 at 01:30:09 PM EST

I think that pongo's clarification sheds a little more light on what actaully happened. But, unfortunately, it doesn't change my view of the story. This is really little more than a rant, and a poorly justified one at that. Responding to a (likely burned-out) admin's rebuff with a three-page rant is hardly the way to teach or practice good social skills.

Lord knows we've all gotten bad/rude service, but usually the best way to handle this kind of thing, especially with someone who's likely a bit burned-out to begin with, is to set a good example, and back off. What's so terrible about writing a note back, to the effect of: "No sweat, I'll remove myself. Thanks for maintaining the list, and I hope you're not catching too much crap about this." It's amazing the kind of friendliness this often generates. Someone who was telling you to piss off two seconds ago will turn around and try to give you a hand.

------------------------------------- Bear Cub now posts as Christopher.
[ Parent ]

Contrived example (4.66 / 6) (#3)
by VZ on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 12:27:41 PM EST

I'd agree with your point if it were really as simple as you show it, but I think your example is misleading.

Usually list reorganization requires some work from the list maintainer (in theory it should be very simple, in practice... well, you know) and there is a trade off: either the maintainer does something manually for all 1000 subscribers or each subscriber does it h{im/er}self. In this case I surely believe that the subscribers should do it. Of course, I'd prefer to be subscribed to a list whose maintainer is good enough to automate the entire operation...

I've seen a lot of examples involving such trade offs and never anything as blatant as you report.

Volunteers should be responsible for their actions but they shouldn't be forced to do anything they don't want (this wouldn't be volunteering any more then, would it?)

Spam is spam (4.50 / 2) (#19)
by sigwinch on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 09:13:41 PM EST

Volunteers should be responsible for their actions but they shouldn't be forced to do anything they don't want (this wouldn't be volunteering any more then, would it?)
Accidental network abuse is still network abuse, for which the abuser has a positive obligation to cease the abuse. Good intentions are irrelevant -- the road to MAPS is paved with good intentions.

--
I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Option 3 (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by Elkor on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 12:31:53 PM EST

Remove those people that request to be removed.

There is a good possibility that some of the people that were transferred over won't mind receiving more mail, either because they are interested in the subject matter or because they get their mail in daily digests, and more mail simply means a larger digest that they don't read anyway.

In either of the two cases you proposed (unless I misread #2) he would have to spend a fair amount of time unsubscribing people only to have resubscribe them again later.

Even if he is being paid to moderate the list, this would be an inefficient way to solve the problem.

However, even as a moderator, he should unsubscribe people that want to be unsubscribed. The reason being 3-fold:

1) It is part of the job,
2) It is easier for him to unsubscribe the person than to provide details how they can do it themselves as well have to deal with someone constantly e-mailing them,
3) You can e-mail the listserv and complain that he subscribed you to a list against your wishes.

I moderate several lists on YahooGroups (we started out on onelist and then moved to egroups to later be moved to yahoogroups, bleh), and I have seen other people get in trouble for directly subscribing people to the list. One person had their list taken away because she kept resuscribing people after they unsubscribed.

Anyone who isn't willing to make an attempt at doing their job well doesn't deserve to have the job, whether they are paid for it or are doing it out of their own good graces.



It's a simple thing called "taking pride in ones work."

Regards,
Elkor


"I won't tell you how to love God if you don't tell me how to love myself."
-Margo Eve
While I might agree with you... (5.00 / 1) (#22)
by losthalo on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 10:22:16 PM EST

... at the same time, I have to add (anecdotally) that I work for a company, in a service position, and this lends certain - insights, shall we say? I'm regularly treated badly by customers. I'm regularly given more work to do by management. The situation has not improved that I can remember, and worst of all, despite all this, I'd like to serve the customers well. I'd like to be able to say that I do a good job, regardless, because I have a work ethic. However, the situation no longer allows me even that, we are so understaffed that good service cannot be given, regardless of the effort I put in. Management has removed the possibility of "a job well done". I imagine this happens elsewhere as well.

[ Parent ]
But the important thing.... (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by Elkor on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 12:59:19 AM EST

is that you are -trying.-

My point is that it is easier to unsubscribe people as you go along than it is to unsubscribe everyone or sort through lists of e-mail addresses, as suggested in the story.

