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On Popularity

Overhearing two developers lamenting someone’s choice of library it seemed that after bit of googling they deemed the library wasn't very good. It didn't have enough stars on GitHub.

Popularity is an awful metric to judge anything on and the data behind thumbs or stars or hearts is so skewed to be meaningless too.

Birth of a Star

Having released a few inconsequential open source projects on GitHub personally I noticed that stars arrived in for my projects shortly after the project was announced or when it got linked to by places like Twitter or Reddit. There was no way people actually dropped everything they where doing, used my code and immediately found benefit. So this begs the question - what does a "star" mean?

  1. "Hey thanks this looks great and I may use it soon" - LIKELY
  2. "I must remember to look at this when I have more time" - LIKELY
  3. "Hey look at me I may or may not have used this popular library, accept me" - POSSIBLY
  4. "What does this button actually do?" - I GUESS SO
  5. "After 6, long, months I've just shipped a project using this library and it helped me avoid hours of pain" - UNLIKELY

The actions of "starring" means different things to different people but given the fact that they shoot up rapidly after the repo gets featured on an influential site suggests that there are certainly a lot of people using it as an acknowledgement that the project looks interesting. Now that’s not to say that early star adopters never use the project - many popular projects clearly have a large active user base but it's not because of the number of stars they have.

Death of a Star

So you visit a new project on GitHub, recommended to you by someone on TwitteRedditNews. You read the and think - "cool". You hit the little star and download the project. You start tinkering with it, maybe write a blog post about it. Perhaps even use it in a small side project. Then you get distracted by life. You move on to other projects using different technologies and that, once cool, library is forgotten.

How many people actually actively go back and prune their "stars"? I'm willing to bet not many. Why bother, right? Staring is just a meaningless gesture yet people still insist on judging a project based on how many people performed these meaningless actions.

Heck I imagine even if you got badly burnt by a particular project after a few months of using it you'd probably still not remember to go back and unstar it. I presume it would take a public outcry and a good old internet pile-on to make a significant dent in a projects "star" popularity

Starry Starry Night

There are many ways to determine the viability of a project but "stars" isn't one of them. Sure you could use it to determine if one project is more popular than the other but what does that actually tell you? Without other (actually useful) data it means very little. Outside of comparing similar projects it means even less - some genuinely useful projects have little to no stars because they don't do "popular" things, just; you know, stuff that can really make a difference.

Stop look and listen. Oh and think as well. Do lots of that.

  • Popularity is not a indicator of quality (though quality may build popularity).
  • Popularity is not an indicator that you'll get meaningful support or documentation (though good support and documentation may build popularity)
  • Not all good things are necessarily popular/shiny (accessibility, security etc. - all those important things that just aren't all that fun but absolutely essential)
  • Indicators for popularity don't necessarily mean the subject is still popular
  • Relative popularity could be down to better marketing, shouting louder or simply luck.

Stars, hearts, thumbs up, pluses, smiles, artisanal breadsticks or whatever else we use to suggest the presence of the magical unicorn we call brand engagement - ignore them. Make informed decisions with real data specific to your needs.

Is it more work?


All worthwhile things are. Thats why they are worthwhile.

Published in Craftsmanship on November 27, 2015