The Online Photographer has a meta-article on some discussion in the photography world. Summary: someone wrote an opinion piece on one site, and people on the discussion forum of another site got his name wrong, possibly repeatedly. And the quality of the discussion went down from there.

The quality of the discourse of free software development is frequently of some concern. Debian has a reputation as being a host to, er, particularly vigorous discussions. That reputation is not unwarranted, but, I think, we've improved a lot since 2005. The problem is hardly restricted to Debian, however.

How can we improve this? I don't know. As a community, I'm not even sure we agree what the problems are. Here's my list.

  • unshakeable, dogmatic opinions; an unwillingness to consider others' points of view or their justifications; willful ignorance of anything that contradicts with the way one wants things to be; an uncompromising, winner-takes-all, last-poster-wins attitude to debates; in short, a lack of respect for anyone who isn't on one's own side
  • an (unintended?) emphasis on discussion speed, leading to short missives, written quickly, without much thought, and without giving even a glimpse of how the conclusion or opinion was formed; this further leads to discussions that are hard to follow, because there are so many messages to read (the total word count would probably be about the same if everyone only wrote one or two essays)
  • few good ways of dealing with bad behavior, unless it fits into some clear categories of bad behavior; no clear community consensus of what is acceptable behavior, outside of a small core that is obvious (there's probably several PhD's worth of reasons for this, and it's not just because of "geeks don't understand social interaction" or "everyone is from a different cultural background")

Insults, personal attacks, and other such outrageously bad behavior is uncommon. It crosses the line so clearly it becomes easy to deal with; I don't think handling this needs much attention.

What can we do about this? I'm not sure. I have, for the time being, abandonded Debian mailing lists as a way to influence what goes on in the project, but that's just a way for me to clear some space in my head and time in my day to actually do things.

My pet hypothetical solution of the day is that mailing lists might raise the quality of the debates by limiting the number of messages written by each person per day in each thread. This might, I think, induce people to write with more thought and put more effort into making each message count.

Good morning Lars

Read with interest your contemplations on the issues of community functioning, and your experiences within the Debian mailing lists.

You will already be aware this affects many communities. In all of those that have experienced, your summary of causes fits most of the bill.

I am a member of a "religious" community, and despite having clearly defined methods of consultation, for various reasons (personal motivations, personal insecurities, failing to listen, etc), there are times when discussion can become quite heated. Ok, 'nuff said in the waffle vein.

One thing that would like to make a strong point about. Withdrawal is seldom a means of achieving change within the organisation - rather, it decreases the possibility of change. Sometimes, a short period of separation is needed in which to reassess one's own motives, one's own best means of contribution to the resolution of such mis-functioning. This is not withdrawal.

Your third dot-point perhaps defines best the solution to such issues. So, for whatever it is worth (merely as a beginning to your own perusal of solutions, which may or may not include items in this list) , a brief list of my own :

'Abdu'l-Baha states that from the clash of differing opinions comes the spark that illuminates the truth. Without going to the extreme of moderating mailing lists (pointless, as that defeats their function and purpose and necessary spontaneity), setting forth a clearly defined set of rules by which debate can flow.

Each person must have the right to set forth their opinion clearly and fearlessly, in a manner, however, that dis-allows the negatives of denigration, whether of an idea, thought or person. One thing that has been found in my community is that when we disagree with another's point of view, we find something in that point of view with which we agree, and answer to that, leaving the remainder alone. Cannot provide you with empirical evidence, but have often see a "non-friend" become a close friend through just this method of discussion. That does not, however, prevent one from presenting, in a kindly manner, possible alternatives.

Just two thoughts that cross my mind for the moment.

When you return to the mailing lists, the task ahead of you to be a good influence and gentle transformer will take time, it will require your determination, and will insist on your persistence. Gently. Kindly. Lovingly, if you like :) But it will work.

Example is the most powerful mover, though her results take time. As an example. I am male, and refuse to swear. My past work environment has mostly been areas where swearing was the norm. Yet always, after a period, without my making any mention of their foul language, people (male and female) stopped swearing in my presence, and, if a swear word popped out, would turn to me and apologise.

With warm greetings


Comment by Romane T Mon May 7 11:05:04 2012

Hi Lars, thank you for raising/reviving this topic. We do have a problem, and need to do something about it.