Just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Regards,
Elkor
"I won't tell you how to love God if you don't tell me how to love myself."
-Margo Eve
[ Parent ]
This is exactly... (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by darthaggie on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 11:54:05 PM EST

Remove those people that request to be removed.

...what spammers do.

Except they don't really remove you.

And before anyone yells about "you don't know, you haven't volunteered" I am an admin, professionalism is important to me, and I admit responsibility when I break things. And I do what I can to fix them.

I am BOFH. Resistance is futile. Your network will be assimilated.
[ Parent ]

Good Samaritan Law (4.20 / 5) (#5)
by Kugyou on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 12:35:25 PM EST

Well, title's a bit misleading since I won't be talking about the law itself, but it does serve a point: In some cases, a volunteer is not held accountable for what they do. I've run across problems like this in the past - people who say "I spend my time doing this for free, I don't ask anyone else to help me, and you want to complain because $X doesn't work. Thank you very much." Sometimes even from webmasters who include a "Found a broken link? Tell us!" request in their page. But when you tell them of the break, they go into fits.

I have to avoid this trap myself. I occasionally write little "utility" programs for my company, on my own time, and then wind up getting bug reports about them. I have to visibly restrain myself from tearing heads off sometimes, though - the e-mails from people outside my company that use my utilities can be quite insulting. I think this is what tends to cause "Volunteer Affliction" - too many "This is broken, YOU SUCK" e-mails and not enough "Hey, I was noticing...[problem]...think you could look into this?"...
-----------------------------------------
Dust in the wind bores holes in mountains

May be the worst problem is (4.66 / 3) (#23)
by mami on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 12:54:40 AM EST

that those complaints, insults or just gullible misunderstanding about the volunteer aspect of the list maintainer's work is endlessly repetitive. As each new person using online technical support through e-mail lists goes through the same "educational" process, the maintainer MUST get burned out after a while.

I really think that the "free as in free beer" part of all the material which is there for newbies to learn from, as awesome as it might be, is also one of the biggest problems.

If one would imagine for a moment that just the source code would be open, free (in both senses, free to change, free as in free beer), but all tutorials, documentation material and technical support through email lists etc. would NOT be free, what would happen ?

I would think that many newcomers would actually learn more quickly, because the online teaching content and the online support on mailing lists would be much higher in quality, if the content providers and writers would get paid. There would be an incentive to come up with better ways to eliminating repetitive FAQ questions, the need to obfuscate "what the code actually does" would be less and the incentive to "document the code" would be higher. Flamewars would be fewer and distraction through emotionally upsetting readers would be less.

This whole attitude of "RTFM" is unique in the free software developer community. No other scientific discipline has it. There is a reason for it. If all your work is not understood by the non programming community AND at the same time your work for that community is there to be used for free, where can the developer draw satisfaction for his work from, if he is neither paid, nor recognized and on top of that often completely burned out by users who don't understand their own "parasitic" role in the set-up (for which you often can't blame them either, because essentially you have to be a programmer to understand the extend to which you are a parasite).

I was always amazed to observe the (to a non programmer almost uncomprehensible) overly humble attitude of one programmer towards another, whom he judges more advanced and experienced and more intelligent than himself. On the other hand it's similarly incomprehensible how ridiculously self-engrandizing, arrogant and hostile some programmers become with each other, at least to the outsider. Strangely enough it has become a very two-sided sword, even the charity side of developing free software.

---------
The social dynamics of the net are a direct consequence of the fact that nobody has yet developed a Remote Strangulation Protocol. -- Larry Wall

Maybe we can fix reality one of these days. -- Larry Wall


[ Parent ]
Paying money doesn't guarantee quality (4.50 / 2) (#36)
by bignose on Mon Jul 09, 2001 at 03:29:43 AM EST

mami wrote:

I would think that many newcomers would actually learn more quickly, because the online teaching content and the online support on mailing lists would be much higher in quality, if the content providers and writers would get paid. There would be an incentive to come up with better ways to eliminating repetitive FAQ questions, the need to obfuscate "what the code actually does" would be less and the incentive to "document the code" would be higher. Flamewars would be fewer and distraction through emotionally upsetting readers would be less.
This is a seriously flawed assumption. Why would the quality of documentation automatically improve if money was thrown at it?

