OpenRespect and the Problems of Endorsing Civility

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 12, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Two years ago, I suggested that the free and open source software community could use a code of conduct to make conversations more polite and more constructive. My views haven't changed any, so I am delighted at Canonical Community Manager Jono Bacon's launching of that attempts to codify respectful conduct. My only concern is that the effort is already receiving some of the abuse that it attempts to counter.

The project home page starts with the declaration that "Our methods and opinions may differ, and our definitions of what constitutes freedom and openness may vary, but this united belief in freedom and openness remains the same." It then goes on to list five characteristics of respectful interaction: judging people only by the quality of what they say, civility, agreeing when necessary to disagree, debating constructively, and being sensitive to other people's feelings. The site also includes some guidelines about how to carry out these goals, as well as some web buttons you can use to show your support of the project.

Bacon explains that he created the site because, while the free software community has always been a place where full and open debate was the norm, "over the last few years I feel like the discussions have got a little heated and a little disrespectful. What is concerning me is that our community is going to be torn apart by this norm."

He observes, too, that many of those who are abusive online "immediately become more respectful" if you talk to them on the phone. "Their viewpoint didn't change, but their conduct changed, because the can hear there's a human being at the end of the line."

Bacon acknowledges that "there are communities where harsh and often overly critical discussions are commonplace" that still manage to be productive, such as the Linux kernel. However, he adds, "while it's possible for that to happen, I don't think it should be that way. I don't see why we should expect it.

"The free and open source software community reminds me of the two little dogs that I have in England. They'll be playing with a toy, and this toy will be too big for one of them to carry, so the two of them will each take one end of the toy in their mouths, then run together towards the end of the room. But then, halfway down, they'll get into an argument about the toy."

The point, Bacon emphasizes, is not to try to enforce the guidelines in any way, but "to socialize a set of views, in the same way that the Four [Software] Freedoms are designed to socialize a point of view -- it keeps at the fore of people's minds what's important. What I'd like to see it become is a common set of guidelines that people reference in disrespectful circumstances."

He adds that, "If I invested all my time and energy into OpenRespect, it could become a big thing that a lot of people use. But I don't have the time and energy to do more than I've already done. I think it may become viral, and will start to pick up, which I'd be happy with."

Suspicious Reactions

At first thought, you might imagine that nothing was wrong with this idea. It's well-meaning, constructive, and leaves people to their own judgment. You might think that no one could object to OpenRespect -- but you'd be wrong.

I'm not talking about critiques of the idea like Aaron Seigo's. Seigo makes some valid points about how the meaning of respect can differ with the community or culture. When questioned, Bacon could find nothing to disagree with in Seigo's comments, and they could easily go towards modifying or expanding the effort at defining respect. On Bacon's blog, he acknowledges the contribution of Jef Spaleta, an outspoken and articulate criticizer of Ubuntu and Canonical, so he could have little trouble absorbing Seigo's own helpful comments.

Rather, I'm talking about those who have responded, especially in comments on Bacon's blog, accusing him of founding OpenRespect as a way to deflect some of the heavy criticism that Ubuntu and Canonical have been receiving in the last few months. (

To the naively cynical -- those who believe, without any evidence that people always act from the worst of motives -- this idea may seem plausible. And Bacon does freely admit "that some of the unnecessary bickering may have inspired me to work on this. I wouldn't be a human being if it didn't."

However, Bacon refutes the claim by pointing out that "OpenRespect is something I've done in my spare time. It's got nothing to do with Canonical or my Ubuntu work. I'd agree [with the criticism] if Ubuntu was the only project receiving disrespectful criticism, but I don't believe for a second that we are. Many people have experienced this disrespectful sort of conduct in other parts of the community as well. I've seen it in GNOME, I've seen it in Ubuntu and KDE, and I've seen it in very upstream project."

In addition, Bacon's behavior helps to refute the accusation. If the only purpose of OpenRespect was a clever public relations campaign, then I suspect he would have retained control of it, instead of letting the project stand by itself. He even decided against seeking endorsements from community leaders, on the grounds that doing so would be a form of bullying.

