I claim that the way we conduct discussions on debian-devel has gone quickly downhill this year. The discussions around the default init implementation are particularly sad examples of how Debian debates technical topics.

I've whined about this before, and people have suggested various things. Here's a list of things that I think we can conclude do not work:

  • "Do not feed the troll" does not work, because there is always someone who can't resist responding. Also, some of the bad behavior is not trolling. Further, having everyone ignore people who behave badly does not give negative feedback for bad behavior, and does not build shared social norms for what is acceptable behavior.
  • Unorganized private feedback (people mailing in response to public list posts) sometimes works, but it's a bit hit-and-miss, and again does not help build shared social norms. In other words, new members of the community see that others behave badly, and then nothing happens as far as they can see, whereas in private there may be quite a lot of activity.
  • Up/down-voting a la Reddit or Stack Overflow works on those sites, but it is not the only thing that keeps their sites in shape. It also works badly on mailing lists, I think, and we can't very well switch away from the lists for all sorts of reasons. Voting can also result in a stronger "echo chamber", where the popular people or opinions are upvoted, regardless of technical merit.

Things that can work:

  • Real-life meetings between participants. Debconf, sprints, FOSDEM, other such conferences. Unfortunately, this is expensive, and we can't reach everyone.
  • Active public, but constructive confrontation when people behave badly. This needs good social skills to be done well.

Things that might be worthwhile to try:

  • Changes to how our mailing list software works. Not sure what they would be, but Clay Shirky's Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software may be a good source of inspiration.
  • If not technical changes to the list software, possibly ways in which we use the tools we have. For example, a friend of mine suggested a while ago that when there is a topic on which consensus is difficult to achieve, each side of the debate (there may be any number) writes up their position and arguments for it and against the others on a wiki page. This might avoid going in circles in the discussions, repeating the same arguments over and over, during weeks and months of discussion.
  • Public, but anonymous, feedback tools, a la Reddit and Stack Overflow. Perhaps as simple as adding "+1" and "-1" buttons to the web archive pages for messages, along the "Spam" button, and then publishing aggregate statistics? (A voting system, if you wish.)
  • A consensus on the rough bounds of acceptable behavior and some group of people who are delegated the authority to enforce that.

The current situation, where a few hard-nosed, uncompromising people can prevent any rational discussion about init systems cannot be allowed to continue.