Even less obvious is your connection that payment would be an incentive to make documentation more efficient. I would rather think that being paid to write documentation would provide an incentive to write poor-quality documentation, and thus ensure that more documentation was needed in the future.

I have no idea where you perceive the "need to obfuscate" the code. In the main, obscure and poorly-documented code isn't made that way deliberately, but through ignorance and short-sightedness on the part of the programmer. There's plenty of that around without inventing a "need to obfuscate".

Also, documentation involves the time not only of the person writing the documentation, but frequently the time of those who develop the software -- so that they can explain what the heck the program is doing. Should programmers be paid to have their time occupied with documentation-writers? If not, how can they be expected to spend that time when the documentation-writers are getting paid? And if so, there is another incentive for writing code that requires lots of documentation rather than little.

I agree that incentives are required to produce quality work, whether it be code, debugging, documentation, or administration time; but throwing money directly at the people is an incentive to produce quantity, not quality. There's far too much crap out there to encourage more. Also, money is often a de-motivational influence on the quality of work.



[ Parent ]
hmm, clarification (none / 0) (#41)
by mami on Tue Jul 10, 2001 at 09:57:36 PM EST

I should have mentioned that I only was thinking about open software development in this case. Sorry. As developers can't sell their open code, one way of generating money for such software is writing documentation. Non programmers, who can't read the source code depend highly on good documentation. If open source code excells in its documentation, then definitely that software will be preferred, because there would be much transparency on both ends, the code AND its documentation.

As the code is free (as in no cost), the documentation SHOULD NOT be free (as in no cost), so that at least the documentation can generate an income. Therefore I am all for throwing money on documentation writing and charging for any little documentation you put out. Open source code developers have already donated the code, that's enough. They don't have to donate the documentation as well. That's the szenario I was thinking about.

Also, I do believe that at times open source code developers need a little bit to hold back, slightly obfuscate or underdocument their code, in order to keep some competetive advantage against other closed and other open software, so that they can make money to consult on their software as source of income. But I am not that sure about it and could imagine it would backfire quite a bit if the project gets larger and several new developers join into the team.

Hope that does make now a bit sense. If I am still completely wrong with my logic, just forget my comment.


[ Parent ]
Volunteering is a 2-way street (5.00 / 7) (#7)
by bee on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 01:04:27 PM EST

To my mind, it's ok to point out problems with a volunteer service if: you're willing to volunteer yourself to help fix it, or at the least willing to not bitch about the situation if there's some reason you can't volunteer.

Hence a volunteer-run service that is overloaded should respond to requests for changes with 'I don't have the time to do that; would you like to volunteer to help?' Any negative response on the questioner to that question merely reflects badly on themselves.

My question to the article poster: If the reply you received back was 'I don't have the time to go in and correct this, but I'd be happy to give you access and the information needed to fix the problem for everyone', would you have done it?

The difference (4.00 / 5) (#28)
by mindstrm on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 07:04:05 AM EST

What you say is totally accurate. You should not whine about the quality of work a volunteer is doing unless you are willing to help out as well..

But this is different; this is something being done directly TO someone; he's getting spammed, unnecessarily, and regardless of who or why, it should stop.

It's not like he went to the 'free circus' and got mad because the guy cooking the hotdogs was doing it too slowly, because he's not a professional cook and was only a 'volunteer'..

It's like he went to the circus and a 'volunteer' stood in his path and dumped a vat of ketchup on him. Of COURSE he has a right to get mad.


[ Parent ]
To me it's more like (4.00 / 3) (#32)
by Eimi on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 04:58:38 PM EST

He went to the circus, and the ketchup vat exploded and splattered a lot of people. So he has a right to be a bit upset. I think he's going a bit too far when he asks the volunteer to go around and lick the ketchup up off everyone's clothing, though.

Sorry for pushing the metaphor a bit too far, but the point is that the work that's being asked of each subscriber is pretty simple (unsubscribe), but the work the author is asking of the volunteer is pretty annoying, time consuming stuff. Get over it.

[ Parent ]

more, more, more (none / 0) (#40)
by eightball on Tue Jul 10, 2001 at 06:23:55 PM EST

He went to the circus, and the ketchup vat exploded because the operators didn't know what they were doing. He just asked that they clean up the mess.