Then, as I was writing this entry, one of the first pieces covering OpenRespect appeared. It suggests that Bacon himself showed disrespect by failing to consult as promised with Jared Smith, the Fedora Project Leader, and states that, as a Canonical employee, Bacon is too self-interested to credibly lead such a project.

Such responses seem to me a textbook case of the difficulties of trying to change longstanding behavior. Given the sort of abuse that OpenRespect is trying to change, the very effort to change can only be interpreted by those involved as a clever tactic in the ongoing exchange. The idea that anyone might genuinely want change simply cannot be accepted by some at face value.

Never mind that, if you look at Bacon's blog and past activities, this is not the first time that he voiced such concerns -- and that he has never acted before as nothing more than a corporate mouthpiece. At the risk of being dismissed as a naive dupe myself, I have little doubt after talking to him that he is sincere.

If so, then, it would be a said irony if OpenRespect was dismissed by the very incivility that it is trying to overcome. No matter what the source of the message, the plea for greater respect is one that large segments of the free software community needs to ponder.


  • jono knows BS pretty well

    jono is the perfect company man now and that one commenter nailed it on the head on LT: we are not against having people stop the stupid "KDE SUX!!" comments that fester most discussions but thats an internet problem.
    You want people to stop running brilliant commentary like "Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!!!"? Most people who run a site would agree but we know the whole balancing between open comment systems and the problems they can bring.
    no one has problems with that part of respect, its the other parts of what we can and cannot say and who gets to decide what the line is which is more worrisome.
    will it be decided by the guy who used to say that such and such project was full of crap in his famous podcast?
    Oh wait... he was being 'satirical'... I forgot..
    Actually, I didnt.
    That was the biggest piece of PR speak yet out of his mouth.
    'No, no... I wasnt one of those guys Im ranting agaisnt because LugRadio was SATIRICAL'.

    Interestingly enough, never once do i remember this being the case when the podcast was popular.
    It wasnt the freaking Onion.
    It was a podcast that covered news, distros, interviewed (listen to them fellate Kevin Carmony with some of the weakest questions this site of those Jupiter Corp idiots... seems that Jono grew a pair since those interviews as best examplified with his FLOSSing of Schestowitz).
    It wasnt satire.
    It was stupid jokes, swearing and bad jokes and puns. It was fun.
    It crossed the line.
    So what?
    If they offended you, you had the option of NOT DLing the show and NOT listening to it.
    There was no need to figure out if they went over the line were now talking about... they probably
    did and was probably a big part of their success.
    But since it was 'satire', we cant hold his Lugradio personnage agaisnt him.
    Nice try but no.
    The satire defense is weak but it stops the debate there for most.
    The art of selling oneself online is also the art of avoiding little f*ckups like that. Jono plays the BP Im Sorry card and then the 'we were doing satire' card and no one will push it further.
    Its ok. Whitewashing happens all the time
    And people lie all the time, where not going to let a little hypocrisy get in the way.
    Jono's handing of this was beautiful but it shows he is willing to openly lie (satire indeed!) to cover
    an inconvenience.
    The sheeple will listen to Jono's wise words of bullspit and agree that we need a new gentle community where vile mongrels online cant visit a site and totally insult a writers integrity, talent and qualifications just because they dont like the writer or his positions. We have to stop these acts of verbal terrorism.
    And if it happens that its Bacon who visits Sam Varghese's column and does THE VERY EFFING THING he is talking about, then we will say, its ok.. c'est la vie.
    Besides, Im sure that Jono added a </satire> tag at the end of his insulting dressing down of Varghese last week.

    You see, I cant come here and tell Bruce that he is XXXXXXX, and a XXXXXX writer or that XXXX XXXX XXXXX.
    No, that would be wrong.

    Jono can though.

    Rules are different for different folks, news at 6.

