The case with Hacktoberfest

Every year, the transition from September to October seems to trigger many people in my circle to talk about these 2 things:

  1. Waking up Billie Joe Armstrong
  2. Talking about Hacktoberfest

Putting aside the fact that Wake me up when September ends was actually inspired by a mournful event from Billie Joe’s life, the hacktoberfest, though, supposed to be a moment of celebration for the open source community. Although things seem to go wrong now.

For those of you who don’t know, Hacktoberfest is an annual event, organized by Digital Ocean to encourage people to contribute to open source projects by submitting Pull Requests to any public repositories in Github. And as a reward, the first 70000 participants will be able to get a t-shirt from Digital Ocean.

How things go wrong

It didn’t take long for the open source maintainers to start complaining about the surge of low quality Pull Requests associated with Hacktoberfest. They braced themselves even before October begin.

This is only one of the many tweets that came up in my timeline recently:

Ugh, oh no, October is starting. Prepare for a month of spam pull requests… whatwg/html has already been hit hard, at 5 in the last 3 hours. @hacktoberfest, please please stop this annual tradition of wasting maintainers’ time. You are a net negative for the world. - @domenic

Someone finally discovers who started this year’s drama in the first place. It turned out that a Youtuber with 672K followers has demonstrated how easy it is to send Pull Requests to get a t-shirt from Hacktoberfest. I don’t want to say that the Youtuber is the only one to blame, but it obviously contributes to the already flawed system we have right now.

Now, of course, there’s no such a perfect system anywhere in the world. But specifically talking about open source contribution, I think we’re all in agreement that we need more people to contribute to open source projects. However, unlike the common economic institution that mainly driven my monetary incentives, the bargain in the open source world is more complex than you can imagine.

This whole situation reminded me of a great talk from Jana Gallus, who is an assistant professor at UCLA about motivation and incentives. Jana mentioned in her talk that there are a few challenges when it comes to motivate people to contribute to open source project.

First, is that we’re limited in budget. And even when we might have the monetary power to incentivize people to contribute, it’s another challenge to describe the task from an already-complex project to a new person. And lastly, even when we solved those 2 challenges, we might as well cause the existing contributors to feel what Jana called “motivation crowding out”, which is a situation where contributors might start to lose their interest once we start tying incentives to every piece of task in our project.

In Hactoberfest case, I feel like we ended up in a similar situation that Jana has mentioned in her talk:

“You end up in a world of muddy-tasking where people just focus on whatever is being incentivized. So effectively, you get what you paid for, just don’t really pay for what you really need.”

My own story

As a community manager for an online community, I’ve been on a similar situation in the past where suddenly our support forum is flooded with many replies from new contributors who share false information/spammy-like replies.

It didn’t take long for me to noticed from their profiles that they came from the same university. As it turn out, a university lecturer who is already part of our community suggest his students to join and contribute to our online community. Being very young with limited knowledge of the product, those innocent students just trying to follow their professor’s advise and put wathever they found on the internet and copy paste it to our forum as a reply.

I quickly realize that they actually have good intention. They just don’t know the right approach. So I gather those new contributors in an online call to train them how to contribute in the rigth way. Some are still contributing until now. Although most of them of course, have mostly gone.

What to do now?

It’s important to remember that activity like Hacktoberfest is aimed for good intention. Let’s strive to do our best to help people who really wanted to start contributing to open source. Here’s what I would suggest for those of you who want to participate in Hacktoberfest whether as an organizer or as an individual participant:

As an event organizer

As an organizer, you’re responsible to guide your participants on the right track. It’s important to define your goal for organizing an event. Is it to help your participants understand the git system or you want to get more contributors on your own open source project? Determining your goal will also help to set expectation for your audience. You might want to aim for mediocre-level participants if your goal is to improve your open source project. Or you can welcome everyone from any level if your goal is to teach them the git system.

You can also come up with a list of repositories that welcome Hacktoberfest contributors instead of letting your participants hunting on their own. Not all open source maintainers are fond of this activity so make sure you direct your participants to the right funnel.

Repository like this(which is a repo of public wifi information in Bali) would be an easy pick if your goal is to give your participants an idea of the git system or how the whole pull request thing works. Better yet, if you can come up with a list of projects and tasks that your participants need to accomplish during your event.

The point is, be prepared!

As a participant

Try to be more mindful and ask yourself what do you want to get out of this contribution? Do you only want to get t-shirt or do you want to get involved in the open source community?

I completly understand that t-shirt is an important form of recognition for any kind of community/activism. Almost everyone loves freebies. Especially when that freebies represent that they’ve done something cool.

I’m not saying that it’s not right to participante to Hacktoberfest only for the t-shirt. Your intention is not mine to control.

However, I do want to remind everyone that more than the tangible reward like t-shirt, you’ll get more benefits from being an ally in the open source community.

In our previous episode of Kartini Teknologi, our guest talked about how valuable her experience was when she participated in the application process for the Outreachy program. She told us that she got her first code-review and learn alot about good code practices when she contributed to an open source project as part of the requirements of the application process.

Or, you might get a more rewarding feeling like this person who managed to sneak in some Indomie phrases in a well-known open source project documentation.

You see, contributing to open source can be a source of valuable experience and can open up a lot of opportunities for you if you’re doing it right. (:


For Indonesian readers, read the following resources on how to start contributing to open source that my podcast co-host, Galuh, has put together would be a good starting point. You can check her writing series here, here, and here.

And if you’re interested in getting mentorship, I highly recommend reaching out to an awesome fellow Srushtika, who’s currently offering mentorship for beginner web devs. Srushtika is a Developer Advocate at Ably Realtime and for me personally, an inspiring fellow on the Mozilla Reps and (used to be) Mozilla Tech Speakers program.

Photo credit: Hacktoberfest 2019 event in Bali