Not that this was the point of this post, but why is it necessarily easier for hundreds of people to download all the crud, figure out what is going on, send emails requesting to be removed; as opposed to one person doing a mass remove?

Another thing I want to know is why it is so difficult to manage this list.. If it is a kind of members only list where someone needs to approve it, I can see why you would need a person to add and remove people. But some sort of listserv should take care of itself. And adding and removing people should be as easy as editing a text file.
If its so freaking difficult to do this, they need to change their system (and yes a volunteer can do this in their spare time)

[ Parent ]
This should be a no-brainer (3.85 / 7) (#8)
by Anonymous 242 on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 01:41:36 PM EST

Let's say I volunteer to fix a neighbor's plumbing. While I'm screwing a cap on a pipe with my trusty pipe wrench, I apply too much torque and actually break the pipe. Am I responsible for paying to have a real plumber come out?

I should think so.

When one volunteers to do an action one needs to weigh the consequences of what happens if one screws up.

But one does need to engage it. (4.50 / 2) (#12)
by Sawzall on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 05:14:05 PM EST

When one volunteers to do an action one needs to weigh the consequences of what happens if one screws up. Agreed, but only as much as one should consider what happens if no one does anything. Most people are protected by law from liability in cases of rendering aid to victims of accidents. If it is your job and you screw up, you are responsible. Obviously, an accident is the extreme, but most things worth volunteering for have a real need that is not being met by others.

[ Parent ]
Sounds like.... (4.27 / 11) (#9)
by sneakcjj on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 01:59:33 PM EST

The poster sounds like someone who has never volunteered for much of anything.

Most people who file such complaints expect things to be done RIGHT AWAY. Well guess what, if you want something done RIGHT AWAY pull out your wallet and hand over some money. Every volunteer organtization I've worked for accepts donations to give a little something to the volunteers. In my experience this end up being a dinner or other outing for the volunteers every other month or so. You may find a little appreciation goes a long way. I mean, shoot, one day a user actually sent nice thank you letter to me by U.S. Mail for helping him setup his computer. Nothing big, just a letter saying thanks. The next time that user had a problem I spent half a weeknight trying help the person out with a computer problem despite having to work the next day.

Bitching at volunteers is pointless, rude, and selfish. Why selfish? Because I don't see YOU offering to help. Don't complain about something unless you are willing to do something about it.

Okay, done ranting. Have I been struck by "Volunteer Affliction"? Maybe. But the way I see it, volunteers are trying to help the community and just like at work, all they hear are people whining about one thing or another without any thanks.

Sounds like.... YOU DIDN'T READ THE F*****G STORY (2.83 / 6) (#18)
by delmoi on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 08:44:04 PM EST

God damn man, is you're reading comprehension really that bad? One of the favorite defenses thrown up by the those with volunteer affliction is the "until you've walked in my shoes" defense. Of course, it's almost always the case that those volunteers who bring up this defense know absolutely nothing about you, yet feel confident enough to throw this in your face, as if your own personal time spent following an issue isn't worth nearly as much as one who publicly brands themselves a "volunteer."

Is it really too much to ask that volunteers not only own up to mistakes they might make, but to also take responsibility in fixing whatever was broken? Since when did the title of "volunteer" automatically strip oneself of culpability? Or am I (a volunteer myself, although I've never brought it up as a defense for mistakes I've made) completely out of line?


I see no reason not to be pissed off at someone who 'volenteers' to flood your email box with hundreds of messages you have no intrest in.
--
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
Ya ya.... (4.50 / 2) (#34)
by sneakcjj on Sun Jul 08, 2001 at 08:02:36 PM EST

Geez, easy there.

I did read the article. However the poster was trying to avoid the type of comment I made. I felt he slung mud in the face of all volunteers in general.

The author posts what the volunteer said to him, but what did his original request say? Was he an ignorant user and didn't know of an automatic-remove list? Was it as rude as your response to my comment? If so, then the mantainer's response was warranted in a way.

I think by trying to avoid comments like mine, the original author was trying to take the focus off of their mistakes.