  • mother knows best

    while I think intentions were good, and it is a noble cause- in the end it's turned out to be a bit silly and self-promoting-
  • Group and Individual Protocols

    As a FOSS community manager, Jono Bacon must be well aware that there's due process for a united project, yet he chose to not *respect* that standard, instead preferring to expedite his agenda in his own way -- even as he aimed to publicly leverage the reputations of Fedora (Smith) and Debian (Zacchiroli) Project Leaders, thus assuming an authoritative pose for group credibility. Bacon's subsequent rationalisations are fodder for further IT media coverage.

    The conflict that Jono Bacon has created around OpenRespect illustrates what can happen when a community's protocols are dismissed by its own leadership ...

    I don't know Jono, but I also have no doubt about his sincerity.
    What is written there, on is the truth.

    The thing is that you must earn your respect and Jono did earn my respect with
    It's that, because of many reasons, some people did forget, or simply they didn't learn enough about Linux, Free Software, GNU, Open Source and Community, when they said what they said to whom they said it and it was disrespectful, in one way or another, intentionally or not.

    But Jono did one more thing these days, he admitted he was wrong sometimes, and I'll tell you, that is the measure of a great man. Not many of those who should have, have done so and not very often in our community.

    May I tell you, community, what we need to do? We need to communicate better, with more freedom, with more openness and with respect to each and everyone in our community, and by doing so, each of us should talk as one would like others to talk to him/her.

    In country where I live, we have a saying when you forget and don't know where you're going, take a look at your roots and the way I see it, that's what we, community should do now.

    Some things that did happened these days and months, we should learn from it and do our best, those things not to ever happen again.

    If we find a way to respect each other, every day, everywhere, then nothing will stop us to compile the best package ever -> a better world.
  • Power

    The idea of a 'community' rests on the assumption that there is something that binds the members of such community together, that they care about something that they all share. In that sense, the FOSS community cannot be compared to big software corporations such as Apple or Microsoft. The important thing to understand infighting within the FOSS community is that its boundaries, and in many ways even its very nature, are not well-defined and therefore are the object of disagreement and struggle. That is what the 'free software' vs. 'open source' controversy, as well as many others, boils down to. And these discussions are heated because the members of the community care about them deeply. Otherwise they would not form a community in any meaningful way. The crucial point to understand, then, is that the calls for respect or civility, although praiseworthy, take place in an uneven playing field in which some actors are more visible and powerful than others, and thus better able to influence the debate and even the real boundaries of where the community is (and what it is) than others. The notion of respect, just as that of freedom, ideally rests on the assumption that everyone is equally able to participate and influence. Yet that is never the case. Some actors, even if just by their sheer structural power, are able to make things happen, change the terms of the debate, and influence other actors to an the extent that most others cannot even dream of. Thus when some of these powerful actors pursue ideas and projects that some members of the community perceive as an attack, irate reactions are only to be expected. In this context, any calls from the powerful actors to respect and civility, even if entirely genuine (and I believe that Jono is completely sincere) not only can be interpreted, but they are in fact calls to curtail the little capacity that powerless actors have to fight against moves that they see as detrimental to the community. And this is irrespective of the intentions of Jono or whoever is calling for respect.
  • Good Idea

    It's a good idea, and long overdue. It isn't just Open Source. Here in the USA, we have just finished the congressional elections. The whole of the last several months have been one long set of name calling. There is very little of substance in US elections. News media are disrespectful to the point of nausea. the whole world seems to have lost the ability to have a civil discourse.

    We can disagree without being disagreeable. Even Linux and Windows fans can be courteous. We should try.

    I agree with you. I have known Jono for just a brief period of time, but I have no doubt about his sincerity. I find it interesting as well that a great many of the remarks do little more than point out the very need for the 'idea' Jono puts forth.

    It also baffles me that folks involved in FLOSS and Linux would decide to get in to a srum with one another while Apple and Microsoft sit laughing in the stands. It strikes me as a group of poor men fighting over the a single bean while two rich guys sit nearby eating a seven course meal.

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