#Shitoberfest: How free T-shirts ruined #Hacktoberfest2020

[ reflection  ]

A cautionary tale on how incentivising pull requests with free T-shirts indirectly led to a ruined experience for open-source contributors

About Hacktoberfest

Hacktoberfest is an annual event organized by DigitalOcean that celebrates open-source contributions. Occuring every October, the goal of Hacktoberfest is to encourage developers (of all backgrounds and skill level) and companies to make positive contributions to the open-source community.

To encourage developers to make more open-source contributions, the first 70,000 participants who successfully makes 4 pull requests (PRs) between 1 - 31 October in any time zone to any public repository on GitHub are eligible to receive a prize in the form of a limited-edition T-shirt. Yes, no limits.

Alternatively, participants can choose to plant a tree instead of getting a free T-shirt in year 2020 - as a show of support for #sustainability.

All these sound like an initiative with good intentions on paper - incentivise developers to contribute to open-source projects. Unfortunately, the organizers underestimated the extent of what people are willing to do for the sake of getting free T-shirts (or freebies in general).

How low-quality PRs turned #Hacktoberfest2020 into #Shitoberfest

On October 1st after work, I was just minding my business scrolling Twitter and searching GitHub for interesting #hacktoberfest issues to work on - and then I saw this tweet from a hilariously-named Twitter account called @shitoberfest that seems to be dedicated towards curating spam PRs.

“What on earth is happening?” I wondered while looking through the tweets in the account and realizing that the PRs seemed to follow similar patterns - with “Awesome Project” and other nonsensical edits to READMEs.

Next, I saw this tweet by Gael Varoquaux (@GaelVaroquaux) who is a co-founder of the scikit-learn project. And it looks like the spam PR situation is MASSIVE.

I highly recommend checking out @shitoberfest for a good laugh at some of the spam PRs. It’s so bad that it’s hilarious to the casual observers who don’t care too much about free T-shirts.

It’s not so funny for open-source maintainers though - they had to do extra work cleaning up spam PRs and tagging them as “invalid” or “spam” so that those spam PRs do not count towards the Hacktoberfest tally.

According to DigitalOcean, “at least 4% of pull requests from Hacktoberfest participants have been marked ‘invalid’ or ‘spam.’” as of 2pm PST on October 1st.


What caused #Shitoberfest? It wasn’t that massive a problem last year even though the problem of “spam PRs” have always been there, so it could not have been caused solely by the incentive of getting a free T-shirt.

This excellent narrative post by Joel Thoms explains in detail what caused the #Shitoberfest drama (thanks Eugene Yan (@eugeneyan) for sharing that gem!): a YouTuber called CodeWithHenry who demonstrated how easy it is to make a Pull Request to a repo in order to win free stuff - by creating a low-quality PR.

This led to his viewers following exactly what he did, leading to this #Shitoberfest.

Without alluding to any particular nationality/race/ethnicity, he was speaking a non-English language in that demonstration video. That video has since been removed.

Psychology and Aftermath

The next question is: What is the psychology behind those people who created spam PRs just for the sake of getting a free T-shirt?

There are two key factors that might have influenced such behaviour:

  1. The Psychology of Free - in this case, the psychology of trying to get free stuff with as low an effort or opportunity cost as possible.
  2. The Psychology of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) - in this case, the fear of missing out on a “limited edition” T-shirt that spells “bragging rights” after watching a YouTuber getting one from making PRs.

It’s human nature to love free stuff, especially if there’s a way to get them without spending too much effort and time - it’s like getting an undeserved gift. It’s also human nature to be subject to peer pressure and FOMO when seeing others getting stuff that we wish we had but do not have.

However, it’s not fair to exploit human nature in a way that causes masses of people to generate spam that leads to wastage of other people’s limited resources.

It is also not fair to other developers who genuinely want to learn through contributing to open-source projects that they care about, be it their own projects or projects by other developers.

The problem is that:

  1. DigitalOcean created the limited T-shirt incentive to attract more people to contribute to any public GitHub repositories as part of Hacktoberfest.
  2. CodeWithHarry wanted to share with his audience about ways to get free stuff through making PRs for Hacktoberfest, and demonstrated with a low-quality PR for convenience and speed - without explicitly mentioning in the video that the audience should not follow exactly what he did as it is a low-quality PR just for demonstration.
  3. Some of those spammers might probably be new to open source and/or Hacktoberfest, do not know how to contribute meaningfully, but really want that free Hacktoberfest T-shirt anyway.