[ Parent ]

Re: Ya ya... (5.00 / 1) (#35)
by pongo on Sun Jul 08, 2001 at 11:16:52 PM EST

The author posts what the volunteer said to him, but what did his original request say? Was he an ignorant user and didn't know of an automatic-remove list? Was it as rude as your response to my comment? If so, then the mantainer's response was warranted in a way.

My original request was something along the lines of "why don't you simply delete all the subscribers to the new list, with a note stating that those who are interested in the new list can re-subscribe at their convenience." No tirade, no rude comments, no swearing, just a friendly suggestion from one who has, in fact, maintained mailing lists on a volunteer basis.

IOW, I simply suggested doing something the way I would do it, had I been in the same position.

Many, though, have chosen, deliberately or otherwise, to dismiss my observations and accuse me of simply whining. Maybe if these individuals remove whatever blinders they're wearing, they would realize that not only did I state the problem, but I also provided a solution to the problem: If you have to call yourself a volunteer and wear it on your sleeve by shoving it in the face of those who simply want you to take responsibility for your actions, maybe you should find something else to spend your spare time with.

FWIW, yeah, I volunteer for lots of things. That certainly provides me an adequate response to the "when you walk in my shoes" crowd.

It's really simple: If you choose to volunteer your time, be prepared to act responsibly and to open yourself to the very audience you seek to serve. Anything less is nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence.

[ Parent ]

Clarification (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by sneakcjj on Mon Jul 09, 2001 at 08:57:16 AM EST

Thanks for the clarification. By knowing what you wrote I can say the volunteer's comments were out of line. You did in fact make a suggestion and that helps. Most people that message me just whine and that gets old.

You, on the other hand, actually tried to help him out by thinking for him ;). But, I hope you were not offended by my note. Knowing now what you said, it was out of line.

Getting back to the original point, as a volunteer I still have to sign a document saying that I am responible for the system. While the document clears me of legal stuff, I still need to provide a certain level of support which is agreed upon by the members and can be changed at any time my life changes. The point of this is to maintain a good network and adjust to the volunteer's life. In the end, everyone is much happier. People know that when they can reach me and how long it will take me to at least respond.

Again, sorry for the flame!

[ Parent ]

volunteers for internet related services (4.83 / 6) (#10)
by mami on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 03:46:06 PM EST

I think your example is not representative of the whole volunteer community. Free and open source software and the internet have caused a lot of people to do "volunteer" work. Without it much of what we take for granted (for example moderation and administration of email lists etc) wouldn't be there for us to use. Oldtimers knew it and in their desire to keep parts of the internet the way it was 7 to 10 years ago, they donate much time into something, which doesn't seem to be easily sustainable anymore.

I believe, it's a specific issue for volunteers doing work for free software on the internet. Sharing, altruism etc. has its limits. Often it is more like the hidden and surpressed frustration of putting a lot of work into something what is not recognized by mere mortals as being "work".

What was volunteer work has to be converted into paid work or will die. Volunteers don't want to see the death of something, which they thought to be a worthwhile service to offer, but they know it would die, if they would ask to be paid for their work.

That's what causes the frustration. I don't like their merciless flames either and what you describe as "volunteer affliction by proxy" seems to be more the need to comply "with the group think of the chosen herd" . It is quite sad to observe it. And of course there are always the black sheeps who take advantage of the general working climate (considering it being ok to flame someone gullible merciless).

I don't think you will find much of the same problem and reaction from volunteers and receiver of their charity work in other fields, like medicine and nursing for example.

It's a special "free software and free internet" situtation which came into being without much thought, foresight or informed consent of the participants. It just happened and the friendly volunteers from earlier days start to be the sober grown-ups, which haven't found a solution yet for an unsustainable situation.

What would happen, if all of the volunteers on the internet would quit offering their services ? What would be left of it ?



Two other possibly explainations. (4.60 / 5) (#20)
by Trepalium on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 09:54:05 PM EST

One is that e-mail is a very impersonal form of communication. Even the most carefully written message can sound hostile, depending on the reader's state of mind. Virtually no other communication medium (except maybe telegraph, when it was common) has that problem. Even with hand-written letters, you can often get an impression of the mood of the writer from the form of the letters on the page. Often times if you don't want to offend when sending e-mail, you have to take extra steps to try and be polite instead of merely functional.

