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.