And these cumulated in a ruined Hacktoberfest experience for maintainers and contributors alike. Maintainers have to spend time cleaning up spam pull requests and labelling them as invalid or spam, and there are incidents of GitHub users fighting over up-for-grabs issues to work on for the pull request to count towards a T-shirt.

Change of Hacktoberfest Rules

On October 3rd, DigitalOcean announced changes in rules for Hacktoberfest:

In summary, PRs count towards the Hacktoberfest tally only if they are:

  1. Submitted in a repo with hacktoberfest topic (which means maintainers have to opt in by adding hacktoberfest topic to their repos; otherwise the PRs don’t count)
  2. Submitted during the month of October
  3. Merged OR labelled as hacktoberfest-accepted by a maintainer 9within 14 days) OR has been approved

These updated rules provide some form of relief for maintainers who had their projects being subjected to DDoS-like attacks on their pull request boards and emails. However, these rules might end up hurting newer contributors who genuinely want to contribute to open source and learn from the experience.

Before the change in rules, it is already a challenge for aspiring open-source contributors to look for “beginner-friendly” issues that they are comfortable with working on.

With the change in rules limiting counted PRs to repos with hacktoberfest topic, I am concerned that there might be tougher competition for a smaller pool of eligible “beginner-friendly” issues.

Hacktoberfest is supposed to be a celebratory event for the open-source community, when project maintainers create beginner-friendly issues and provide informal mentorship to encourage more developers to join their projects as a first-time contributor. As an open-source contributor who genuinely wants to give back to the projects that I use and care about, Hacktoberfest is the time of the year when there are more “good first time” issues available for me to get started with contributing to new and existing projects.

My wish for Hacktoberfest 2020 is that more maintainers that care about diversity in their open-source projects would opt in to Hacktoberfest by adding hacktoberfest topic to their repos, to encourage more developers from diverse backgrounds to start making their first meaningful pull request. It can be pretty intimidating to get started with contributing to open source for the first time, and even more so for developers from underrepresented communities who don’t see enough of people like them actively participating in open-source projects within the ecosystem.

It’s saddening that the actions of a group of bad actors have ruined the Hacktoberfest experience for the open-source community, and led to changes in rules that might keep even more people away from contributing due to the perceived higher bar of entry into the contributors community.

Update 4th October 2020

I wrote a tweet that lamented about possible heightened competition for “beginner-friendly” issues resulting from the rule changes for Hacktoberfest. Eugene Yan saw my tweet and replied with ML-related repos that he has opened for Hacktoberfest:

I’ll be making a pull request to contribute to his wonderful initiatives in ML, and I encourage fellow developers in the data/ML community to chip in by contributing a meaningful pull request (or two) to his repos.

Some TODOs that Eugene would appreciate your help with:

  1. applied-ml - Add an applied ML use-case in production (with links/papers/codes)
  2. python-collab-template - Update requirements.txt to use poetry

Update 5th October 2020

I’ve come across several casual accounts of fellow Southeast Asians choosing to sit out of Hacktoberfest this year due to #shitoberfest, and it’s really sad because Hacktoberfest is supposed to be one of the major platforms for the open-source community to bring more diversity into their pool of contributors.

Even though ASEAN tech ecosystem is growing at an accelerated pace, Southeast Asians are still severely underrepresented in tech conferences and open source communities. It would be a loss for the global tech community if their developers choose to sit out of the conversation happening in open source.

If there’s anyone else who would like to help underrepresented folks in the tech community (especially Southeast Asians and gender minorities) to get onboard with contributing meaningfully to the open source ecosystem through Hacktoberfest, you could:

  1. (For maintainers) Add hacktoberfest topic to your repo.
  2. Reach out via Twitter by including a link to the Hacktoberfest-eligible repo.
  3. In your tweet, let us know what are the beginner-friendly issues needing help that would be relatively low-effort but high-impact.

Bonus points if your projects are in the field of data/ML - competition to contribute to beginner-friendly issues is even tougher for data/ML projects due to their popularity!

Let’s make #hacktoberfest less of a #shitoberfest this month!

Written on October 3, 2020