George Carlin's rolling in his grave

Thu 24 July 2008

Wikipedia offers the following definition of etiquette (emphasis mine):

Etiquette, one aspect of decorum, is a code that governs the expectations of social behavior, according to the contemporary conventional norm within a society, social class, or group. Usually unwritten, it may be codified in written form.

The Ubuntu Code of Conduct is our etiquette, codified in written form; it is also universal. It covers:

"behaviour as a member of the Ubuntu Community, in any forum, mailing list, wiki, web site, IRC channel, install-fest, public meeting or private correspondence"

Written in the affirmative, it offers several adjectives relevant to how Ubuntu development should be done. This universality means making rules and interpretations for Planet Ubuntu based on the CoC might reasonably apply elsewhere. Jono Bacon, member of the Ubuntu Community Council and Canonical's appointed Ubuntu Community Manager once stated he felt excited to work at a place where he didn't have to turn off who he was during work hours or separate what he liked from what he did, and we may shortly discover how Jono feels about diminishing that. Despite the clear wording of universality, Fabián Rodríguez has suggested that the Planet needs more formalized rules than the ones inherited from Debian (English only and "don't be annoying") and the CoC. His position appears to be that including objectionable words and phrases, and objectionable ideas are not respectful, and therefore violate the CoC. I respectfully disagree.

Fabián Rodríguez writes:

I don’t expect anyone to change their “WTF” and “STFU” attitude, just leave it outside this project. Setting up a category to carry only Planet Ubuntu posts may help.

And clarifies in a comment:

Although I am brining up the CoC because we have one, I think it is such common sense I am a bit surprised I even got comments on IRC asking what is wrong with WTF’ing here and there or A**holing now and then. Nothing really. But take it elsewhere. And I’ll gladly meet you there, but it won’t be under my @ubuntu.com hat.

It should be obvious that sending harassing, demeaning or confrontational email to Ubuntu or Debian or any other developers isn't suddenly okay if you didn't use @ubuntu.com as the From address. Similarly, it shouldn't matter whether you tag a post with "ubuntu"; if you act or write from a position within the community, and the audience associates you with Ubuntu, you should follow the guidelines as an ambassador of Ubuntu to the larger Linux community, or at least make a note that you are not acting or writing as a member of the Ubuntu community in cases where it might not be clear. At any rate, if you are an Ubuntu Member, then, you should be worried when someone tries to redefine the Conduct you agreed to follow.

The logical conclusion of Fabián's position is that to be respectful nothing that sets off anyone's triggers may pass through Planet Ubuntu's gates. This is a dangerous place to be: one can think of dozens actions that might be considered offensive to some. As Jordan Mantha eloquently put it:

trying to legislate morality is both undesirable and incredibly difficult for the Community Council to do. They are trying to represent a community made up of people from nations and cultures all over the world, and it’s essentially impossible to satisfy both the moral sensibilities and personal liberties of everybody at the same time. I’m also fairly sure it is neither their right nor their charter to tell people what is and is not offensive.

There exist a number of social, religious and political taboos that various cultures may find offensive. It feels weird being an American (land of assimilation) calling a Canadian (home of multiculturalism) on this. If Ubuntu, "Linux for human beings," demands that writing obey one viewpoint, it potentially offends another one as censorship. For example, most of us may see a Tibetan language translation of Ubuntu as progress in bringing Free Software to people who need it, but to a few the act may suggest an anti-China political statement, akin to adding a Confederate flag to the distribution. The Code of Conduct is fortunate to say nothing about such dry powderkegs. As long as we can hold beliefs, disagree and still obey they Code of Conduct's demands for consideration, respect, collaboration, and consultation, there should be room in Ubuntu for all of us.

Chilling effects

Attitude is one thing; I think RTFM or STFU are rarely productive statements. But what's appeared goes far beyond that. Fabián prefers that people who don't agree with his flexible interpretation of "respect" go away. I know at least one guy who does. He still contributes to the development of Ubuntu, but what he has to say is less often heard because despite his reputation, he's quite willing to implicitly comply with the infantilization of the Planet and rarely tags posts our way. It's fortunate that it's easy to include individual RSS feeds in Liferea directly, but if I don't know there's an amount of self censorship going on first, I simply lose that insight, no matter how germane it is to Ubuntu, Free Software or the communities that surround them.

But even if we were to agree that some topics are a bridge too far, specific words and phrases found offensive by some have no clear relation with respect, and already are within contemporary conventional norms when used in moderation. In fact, this entire enlightened discussion would have come across as condescending rather than conversational if the language were to be sanitized; by using that language the author communicates that the audience is a peer, which is central to the point. Self-censored writing feels inauthentic. In that thread, the author comments:

I haven't been particularly active in the Ubuntu community (my first introduction to the open source world), largely because everyone is so damned polite all the time, and as a result the discussions seem fairly dry and limited to technical topics.

This is a disappointing failure to integrate, especially since Rhythmbox needs a lot of lovin', and I'd be happy to see Ubuntu play a foundational role in making that happen.

Doing something constructive about it

One thing that can be done is to offer editorial advice ahead of publication. I've often wished to have a few trustworthy people preview my work on this blog and offer suggestions the way kuro5hin does before going public with a writing. It's a bit sad that the advent of blogging software led to the downfall of community driven writing like k5. Stephan's writing comes across as a bit... "stream of thought," and perhaps a round of editorial review can create something more effective at communicating his ideas and getting people to agree with him. I suspect such offers will be treated as censorship, though a good editor offers only advice, not orders.

Since people are seeking, among other remedies, the removal of Stephan's blog from the Planet, I thought I'd do them a favor. As far as I can tell, the current Planet software doesn't implement filtering (the Venus branch might, but will it support queries?), but the entire Planet software is easy to duplicate, and it's output is easy to manipulate. Here's what the Planet looks like without Stephan Hermann. And for comparison, without Fabián's blog. You can find the construction of this relatively simple construction here. If that doesn't float your boat, I've also constructed a simple dirty words filter. Feel free to customize, the defaults come from the expert on the subject. I've also considered running an alternative, unofficial planet similar to Dave Airlied's, but I'm not sure it's possible without coming across as arrogant or causing hurt feelings.

Finally, the Community Council has this topic on their agenda, and if it doesn't get tabled for lack of time, will be heard at the next meeting. If you can't attend, there are logs available for all such meetings on irclogs.ubuntu.com. In the spirit of being collaborative, it seems relevant to invite Emma Hogbin's opinion, as it seems the language of her lecture that started the mess Fabián and Stephan find themselves in now. As an invited speaker to the now canceled Ubuntu Live! event, decisions rendered would clearly affect her future participation with the Ubuntu community.

If you take one thing away from this essay let it be this: Booting members from the project is in no way, shape, or form "collaborative", and should be taken only when all reasonable measures have failed.

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