Further Thought on Communities

Summary of content this far

It seems the questions Matthew Garrett and I asked at LCA this year have created a bit of activity. Several people have written blog posts that are far more eloquent than I could ever achieve, so instead of repeating their sentiment, I'll simply link you to them.

First, Angus Gratton wrote a piece that explains exactly what happened in the keynote. At the time I didn't feel like writing that article, so I'm glad someone else did. I added a lengthy comment to the article explaining some of the particular problems I think we all need to help fix.

Second, Nick Coghlan wrote a great piece that looks at the broader picture and points out exactly why an abusive tone is not helpful when it comes to a FOSS community. I'd like to quote a small piece of that article below:

But when you're personally abusive as a leader, you also have to take a high level of responsibility for all the folks that look up to you as a role model, and act out the same behaviours you exhibit in public. When you reach this point, the preconditions for participation in your community now include:

  • Willing to tolerate public personal abuse from project leaders
  • Willing to tolerate public personal abuse from the community at large
  • Willing to tolerate personal abuse in private

With clauses like that as part of the definition, the claim of "meritocracy" starts to feel a little shaky, doesn't it?

Nick is absolutely correct, but I'd like to expand on this a little.

Communities are not distinct

Several people have tried to make arguments too me along the lines of:

It's the kernel community - it doesn't affect you, you're not a kernel developer. Let Linus run the kernel community how he likes, focus your efforts on fixing a community you're a part of.

This argument is flawed in several ways:

  1. I'm not a kernel developer, but I am a potential kernel developer. I have zero interest in joining a community that is as toxic as the kernel development community is. I'm not the world's greatest programmer, but I'm confident that I'd be a net positive force if I decided to join that community. The toxicity in that group has already caused real harm: I'm sure that there are thousands of people in exactly the same position.
  2. Communities are not distinct. Even though I no longer subscribe to LKML, I can draw a direct line between the social norms set on that mailing list and my personal life. Here we go:
    1. Linus (and others) set a social norm of abuse on the Linux Kernel mailing list.
    2. When a technical issue arises, like systemd vs. upstart, or mir vs. wayland, or gnome vs. KDE vs. Unity, people who have seen that social norm set for LKML continue the cycle of abuse in other places. This leads to systemd developers recieving death threats and a whole lot of unpleasantness on the Internet.
    3. I work for Canonical. I have contributed to some of the projects mentioned above, and I work closely with developers on those teams - many of them I count amongst my personal friends. This negativity can have a profound personal affect on someone. Imagine working hard for months at a time, giving away the labours of your work for free, only to receive hatred and negativity at the end of the process. This can lead to depression. It can lead to feeling worthless, un-wanted, unfit to engage with others, un-wanted, and un-loved.

Communities are not distinct. What goes on on LKML affects me, even though I'm not directly involved in that community. The longer we protect a social norm that says it's OK to deal with other people in that way, the more damage we're doing to our communities.


Is this all down to one man, to Linus Torvalds? Of course not - it's down to all of us. We are all responsible when it comes to creating the kind of community we'd like to see.

Ubuntu is not only a Linux Distribution. It is also a humanist philosophy. Leymah Gbowee gave a definition that is perhaps the most commonly used:

I am what I am because of who we all are.

In his book "No Future without Forgiveness", Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

How someone chooses to live their lives is, of course entirely up to them. Personally, this philosophy rings true for me. This is why I chose to make some noise on this issue. This is why, despite respecting their technical achievments, I chose to ask the question I did at LCA.

Be the change you want to see

This is another criticism of my actions at the conference. I have been told more than once that I ought not to have criticised, and instead I ought to focus my efforts on improving the communities I'm a part of. Once again though, this presupposes that the communities I'm a part of aren't affected by Linus' (or any other community leader's) behavior.

I do try to be the change I want to see. I'm sure I have a long way to go, and nobody's perfect, but I'm at least willing to admit the problems I see, and try and fix them. I'm open to criticism of my personal conduct, especially when it comes to my technical work.

Anyone who knows me personally or professionally will tell you that I often get it wrong. I've been known to say terrible things to people, and I'm still learning how to communicate better. Nobody's perfect, and I don't want anyone thinking that I am.

The Spiderman Problem

So, why shouldn't I be content with improving myself? Like most things in life, it all comes down to spiderman. As we all know:

With great power, comes great responsibility.

Now consider the following:

Number of people who will read this blog post
Based on my average traffic counters, around 100.
Number of people look to me as a role model
Very few, if any.

How many people do you think read Linus Torvalds' blog posts? How many people look up to him as a role model?

He has more power to change the community than most other people in the industry. The same goes for all the people on that stage at LCA, as well as many who weren't. The nature of celebrity is that it's not evenly distributed: a very few people have the largest megaphones. Some of our technical leaders are using their power responsibly, and some are not. I think it's part of my responsibility to "call them out" on that, while at the same time making sure I don't engage in the kind of behavior I'm asking them to avoid.