Respect in Community Discussion and Debate

Recently there was yet another storm in a teacup that distracted us from creating and sharing Ubuntu and our flavors with others. I am not going to dive into the details of this particular incident…it has been exhaustively documented elsewhere…but at the heart of this case was a concern around the conduct in which some folks engaged around something they disagreed with. This is not the first time we have seen disappointing conduct in a debate, and I wanted to share some thoughts on this too.

In every community I have worked in I have tried to build an environment in which all view points that challenge decisions or decision makers are welcome with the requirement that they are built on a platform of respectful discourse; this is the essence of our Code Of Conduct. Within the context of an Open Source community we also encourage this engagement around differences to be expressed as solutions with a focus on solving problems; this helps us to be productive and move the project forward. This is why we have such a strong emphasis on blueprints, specs, bugs, and other ways of expressing issues and exploring solutions.

Within the context of this most recent issue I saw three problems (problems I have seen present in other similar arguments too):

  1. Irrespective of the voracity or content of an opinion we must never forget to be respectful and polite in the way we express and engage with others, irrespective of whether you are a volunteer, Canonical employee, or otherwise. Respect must always be present in our discourse, irrespective of the content of our opinions; without it we become a barbaric people and lose the magic that brought this wonderful set of minds together in the first place. There is simply no excuse for rudeness, and inflammatory FUD that has no evidence to back it up other than presumed ill-intent serves nothing but to demotive folks and ratchet up the flames, as opposed to resolve the issue and make things better.
  2. Trust needs to be earned, but trust should always be built within the wider context of a set of contributions and conduct. Unfortunately some folks consider decisions they disagree with to be a basis for (a) entering into a paranoid debate about the “real reason” the individual or company made that decision (and typically not believing the rationale provided by said decision-maker) and (b) seemingly forgetting about all the other positive contributions that the person or company has contributed. I can assure you there is no nefarious scheme at place at Canonical; our goals are well known in the community. If I felt Canonical was fundamentally trying to demote and shut the community out, I wouldn’t work here; I have no interest in working for a company that doesn’t understand the value of community, and I am not worried about finding suitable employment elsewhere. I work at Canonical because I believe our goals with Ubuntu are just and the company’s commitment to our community is sincere.
  3. Ubuntu is not a consensus-based community. Consensus communities rarely work, and I am not aware of any Open Source project that bases their work on wider consensus in the community. It would be impossible and impractical to notify our community of every decision we make, let alone try to base a decision on a majority view, but we do try to ensure that major changes are communicated to our leaders first (this is something we have been driving improvements in recently). We always need to find the right balance between transparency and JFDI, and sometimes the balance isnt’t quite there, but that does not mean there is some kind of illuminati-ish scheme going on behind the scenes.

Ubuntu is a community filled with passionate people, and I love that we have folks who are critical of our direction and decisions. If everyone agreed with what we are doing, we would not always make the right decisions, and our diversity is what makes Ubuntu and our flavors such a great place to participate.

As I said at the beginning of this post, it is important that all viewpoints are welcome, but we have to get the tone and conduct of some of these debates under control. The sheer level of sensationalist and confrontational language that is often in place in these disagreements doesn’t serve anyone but hungry journalists looking for page hits.

Now, I am not suggesting here that anyone should change any of their viewpoints. If you vehemently disagree with an aspect of what we are doing in Ubuntu or at Canonical, that is fine and of course, welcome. What I am appealing to everyone though is to treat others like you wish to be treated, with respect and dignity, and lets keep the sensationalism out of our community and focus on what we do best…building a world-class Free Software platform and its rich ecosystem of flavors.

  • Grant Bowman – the golden rule never gets old.

  • Israel

    I agree. So many people have this raging battle about things they don’t like. This is GNU/Linux, not Apple. If you don’t like something, don’t be mean about it, be constructive. File a bug and work on a fix. Even with the Ubuntu website and documentation. If it is something you don’t like about the UI, like shopping features, turn them off. If you prefer a drop down menu, install one. We are not being forced into anything. That is the WHOLE idea behind GNU. And same goes with Ubuntu. I have always had pleasant interactions with members of Canonical and the Ubuntu community when I have something that I need fixed. Patience, kindness, not being boastful, not being rude, etc… are keys to getting a good response. As the article was basically saying ‘love your neighbour as yourself’

  • andrewsomething

    While I think the community link issue was a bit overblown, it does point to some real fault lines in the community. One of the core issues facing the Ubuntu community is that it has become so wide-ranging that it’s hard for individual members to feel a sense of ownership of it. The “Ubuntu community” is so many different things at this point. There are people working on the many different aspects of distro development. There are people people that are working more along the lines of a traditional “upstream” software development projects, and even there the different pieces often feel separate. Someone contributing to Unity and/or Compiz might have very little interaction with someone working on Ubuntu Touch Core-Apps or Upstart. There are advocates working on the LoCo level, and there are the people devoting time and effort in our various support forums such as AskUbuntu and the Ubuntu Forums. Obviously there is some overlap between these, but in many ways it is hard to bridge.