We do have in fact several problems. For example, many will agree that discussions do not necessarily give fair weight to each opinion. Some people who have time and a last-poster-wins attitude to debates can generate a lot of noise hoping to "win" a discussion. I think this is a problem that most of us agree exists and should be addressed.

"Posting credits" may indeed look like a good solution to that problem. If some people post too much, limiting how much they post would make the problem less acute. This solution (coupled with a "thread patterns" approach) was proposed by Anthony Towns in 2008: One problem with that approach is that there is no actual posting frequency threshold above which someone is simply being a nuisance. In fact, we would need statistics to demonstrate that a correlation exists between number of messages in a timeframe and utility. In other words, setting any threshold will cause collateral damage. Also, the limit may reduce flamewars, but its effect could be to simply turn fires into long-lasting embers. And our mailing list archives currently don't deal well with such discussions.

Anthony's suggestion was a reply to a more advanced solution proposed by Jurij Smakov, "mailvoting". Jurij created a project to implement that solution: Unfortunately, that solution also requires more work than "posting credits". This project did not and - in my opinion - will not get anywhere. Any good solution will need effort - in particular if it is to be implemented in the mailing list paradigm.

Comment by Philippe Mon May 7 18:03:22 2012

I'm not convinced the required solution is doable with plain simple mailing lists. It's a social problem for which no sensible technical solution can be applied - punishing people for writing short fast missives just means the insults will be more wordy and personal.

I think a system like Reddit's comments would help with discussion, to be honest - whereby idiots can be "downvoted" until their responses simply cease to exist for most people, and where the best responses, not the first, are promoted to prominence. And Reddit is Free Software ( unlike Google, which seems to be accumulating a lot of Free Software discussion these days.

Comment by directhex Mon May 7 22:09:53 2012

I don't think you can solve this problem with a technical solution, such as limiting posting rate. To use the terminology of Debian's voting system, that solution isn't cloneproof. :)

People often say that Debian has a lack of clear decision-making processes (other than the last-resort processes such as GRs or tech-ctte); I disagree. I think, fundamentally, that Debian has one very clear decision-making process: whoever does the work makes the decision. (With the annoying side problem that the maintainer of a package can prevent other people from working on that package.) Thus, discussion on a Debian mailing list serves one of two purposes: to find the right technical solution when people genuinely don't know yet (generally a friendly discussion), or to convince people doing the work to follow one of several possible solutions (which leads to the type of discussion you mention). (And, of course, some people in a discussion will strongly believe that they're doing the former when they're really doing the latter.)

Keeping that notion strongly in mind would help keep discussions more on track: either someone is planning to do the work, or not. It serves no useful purpose to argue at length about possibilities that nobody will implement.

Most notions of "consensus" beyond that don't actually matter. For example, debian-devel recently discussed whether the default MTA in Debian should change from exim to postfix, or whether the MTA should get removed from standard entirely. The project doesn't need to come to a consensus on that as a whole; if the maintainers of exim, the maintainer of postfix (in the case of a switch), and the ftpmasters (for the priority changes) agree, then the change will happen, otherwise it almost certainly won't unless someone cares enough to invoke one of the aforementioned last-resort options.

Similarly, in the init system discussion, it already seems quite clear that nobody will do the work to change systemd to support kFreeBSD or vice versa, and porting upstart seems only marginally more likely. It also seems quite clear that the maintainers of kFreeBSD and systemd will never agree on the relative priority of kFreeBSD and systemd to the Debian project. And in practice, given such a disagreement, the first project to get into Debian wins, since the second project would get an RC bug for breaking the first. So, nothing will happen on that until someone does some implementation work, such as the Summer of Code project to implement a systemd-service-to-sysvinit-initscript compatibility translator, or some kind of shell library that makes init scripts not suck to write so that people don't mind including both systemd services and init scripts.

Comment by JoshTriplett Mon May 7 22:31:22 2012

I've been keen on rate limits for a while. The project has them on their installation and they seem to work most of the time.

Conversely, I think the "posting credits" idea still seems too much like Cory Doctorow's Whuffie and is more likely to produce mob rule than good discussions.

Comment by mjr [] Tue May 15 11:16:11 2012