Another possible explaination is that people often act very different in the online world than they do in the physical world. In the physical world, there can be immediate consequences to insulting someone, whereas in the online world, the worst someone can do is flame back at you. Usually this ends up meaning that many people place a little more foresight into their physical world actions. Few people would attack someone doing volunteer work in the physical world, regardless of how well or poorly they are doing the job. Just the fact they are trying is often enough. In the online world, however, things are different. People don't think twice before shooting their mouth off at people who are trying to keep something running that they love, and any attack can be taken personally.

[ Parent ]

Fully agree (5.00 / 2) (#21)
by mami on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 10:08:41 PM EST

Simply said - online communication is the most difficult, most damaging and least really satisfying "art" of communication, at least among people who don't know each other in the physical world.

That being said it's even more astounding, how much people get attached or addicted to it. Which just tells you "that life isn't a piece of cake" and "communication" the toughest part of it.



[ Parent ]
Moral imperative (4.00 / 5) (#11)
by weirdling on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 04:42:46 PM EST

I've seen a lot of volunteers, having been a 'volunteer' missionary working as a computer tech in a country that is hard pressed to tie its own shoes, so is in need of western-style materialism as fast as possible, and so, I think I can state with some authority that volunteers are largely very morally certain.
Let me explain: people who do things for free are doing things for which there exists a neutral need. Things done that nobody wanted done have a negative need and result in jail time and tort cases. Things done for monetary gain normally have a positive need, and the greater the gain, often the greater the need. However, if one does something for no pay at all, often the case is that the need is insufficient to encourage pay. And, yes, I'm aware this makes volunteers just above criminals...

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
Flawed analysis (5.00 / 2) (#31)
by dennis on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 04:44:30 PM EST

However, if one does something for no pay at all, often the case is that the need is insufficient to encourage pay.

This is only the case if everyone has equal access to resources. Volunteers tend to focus their efforts on people with real needs, who lack resources to pay for them. It's insufficient need once removed: Nobody needs whatever A has to sell, so A can't pay for what A needs. Fortunately, sometimes there's a B who's nice enough to help out.

I can see where you would get your viewpoint, if your only experience with volunteerism is IT work for third-worlders. Valuable though it may be, a recent article in a linux mag made clear what practical difficulties and unintended consequences you can face in such situations. But try what I used to do - reroofing houses for poor people. When both parents in a family have medical problems that prevent them from working, all their money goes to medical bills, and there's not enough left to pay a roofer even though they have to put fifteen pots and pans out every time it rains, there's little doubt you're serving a real need, pay or no pay.

[ Parent ]

Well, yeah, in SimEcon it works that way (4.00 / 1) (#38)
by error 404 on Mon Jul 09, 2001 at 04:56:37 PM EST

But here in the real world, there are economic inefficiences that result in needs that are not reflected in cash flows. Those are often filled in by volunteers.

There are also other economies than the usual cash economy, and those economies subsist on what looks to the cash economy like volunteerism. Among those economies are social networks, the free software movement, and non-prostitution sex.

Volunteers that bridge gaps in the economy by doing things like fixing roofs for the poor deserve a great deal of respect. Those who facilitate non-cash economies by doing things like maintaining mailing lists deserve some respect as well, but not of the same type.


..................................
Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

[ Parent ]

There's a reason this happens. (3.80 / 5) (#14)
by gblues on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 06:25:33 PM EST

Part of my job is responding to technical support e-mails regarding certain model printers. Without fail, the majority of the e-mails are similar to the following:

"Hi, I installed <printer> but it doesn't print. I bought this printer because it was made by <vendor> and I'm disappointed that it doesn't work like it is supposed to. If I cannot get it working, I will have to get a refund and consider not buying <vendor> products in the future."
Now, this user might have 20 other printer drivers installed and have a tape backup, Zip drive, and scanner all connnected to his parallel port. Or, they may have tried installing the printer with "Add Printer" instead of the printer installation program. I don't know, and they haven't given me any information to work with, other than "I tried to install it and it doesn't print."

The rest of it is whining. Now, I get paid to respond to these messages so I politely request more information and give some basic troubleshooting steps. The "volunteer affliction" essentially boils down to: "I don't get paid enough to listen to you whine. Go away."