    A change in one aspect of Ubuntu often affects contributors in other aspects. All too often, the response to criticism is “Ubuntu isn’t a democracy; it is a do-ocracy.” Someone that donates all their free hours to say work on Juju Charms doesn’t necessarily have the time to follow every discussion about say the default web-browser on the desktop, despite the fact that it affects them. When a project that you’ve spent thousands of hours contributing to does something that you feel you had no say in, it’s understandable that you might feel left out or ignored.

    I certainly don’t have any easy answers as to how to resolve this, but it points to the fact that we need to be engaged in some deep thinking about these issues.

  • Stephen Michael Kellat

    Do we need to have a team reading of The Code of Conduct as I did a dry-run of in Burning Circle Episode 85 (see: for distribution?

  • Anonymous

    I think this is an interesting point, Andrew, thanks for sharing.

    Using your example, just because someone might spend hours contributing to Juju charms, that doesn’t mean they should necessarily expect to have influence on the decision-making surrounding the web browser decision. Likewise, the web browser folks shouldn’t expect much influence when it comes to Juju charms – in other words, reputation within a community the size of Ubuntu is in most cases localized…the meritocratic reputation is largely based upon what you have done, but that doesn’t mean your reputation is valid across all teams. This is an interesting consideration, and I wonder if this is playing a part in these cases.

    Irrespective, I think it all boils down to conduct. Continuing with your example, if the Juju charms contributor does have an opinion about the web browser, they should be able to share it directly under the premise the feedback is build on a platform of respectful discourse. Now, the decision makers on the web browser side may not find that feedback as useful as someone with strong reputation on the web browser team, but that is the nature of meritocracy.

  • Jef Spaleta

    Which version of the code of conduct? The version I signed? Or the newer one that I didn’t affirmatively sign? I would not so humbly suggest that an enforced reading of the new text would only cause additional problems, especially for veteran contributors who signed the original version and were never required to re-affirm the statements in the new document.

    You have to admit the new one reads a bit differently than the original one. And because there are different versions of the CoC that different people signed, the CoC is no longer a single concrete thing that everyone has agreed to. When I personally think of the CoC, and what I affirmatively agreed to.. it wasn’t what is on the page now… and thus you cannot hold me to it.

    You can hold me to CoC 1.1 or perhaps CoC 1.01. But the paragraphs in 2.0 about how decisions are done and about the immense focus on trust, without any associated language to carve out the need and responsibility for oversight to safeguard that trust. Nor sir, I did not affirmatively sign that document and I will not be bound by a covenant of behaviors I did not and would not sign.

  • Jef Spaleta

    But… if the website team is making changes which impact the Juju charms workflow or access to the Juju charms… there is an expectation that the web site team communicate ahead of time to the other teams they impact. So in in this hypothetical the Juju charm team has a valid expectation to be told about the decision before the change is made. And has an expectation to be given an opportunity to suggest a mitigation strategy back to the web team to lower the impact. This sort of communication is codified in CoC 2.0 in the considerateness section as a balance to bold action. The Juju team doesn’t have to demand a say in the decision, but they may by impacted by it and deserve the consideration of early decision communication, so they aren’t blind sided by the change.

    Backing away from the hypothetical and back towards the real event. There seems to have been a communication breakdown, along the lines of the “considerateness” mandate. So the questions I’m asking myself…does the web team have open logged meetings where action items are discussed? Are there minutes of those meetings posted somewhere? Is this one specific dust up a symptom of a larger problem with the web team using the wrong communication channels to reach the correct stakeholders on the correct timescales to discover impact before changes go live? Thinking larger beyond the web team, are intersection points between all teams reasonably defined enough to build in some team self-awareness into every team about cross-team impact decision points where “considerateness” protocols will be needed?

    What’s the friendly-fire “headsup” protocol to warn other people that an impacter change is inbound? I know what it is in softball, when a batting practice popfly is inbound onto an unsuspecting group of players warming up doing their own fielding practice and not focusing entirely on the batter. How can your project teams call an audible heads up and reliably get the other teams attention?

  • Alistair Munro

    Before I make my point, I’d like to state that I agree with the substantive majority of your position on this issue. In fact, this comment is more of a request to have something I don’t understand, clarified.

