Facebook’s Open Source Community Is Reckoning With Toxicity and Harassment

Developers of Facebook's ReactJS framework, which powers much of the web, have a bro culture that isn't welcoming to traditionally underrepresented groups.
August 30, 2019, 3:39pm
Image:  Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last week’s React Rally was set to be a highlight of the year for developers who use ReactJS, an open-source front-end framework developed by Facebook that powers much of the web (including Vice.com). But while the conference was going on, a broader conversation about the React community’s toxic and abusive behavior toward women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups in tech was playing out.


Like other open-source communities, ReactJS is now reckoning with how it treats traditionally underrepresented groups in tech. The flashpoint, in this case, were two separate conversations that converged into what’s now being called #Reactgate. One conversation was spurred by a series of tweets by high-profile members of the community, and the other by a talk about how the community must support women, people of color, and gender nonbinary people.

Last week, Heydon Pickering, a designer with a relatively large online following, sent a tweet comparing React to Vue, another framework, insinuating that React developers were into weightlifting, guns, and Donald Trump.

Quickly, Dan Abramov, a developer at Facebook, responded by defending the framework’s user base. Ken Wheeler, a developer who often gives speeches on the React conference circuit tweeted: “Imagine the kind of thought process that paints strength training as a bad thing and then projects a bunch of other unrelated shit onto it, while tying all of this to the use of a specific JavaScript view library,” he wrote, with a crying-laughing emoji for emphasis.

From there, a wider debate happened. Wheeler was already a relatively well-known figure among a certain cohort of coders. Wheeler caused controversy last year when he flashed the “OK” hand symbol, which had become associated online with white supremacy, at the 2018 React Rally as part of his presentation, while staging a large-scale performance of the “circle game.” The conversation about the ReactJS community, and Wheeler’s talk, resurfaced again this week.

Wheeler, for his part, has vehemently denied any accusations that he willingly and knowingly invoked a white power symbol. “So here I am, America enthusiast, jacked up type dude with a shaved head, and I can see how you could get the wrong idea here. But I assure you. At the time, I thought we were just having fun with a game that we played our entire lives, not doing some kind of dogwhistle,” he tweeted as part of a longer thread.


“I had never heard of this being an alt right thing,” he said via Twitter DM, “And I’m sorry if it was.”

But even before Pickering’s tweet, some in the front-end development community had already experienced online harassment and abuse. Earlier on the week of August 19, at the systems design-focused Clarity Conf, designer and art director Tatiana Mac gave a talk about the ways in which systems of oppression can replicate in systems design paradigms. After images of her presentation were made public, some Twitter users, including self-proclaimed “React bros,” began questioning the presentation’s relevance to tech: “Most definitely wasn't a tech conference. I don't see anything about React of [sic] WASM (WebAssembly) on the screen. Looks to be some kind of SJW conference,” one tweet read.

It didn’t take long for the two React-centric debates to converge. Critiques and defenses of Mac’s speech were bandied back and forth on Twitter and Reddit, and she started receiving a torrent of vitriol. Not long after that, both Wheeler and Facebook’s Abramov deactivated their Twitter accounts. Wheeler, in his messages with Motherboard, claims that he deactivated his account “both to deplatform [right wing trolls], and to take a breather.” When he returned to Twitter shortly thereafter, he issued an apology, both for his behavior and for any hatred on behalf of his followers that he might have directed towards Mac. Abramov, too, rejoined Twitter: “Hateful rhetoric has no place in the React community,” he tweeted.

"I receive (and continue to receive) hundreds of messages from people who want me to stop talking about this ‘social justice warrior shit’ and to remove the human side of tech"

But the rhetoric has taken a toll and has opened up a much-needed conversation in the community. Mac said she is stepping away from tech after fulfilling upcoming speaking obligations through 2020: “Your actions/inactions have spoken. Enjoy an industry without me,” she tweeted.

Mac, in DMs with Motherboard, said that the React developers she's worked with directly have been "absolutely lovely to work with," but that the broader community has often erased the contributions of women and people of color: "we're constantly thinking of the face of React developers, which is white dudes," she said.


Mac outlined why she believes the React ecosystem has a tendency to attract an abrasive, bro-heavy culture, one that eventually forced her exit from the community: “I receive (and continue to receive) hundreds of messages from people who want me to stop talking about this ‘social justice warrior shit’ and to remove the human side of tech,” she wrote. “The 'move fast and break things' mentality [of Facebook] has trickled down to React, where they built this framework that gained popularity very quickly and they never went back to build some key foundational elements (like a specific code of conduct) to systemically address things like abuse.”

Mac explained that system design communities, like those who work on the Sass framework, have been able to create less abusive communities by, in part, putting non-white, non-male leaders at their center. “Jina [Anne, Sass core team designer], for example, manages the Design Systems slack,” Mac wrote. “She does an extraordinary job monitoring and enforcing the code of conduct fastidiously.”

Mac said the community should focus on the impact of toxic behavior (including Wheeler’s hand gesture last year), not necessarily the intent. “The impact is that that hand gesture causes irreparable harm to communities of colour especially, who must use that as an identification for white supremacists,” she wrote. “Using it, regardless of intent (knowingly or unknowingly using it as a white supremacist symbol) causes immense fright within me—THAT is the impact (intentional or unintentional).” She is taking a step back from tech, she said, because “the abuse is unsustainable right now.”

Mac said the React core team that develops the language should “take crafting a code of conduct seriously, and enforce it diligently. The work is in the enforcement.”

Before Friday, React’s Code of Conduct redirected to an old version of the Facebook Code of Conduct, which was vague—“Be considerate,” “Be respectful”—and was relatively hard to find on the main React site. On Thursday night, Facebook engineers updated the Facebook Code of Conduct to reflect the Contributor Covenant, a set of guidelines for open source contributions created by technologist Coraline Ada Ehmke, aimed at protecting and promoting an inclusive environment).

When reached for comment, Abramov directed Motherboard to Alexandru Voica, a Communications Manager for the Engineering team at Facebook. Voica outlined three-pronged strategy React will be putting in place to address issues within the community: a new code of conduct, shaped by the Contributor Covenant, a reporting structure for abuses within the community, whether they occur online or at meetups, and “specific activities aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion within the React communities.”

But Mac said the damage has been done: “It feels to hurtful to give—and to love upon—to an industry that is showing me so much hate,” Mac said.