Nathan


... although in retrospect, having sex to the news was probably doomed to fail from the get-go. --squinky
What if the 'volunteer' is paying ... (4.50 / 4) (#15)
by Zapata on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 07:43:45 PM EST

... to provide the service?

My business partner and I are the admins of an Unreal Tournament server. The money we paid for the server and the monthly expense for the DSL line are not insignificant. There is some business use involved, but 99% of the utilization is for the game server. We don't expect to be paid for what we do. We believe that we make a valuable contribution to the UT community. I think that makes us volunteers.

If you don't like the way we run the server and you tell us so, and then we tell you to get f**cked, are we suffering from "volunteer affliction?"

Or does the fact that we pay to provide the service somehow negate the whole VA thing?

If so, how?

"If you ain't got a camel, you ain't Shiite."


Re: What if 'volunteer' is paying... (2.00 / 4) (#25)
by pongo on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 02:01:12 AM EST

If you don't like the way we run the server and you tell us so, and then we tell you to get f**cked, are we suffering from "volunteer affliction?"

I like to categorize volunteers into two distinct categories: Volunteers who set out to benefit others, and volunteers who set out to benefit themselves. There is definitely some overlap between the two groups, a continuum if you will.

In the case paraphrased above, I would venture to guess that this volunteer belongs to the "benefit myself" group. I've not done a scientific study as to the prevalence of this type of volunteer, but I would not be hard-pressed to come up with any number of examples in which volunteers overtly express their unwillingness to entertain any idea of constructive input from the audience they serve. It's as if their time, volunteered as it might be, is much too valuable to be taken up by audience requests.

At the other end of the spectrum you have volunteers who give freely of themselves, often to their own detriment. These individuals find themselves so totally engrossed in the demands of their audience that they simply become puppets of the audience, with very little time to improve upon the task at hand. I would be very hard-pressed to come up with such an example in the open-source world.

I'm not passing judgement on either group: There are pros and cons for each. I would venture to say those who look out only for themselves would tend to provide their audience more in the way of innovation than those who cater to their audience. OTOH, providing innovation in lieu of openness to criticism may lead to innovation that nobody really wants or needs.

[ Parent ]

The Agreement (4.00 / 2) (#26)
by dave920 on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 03:05:53 AM EST

I believe the bigger picture in all of this is the agreement between the volunteer and the person receiving the services free of charge.

If the volunteer offers someone a service (in this case, a subscription to an email list) and agrees to perform aptly and fulfill his/her duties as a volunteer, then I believe he/she should be held to that. However, if the case is more along the lines of "I'll help you out, but I'm not offering any promises," then I do not believe the volunteer is responsible for any problems that occur.

In the situation mentioned in the article, I am unsure as to what the list admin promised its subscribers. I run several email lists, and to all of my subscribers I promise to respect their privacy, etc .. and I feel that I am morally obligated to fulfill that promise, even if my subscribers are not paying me for my services. I made an agreement with them, and while there may not be any tangible consideration rewarded to me, I still hold a responsibility to do as I said I would.

But if I told my list subscribers that they are joining an unmoderated list that I am not going to really look after, then they should not expect me to take care of all the problems with it, as they were aware from the beginning that I would not be giving much attention to the list.

No favors (3.00 / 2) (#27)
by epcraig on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 05:06:32 AM EST

The screwup in this case was not in subscribing a user to the wrong list, it was in subscribing any users to any lists without the users' individual specific requests.
It's not a migration, it's a new list, even if the archives are merged. Subscription methods, terms of use, moderation, and other changes may result from such a change.
The last note on the old list should have been "This list is ending. The replacement is at this_new_.ISP, and here are instructions for subscribing...".
The listowner, whether or not a volunteer, exceeded a listowner's responsibility to the subscribers.
There is no EugeneFreeNet.org, there is an efn.org
Demand a refund! (4.33 / 6) (#29)
by Kellnerin on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 08:19:40 AM EST

Unless, of course, this is a free mailing list provided by someone who expects nothing in return for running a service at the cost of his own resources (time, at the very least, if not money or other capital).