    With the meritocratic model employed at Canonical and the Ubuntu Community, how is a groundbreaking or paradigm improving idea to come to be realised, if it originates from a person that has not earned recognition in the field? Similarly, if a person who is not technically able to contribute code or code fixes, are their observations about issues and potential solutions invalid?

    Sorry if this is well trodden ground. I just feel this is at the heart of why Ubuntu might be perceived as an exclusive, rather than inclusive community.

  • Benjamin Kerensa

    As Jef pointed out many of us have signed a older version of the Code of Conduct and have decided against signing the new Code of Conduct.

    The newer Code of Conduct is much more expansive in that it limits individuals ability to do anything that could be considered disrespectful even in their own personal lives far outside of the scope of the Community.

  • Robert Schroll

    Since we’re discussing the CoC, let’s take a look at how Canonical is doing.

    “Be considerate

    “…Any decision we take will affect users and colleagues, and we should consider them when making decisions.” It doesn’t seem to me that the effect on the community was considered.

    “Be collaborative”

    This seems to have come from inside Canonical.

    “Value decisiveness, clarity and consensus”

    I’ll give you decisiveness.

    “We value discussion, data and decisiveness”

    Again, credit for decisiveness, and I’ll give you half-credit for looking at visitor data after the fact. But discussion….

    “Open meritocracy”

    I can’t speak to the meritocracy part, but open seems to have fallen by the wayside.

    “Courage and considerateness

    "Leadership occasionally requires bold decisions that will not be widely understood, consensual or popular.... Communicating changes and their reasoning clearly and early on is as important as the implementation of the change itself."  Well put, CoC.

    “Conflicts of interest”

    It’s convenient that this comes last, since I think it really hits the heart of the issue: Canonical has a unique conflict of interest in both being part of the Ubuntu community and trying to profit directly from Ubuntu. I think everyone accepts that Canonical should be first among equals, but the impression many of us are getting is that Canonical is more equal than others.

    While it’s easy to pick out rudeness or foul language as a violation of the CoC, these problems are much more insidious. Any one violation may be explained as carelessness or thoughtlessness. But the pattern we’ve seen recently really suggests that Canonical doesn’t feel some obligations of the CoC apply to itself. This worries me, and many others I suspect, much more than any name-calling or Hitler metaphors.

  • Greg Zeng

    Agree very strongly. Even stronger than you.

    The niche of meritocracy, considerations, etc owned by Linux, Ubuntu & Canonical is just a very tiny subset of the whole universe. The most famous religious minister this planet has created so far (Charles Darwin) also faced this dilemma: his religious communities are trivial compared to other meritocracies.

    Some grand-parents know that the noob who is screaming in the corner — probably has not yet developed the necessary skills, the environmental-awareness, nor the rational-communications needed to relate ‘politely’ to strangers in other ecological niches. I’m convinced that a mathematician has coded my “stranger-danger law” into unbreakable “truth”, somewhere, sometime ago. The “stranger” in this case being the irresponsible, discourteous noob screaming in the corner. The Insider-community is sounding the alarm at the breach in nice community conduct, and initiating disenfranchisement on the nuisance.

    The Linux communities, trying to live in a seemingly random analog-planet, seem unaware of the non-meritocratic universe into which they are struggling.

    Like other Linux noobs (including retired Chief Information Officers, like myself), we outsiders have a much clearer, realistic picture of the monocultural lives of the insiders. We outsiders also have the skills, resources, assets, contacts — that you desperately need. The nature of being yourself — deeply engrossed in the day-to-day insider viewpoints — demands you need an ‘impartial’ third party to help your communities relate to the much larger reality that surrounds you.

    As an example: Linux recognizes a crazy selection of ethnic languages, where its distributions have more than two ethnic languages. Often I need to remove Cambodian, Thai, etc languages.

    A second crazy area are mouse & cursor ergonomics of the desktop. These ergonomics are normalized, yet Linux’s defaults seem random. Alpha-numeric sorting order is crazy & random choice of several systems. Human-factors standards need to be applied, for the first time ever, to the whole Linux community.

    Many of my skills & disagreements are displayed in the comments section of Distrowatch. Computers & Linux are small, junior concerns in my life, compared to the needs of the planet in general. My comment here is not about me, nor from me. It is about the much larger world, from the much larger world — that Linux, Canonical, etc — is trying to vainly ignore.

    Personally I’m “retired”, but skilled in most things, excluding perhaps, hard-coding alpha-numerics on computers. Like most resources need by the Linux communities, I’ll probably stay isolated from you. So when you discuss us, be aware that we exist. Most of us will not be part of your systems. A very tiny minority of we outssiders may seem to be trouble-makers, just as Charles Darwin was. Hopefully – one day — the Linux communities might become more skilled in outreach programs …