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Receiving cold-emails from GitHub stars

I’ve noticed a new trend where I receive cold-emails from maintainers after starring a repository on GitHub. All of the emails are explicit about it, following a pattern like this:

Hey Sean,

I hope you don’t mind I got your email when looking at your GitHub profile.

I noticed that you starred the PROJECT_NAME repo…

I like that GitHub stars are public; I’ve benefited a lot from being able to browse other users’ stars. And if someone notices that I starred their repo and wants to reach out, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. But the emails I’ve received are marketing from maintainers of huge projects, and that feels fundamentally different.

GitHub stars are a mutually beneficial system. Individuals have a way to keep track of noteworthy projects and browser other lists for inspiration. Project maintainers get an indicator of popularity. And GitHub drives engagement on their platform. It’s a win-win-win.

The problem arises when one of the parties, the maintainers, try to gain an additional benefit at the expense of another, the individuals. At some level, it’s reasonable for maintainers to monitor their stargazers and reach out personally to notable users. But when projects with thousands of stars are using an automated system to watch and feed user details into a CRM, we’ve crossed a line. The “social contract” has been broken.

I don’t blame GitHub for this breech. I like that they provide an API with useful data. I blame the SaaS companies that are exploiting this system for profit, and the maintainers who subscribe to their service.

Open source is a mess, and funding projects a constant concern for many maintainers. I believe that the desire to engage with stargazers comes from a good place, either to build community or to market. But this is not the right way to do it.

A star is a bookmark; it’s not a commitment. I haven’t even tried most of the projects that I star. By making assumptions about stars, maintainers run the risk of alienating potential users of your project. I for one will think twice before using the library that triggered the email above. And no one benefits from that.

So to prevent these emails in the future, I need to choose between 1) avoid using GitHub stars, or 2) remove the public email address from my profile. Of those options, I choose the latter (anyone who is really interested in reaching me can find my email address elsewhere). It’s sad that I have to do it, but that is the tragedy of the commons.