For about the past three months I've been conducting a small experiment. When I've seen people misbehave on the Debian development mailing list, I've sent a private e-mail to them suggesting they should avoid some specific behavior, in the hope of getting them to stop.

My success has been varied. A few have thanked me, and changed their behavior. A couple have taken offense. Some have ignored me.

I've noticed a correlation between how much effort I put into the letter and how successful it. Broadly speaking, if I send anything earlier than the sixth version, it fails. Getting the message exactly right is not easy, for me, and takes quite some effort and time.

I'm happy about my successes, but on the whole, I fear my experiment is a failure. It's too much effort to do this in the long term, and it's too chancy. Someone else might be able to do it better, but this is not something I can keep on doing.

I think we need some better solution to keep discussions in Debian on track and not have them blow up. We have a systemic problem where contentious issues, such as choice of init system, is quite hard for us to deal with. We're also not very good at dealing with situations where a few individuals are dominating the discussion by being loud, insistent, and unwilling to budge or to give any credence to opposing views. I don't know what to do about that, but we clearly need social and possibly technical tools for this.

When I read technical tools, I thought about reddit. That's an excellent tool for sorting and displaying large amounts of comments and threads. But Debian would never switch to something that is not based on emails. So I could imagine a mailing list system with reddit genes (and on stereoids).

When receiving a mail over debian-devel@l.d.o, you could give it e.g. an upvote by sending an answer to that mail to debian-devel-up@l.d.o. Downvotes work the same.

Now that mails are voted on, it's possible to choose to get only a delayed selection of mails from a list. You could choose a delay, an algorithm to sort the mails and a threshold. Voila, the best ('best' defined by the reader) mails get read the most and there's a constructive discussion.

Bonus points if this thing has also an extensive web-interface a la reddit.

Comment by Tobias Sun Sep 2 01:23:08 2012

I was reading this[0] blog post and was thinking about similar idea. A position of a trusted community figure with an understanding of email thread patterns and social communication issues that could be contacted about an email from a community member that is not being as constructive as they could be. The issue could be lack of clarify, mis-directed anger, missing the main point of something, etc. So the idea is that community member A writes to this social mediator and provides the URI and the communication issue and the mediator sends a private mail about an email design pattern that would apply that they can use in the future. Or maybe they can point out the design patterns that is causing their message to be perceived as being negative and suggest a positive way to do the same thing. After a while, the mediator and others would create a wiki entry that showed these good and bad patterns for everyone to read if it was mentioned in future communication. Also, I think if such a resource was developed, that the NM process might include these as reading material and provide a T & S section where someone is tested on how they might have reacted to an imaginary or real-life flamewar thread. How this person would be nominated, how long they might serve, who they report to (if anyone) are not resolved.

[0] http://blog.melchua.com/2012/09/01/think-about-universal-design-for-foss-community-experiences-not-just-products/

Comment by Kevix Sun Sep 2 06:21:59 2012

Thank you Lars. For reference, this follows an earlier post from Lars: http://blog.liw.fi/posts/quality-of-discussions/

Tobias, see the comments to the post above. The solution you propose was already proposed by Jurij Smakov and is called "mailvoting".

Comment by Chealer Mon Sep 3 18:08:02 2012

I never tried providing private replies about communication itself, but I agree it must not be very effective. There are unfortunately people who will refuse to change or fail to understand how to change. There are others who are learning to communicate and for whom making errors is simply part of their learning process. This is one great thing about communication in Debian, being able to go back on what you wrote in the past and see how it could be improved.

Feedback needs to be studied and personalized. Unfortunately, we don't know each other much since we're distributed and since we're so many. And we can't perceive if the writer is having a difficult life moment. Providing pertinent criticism is doomed to be difficult in our environment. Hopefully other techniques can optimize our communication.

Comment by Chealer Mon Sep 3 19:19:27 2012

Hi Chealer,

from what I could find, mailvoting is also about voting the messages, but to use the information to "find the bad guys". My idea would approach the problem of selecting which part of debian-devel to read. If you could set up a delay, you could say, get all emails that got a vote (up or down) in the first three hours. Or all that did not get only down votes. Or get a digest once a day with mails of up/down vote ratio larger than 0.8.

The "posting credits" approach by Anthony Towns is also interesting. One could set up one alternative list to debian-devel with that and let people decide which one to use.

Comment by Tobias Wed Sep 5 13:06:42 2012

Hi Tobias, if we consider the current situation as a reference, as we start from an entirely open system, any change is going to be about "finding the bad guys", or more precisely, finding the bad posts... or most strictly speaking, penalizing uninteresting posts. We could also say that the change would help interesting posts, but that's somewhat indirect, as it assumes that more people will read the forums with the change, in the medium term.

I do not think mailvoting is particularly about "finding the bad guys", although Jurij did mention the possibility of eventually warning offensive posters, which is not necessary IMO. mailvoting collects votes both praising or criticizing a post, and I think its basic goal is simply to rank posts by interest. Of course, no 2 voting systems will be identical, and there can be as many differences in voting systems for forums as there can be differences in voting systems for elections, but I do not see any fundamental difference between what you drew and what mailvoting intended to achieve.

Comment by Chealer Sat Sep 15 19:42:58 2012