I will concede that the list maintainer in your story had a bad attitude, but only inasfar as both the maintainer and subscriber were almost completely unproductive in this case. What seems reasonable to me is that if you are benefiting from a volunteer operation, the least you can do is give something back in return -- in an open source project, it could take the form of patches, bug reports, or a simple thank-you and positive feedback. Or it could be taking a simple action (such as unsubscribing yourself from a list) so that the maintainer can use his time for other things that presumably you are more interested in, such as the next release of the product.

Of course in this case the maintainer did nothing to facilitate this (such as sending out a general apology to those who may have been erroneously subscribed, asking the users who do not wish to continue to receive this mail to please go through the steps to unsubscribe themselves -- no mailing list I've ever seen lacks a mechanism for subscribers to take themselves off the list). But that doesn't mean you are helping things in any way by digging in your heels and demanding a remedy. You get better service with honey than with vinegar, so I've been told.

One of the favorite defenses thrown up by the those with volunteer affliction is the "until you've walked in my shoes" defense. Of course, it's almost always the case that those volunteers who bring up this defense know absolutely nothing about you, yet feel confident enough to throw this in your face, as if your own personal time spent following an issue isn't worth nearly as much as one who publicly brands themselves a "volunteer."

Turning this on its head, I will presume you know nothing about this list maintainer's position, whether he may be doing this in between working two jobs and raising a gaggle of kids, or whether he is a starving student hosting his project on Sourceforge and trying to learn how to be a programmer and an admin at the same time. You seem to imply that your time spent following their project is worth more than their time maintaining a project for you to follow. And I for one feel fairly confident in weighing the 30 seconds of effort on your part to quietly unsubscribe to the list against the time it took to exchange flames with the maintainer, thereby wasting both your time, added to the time it takes to write a 700 word flame on a website. (Hint: One actually achieves the desired effect with less effort!)

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--

Refund! (none / 0) (#43)
by phliar on Thu Jul 12, 2001 at 07:46:12 PM EST

Unless, of course, this is a free mailing list provided by someone who expects nothing in return for running a service at the cost of his own resources (time, at the very least, if not money or other capital).
I feel that being a volunteer involves expenses on your part with no hope of any return - gratitude, tax breaks etc.

I run an email list on my server. I pay ISP fees and DSL charges and hardware. I get abuse too, from users who just didn't read the instructions. It's all part of the deal. And if I ever felt that I could no longer afford the time to do a good job, I would hand the job over the someone else. The users of the list should not have to put up with incompetence.

Now it so happens that I do get a lot of gratitude, encouragement etc., and the list has a real community now and we get together in "meatspace" and some of us have become close friends. I'd probably slack off at work before I slacked off on the list!

Turning this on its head, I will presume you know nothing about this list maintainer's position, whether he may be doing this in between working two jobs and raising a gaggle of kids, or whether he is a starving student hosting his project on Sourceforge and trying to learn how to be a programmer and an admin at the same time.
Frankly, I believe that if you're not qualified (whether on tech skills or in how much time you can put into it) you shouldn't do it. There are other non-critical things that could probably use some help. For example, I recruited some people to handle bounces - if an address starts bouncing, they can disable it. At the same time, if they go through a busy period, others will handle it. If all of them slack off, it is my responsibility.


Faster, faster, until the thrill of...
[ Parent ]

Am I missing something? (2.33 / 3) (#30)
by speek on Sat Jul 07, 2001 at 02:33:32 PM EST

You could've fixed the problem in far less time than it took to write this whine.

I know, I know - I'm "missing the point" of your "in principle...".

 

Then again, maybe I'm not missing anything.

--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees

A similar thing happened to me once... (none / 0) (#42)
by anansi on Thu Jul 12, 2001 at 07:21:13 PM EST

I sent an e-mail requesting help, listing the things I had tried. The response was a personally written e-mail asking if I'd tried... (everything I had already listed).

At that point, I was more upset that this volunteer was only reading the parts of my email that caught his eye, than that the feature didn't work. When I recognized this, I stopped using the service. End of problem.(for me)

I agree, though, that it remains a problem for them: I had tried to volunteer with this group before, and couldn't handle the corperate culture. People take their work habits with them into volunteer situations, usually with results that foster burnout.

Don't call it Fascism. Use Musollini's term: "Corporatism"

The Volunteer Affliction | 43 comments (38 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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