Dark Matter

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Geoff Graham on

The “Dark Matter Developer” moniker has been floating around for several years. Scott Hanselman introduced the term to describe developers who do not have active online or social personas:

They don’t read a lot of blogs, they never write blogs, they don’t go to user groups, they don’t tweet or facebook, and you don’t often see them at large conferences. Where are these dark matter developers online?

To answer Scott’s rhetorical question, we know these developers are online somehow because they build things for the web and it’s kind of tough to build for the web without being on it in some capacity. The question is, to what degree does dark matter exist in front end development and, perhaps more importantly, does it even matter at all? (Pun intended.)

The Dark Matter Stereotype

Has the movie Hackers come to mind?

It doesn’t have to be that sort of stereotype. You likely know or work with a Dark Matter Developer. It’s the person on the team who clocks in and out right on time and might appear perfectly content punching the clock and staying rooted on their rung of the corporate ladder. It’s that friend you know who is crazy good at all-the-things but doesn’t ever show off.

Dark matter isn’t limited to development. I have a good handful of friends whom I consider to be excellent designers, illustrators and photographers, but you would never find them posting anything to Dribbble, Behance, or Instagram.

Dark matter seems to have a more punctuated meaning in the development world because it’s tough to believe that anyone working on the web would be adverse to participating in the communities there.

How Much Dark Matter Exists in the Front End Universe?

It’s tough to tell. The web is huge; we all know that. There are blogs, tweets, tumblelogs, and Reddit posts galore. The volume is enough to give the impression that everyone is engaged, active, and listening. More than 200,000 people follow CSS-Tricks on Twitter alone. That’s a lot of people! However, it’s certainly not everyone; there are front end developers who have not heard of CSS-Tricks at all, despite what they do for a living.

Scott’s article suggests Dark Matter Developers represent 99% of the developer population, where the other 1% accounts for all social activity. That’s an enticing illustration—and I’m certainly not qualified to check those numbers—but I have a feeling that’s more hyperbole than reality. I like to think it’s closer to 80/20.

Is Dark Matter a Bad Thing?

One of the most striking moments in Scott’s original piece is when he vents his internal frustration towards those who seem ambivalent toward interacting and sharing on the web:

Personally, as one of the loud-online-pushing-things-forward 1%, I might think I need to find these Dark Matter Developers and explain to them how they need to get online! Join the community! Get a blog, start changing stuff, mix it up! But, as my friend Brad Wilson points out, those dark matter 99% have a lot to teach us about GETTING STUFF DONE.

I get his point. The web was formed on the basis of openness, transparency, collaboration and, more than anything, a willingness to share. It’s a lot more Wikipedia than it is The Wall Street Journal.

And his point is well taken. In fact, the web is better when we share, collaborate, and interact. Think of how many people benefit from the open-source ethos of communities like WordPress and GitHub. We benefit individually when we share (in the form of esteem, job leads, credits, etc.), and others benefit by getting to use those contributions and build off of them. It’s an ecosystem where we all feed off each other, and it moves the web as a whole forward because the work and consumption feeds itself. Pretty cool!

But does dark matter hurt us? There’s a case that it does: an ecosystem not living up to its full potential. Things move forward slower when some of us are not as actively engaged as others.

It may hurt those who are the dark matter as well. What do you lose when you, for example, don’t blog your ideas, maintain a GitHub account, or connect with others on LinkedIn? Exposure. Growth. Job leads. New friends. New experiences.

Hiring may suffer as well. Recruiters who rely on social activity to scout talent. It is certainly easier to discover qualified candidates who are actively involved in communities like StackOverflow, GitHub, or CodePen. But, if those are the only sources being scoured, then there’s the chance of missing out on seriously awesome Dark Matter Developers who might come from other leads, like word of mouth.

Wrapping Up

Dark matter seems to be a force, like wind, that we feel rather than see.

I would be stoked to get feedback in the comments here from those who might identify with the “Dark Matter” label. Although that isn’t likely to happen, as by definition they aren’t reading this post. Or if they are, they wouldn’t be the type to comment.

Dark matter, in a grand global sense, may also be grown through any inaction. How many times have you meant to update that blog of yours but just haven’t done it? Or commit a small, but obvious fix to a GitHub repo? Or thanking someone publicly on Twitter for sharing what they learned? Dark matter grows.

I’ll leave you with this:

A hole would be something, no, it was Nothing! And it got bigger, and bigger…

Rock Biter on The Nothing