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The Prickly Developer Who Built a Self-Hosted Gem 5 min read

The Prickly Developer Who Built a Self-Hosted Gem

How the toxic culture at Tiny Tiny RSS tarnished its reputation in the self-hosted community

By Ethan Sholly
The Prickly Developer Who Built a Self-Hosted Gem Post image

It's hard to argue that all self-hosted content isn't a positive contribution to the community in some way, but interactions with the Tiny Tiny RSS creator and developer Andrew Dolgov – infamously known as fox in the software's community – may be the exception to this rule.

Tiny Tiny RSS is one of the more popular RSS feed readers/aggregators in the self-hosted space (although not as popular as we had initially suspected after noting the results of this week's poll, but more on that later) and is often recommended as a replacement for hosted services like Google Reader, Feedly, and Inoreader. The application offers the typical features expected from standard RSS aggregators along with a suite of plugins that extend functionality and other helpful features like extended sharing options and an API that can be leveraged by other applications. Given an initial release date of August 2005, its maturity has cemented it as one of the staples of self-hosted RSS alternatives.

Screenshot of Tiny Tiny RSS from the application's website

Despite this relevance, Dolgov and the staff that run the application's community forums have become infamous for rhetoric that has driven away users in droves. A quick search of popular self-hosted forums turns up numerous instances of users complaining about how they were treated for asking simple questions to troubleshoot their own installations of Tiny Tiny RSS. We even received a number of responses bringing it up in our RSS poll reddit thread this past week.

We reached out to the Tiny Tiny RSS team earlier this week to clear up any misunderstandings and provide a second point of view in this article. After not finding a private method of communication on their site, we made a public post on their forums asking the staff to reach out via e-mail to share their thoughts and experiences. As of the time of publishing, we haven't heard from anyone claiming to be affiliated with the application but received a number of responses from Tiny Tiny RSS users who had read our post and felt inclined to share their own experiences.

The complaints about the toxic culture stem from two primary concerns – a few stylistic choices Dolgov has made to represent himself and the application in the forums, and the interactions between Dolgov, forum moderators, and users seeking help.

Regarding the stylistic choices, users may have recognized Dolgov's avatar in the forum profile linked above as Pepe the Frog, an internet meme that eventually evolved into a hate symbol amongst white supremacists and other fascist groups.

Screenshot of Dolgov's profile on the Tiny Tiny RSS community forums

The forums have also become infamous for the inclusion of a subforum titled the "Gas Chamber" meant to house both retired threads and threads that were deemed the "worst" by the forum's staff as a way to visibly remove them from the forum's front page.

Screenshot of the Gas Chamber subforum at the time of publishing

While we were hoping to receive some clarification on these choices from the forum's staff before posting (Pepe is still often used for non-political memes – it's not necessarily an indicator of fascist sympathy), it's hard to believe there might not be intentional symbolism behind this messaging. From what we can infer, these choices are at the very least extremely tone-deaf for a software support forum, and at most traces of a hateful and ignorant agenda abusing the popularity of the software's support community.

The second category of complaints we received concerned interactions with the staff on the forums. As noted in the linked complaints above, users feel ridiculed and belittled for asking what the staff view as simple or "stupid" questions – and often end up suspended or banned for a lack of knowledge or effort.

Below are screenshots of some of the more egregious examples we were able to find. Note that some of the comments may contain explicit language.

Comment response from Dolgov
Comment response from a moderator
Comment response from Dolgov
Comment response from Dolgov
Poor Arch users...
Comment response from Dolgov
Comment response from Dolgov

We were able to locate the comments above after combing through only the past three or so years of Dolgov's posting history. It doesn't include any content from the application's archived forums, which an anonymous user speculated may have been shut down partially in an effort to improve public perception of the community's forums. (The archived forums are still publicly available and linked from the application's landing page for any curious readers.)

In defense of Dolgov and his staff, the simple questions from novice users that can often be answered by a quick reading of the project's documentation can be increasingly frustrating to address, especially amidst the other responsibilities covered by developers who are often providing this content for free and on their own time. Self-hosting isn't for the faint of heart and it isn't unfair to expect some level of competency or resourcefulness from users seeking to gain their own software independence.

But the rhetoric exhibited by the staff at Tiny Tiny RSS is disingenuous not only to the new self-hosters who often turn to RSS solutions as their initial foray into self-hosting, but to the application itself. As we did our research for this article, we encountered a number of users acknowledging the superior functionality of Tiny Tiny RSS relative to other self-hosted RSS alternatives, but many of them felt compelled not to use it as a result of the behavior above.

The current results of our latest poll indicate roughly ~18% of the community has Tiny Tiny RSS deployed within their infrastructure. It's not hard to imagine how much higher that percentage might be if the support staff adopted the same standards for interacting with users the rest of the self-hosted community has come to expect.