Ubuntu and the Missing Community Link

Tuesday May 14th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Small events can have big consequences.

Sometimes, the symbolism of an act becomes more important than its actual consequences.

A case in point is the repositioning of the link to the community page on the Ubuntu home page, which has reopened the divide between Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial face, and parts of the Ubuntu community. Not only has that divide reappeared, but a possible error in tactics may have cost the community sympathy that is needed for reform.

At first, the change sounds unbelievably minor to have provoked the response it has. It is, after all, no more than a cosmetic change. Specifically, it is about the removal of the link to the Community page from the main menu on the Ubuntu home page and its repositioning in a sub-footer. The change leaves the main menu focused on product lines.

Inayaili León, Canonical's lead web designer, explains, "By focusing our site navigation on the products themselves, we aim to make it clear for someone who is new to the site that Ubuntu is about all of these things: PCs, phones, tablets—you name it." The sub-footer, León goes on to say, "gives people an opportunity to explore more of the section they’re in and read related resources like news and articles."

According to León, the change is the result of user testing and is meant to provide "a cleaner, fresher, but also more modular, approach."

León entitled the blog announcing these changes "Spring Cleaning," which suggests that Canonical regarded them as routine and relatively unimportant. And probably, in many other contexts, they would have been.

However, the changes came just a month after the last clash between the Ubuntu community and Canonical. A number of prominent Ubuntu contributors complained that Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth were making decisions, while ignoring the community and reducing its role to obedience. The complaints were mostly respectful, making clear that those voicing them were still interested in contributing to Ubuntu but felt changes were needed.

Discussions with community organizer Jono Bacon led to several proposed changes, including teaching developers how to work in a free and open source software (FOSS) environment, regular leadership problem-solving sessions and more efforts to communicate with the community.

None of these proposed changes suggests the transfer of any decision-making powers to the community, which was what they essentially requested. Still, the discussions themselves or perhaps the hopes for improvement seem to have quieted community resentment for a few weeks.

However, how fragile the peace actually was is shown by how easily resentments flared up again over the case of the link that was—if not missing—at least misplaced.

In retrospect, the removal of the community link from the main menu in favor of product lines turned out to be the perfect metaphor for the idea that Canonical decisions were being driven by commercial considerations at the expense of traditional FOSS community values. What would otherwise be a piece of housekeeping became a symbol of much broader complaints.

The Art of Community Complaining

Ubuntu volunteer and advocate Elizabeth Krumbach, who had been involved in earlier questioning about the decision-making, was the first to question the change. "Disappointed that the community link is gone from the header," she wrote in a telegraphed style. "It has always felt that having such a supportive and collaborative community was a big part of the value and understanding what 'Ubuntu is about.'"

Krumbach's comment was quickly followed by Ubuntu developer Benjamin Kerensa, who expressed surprise that, after the discussions with Bacon, the change had been made without anyone first mentioning it to the community.

In hindsight, León's response, "We understand your concerns. The Community link is present in the footer section of the site," might not have been the best one to make. To already suspicious ears, it might have sounded like an official brush-off that avoided the concerns expressed.

At any rate, the change prompted several weeks of discussion and suggestions for responses. For a while, Kerensa and Mark Terranova, the acting lead of the Ubuntu Oregon team, both attempted to submit it as a "blueprint" (topic for discussion) for the upcoming Ubuntu Developer Summit.

However, according to Terranova, these efforts came to nothing, partly because of their difficulties in submitting the blueprints in the proper form and partly because of some apparent confusion in the handling of the blueprints by the Summit's organizers.

This confusion, Terranova emphasizes, appears to have been genuine and not part of any effort to derail the submissions. In fact, he singles out Canonical employees Michael Hall and Chris Johnston as being helpful.

Although these efforts failed, they did show that some other Ubuntu participants were concerned about the project's direction—some to the point of considering leaving the community or of redirecting their efforts into less frustrating areas.

At the same time, Kerenska filed the change as a bug, asking other community members to mark it as affecting them. Although the validity of the bug was questioned, the tactic did result in discussion of the issue, including Kerensa's statement of his position.

According to Kerensa, the Ubuntu Design Team did not work transparently and acted unilaterally. The "Design Team is allowing a business decision to take priority over community," he wrote. Then, referring specifically to the discussions with Jono Bacon, he added, "yet [the] Canonical Community Team Lead said he wants specifically to make it easier for people to join the community."

Kerensa also faulted the Design Team for using testers who were not community members but a random group, "who may have no interest in the overall health of the community."

Kerensa supported his position by pointing out that "Members of our community who knew the link was removed from the top said they had spent over twenty seconds looking for the new placement of the link... We cannot expect that regular visitors will spend that much time."

Furthermore, Kerensa posted stats to show that the Community home page had received one-third fewer hits since the change. In addition, he posted a poll on the Ubuntu forum asking for opinions and generally receiving support.

Mention Hitler and Maybe You Lose

Keeping his tone respectful and clearly identifying himself as part of the community, Kerensa received some signs of support. However, more controversially, he also created and privately circulated a variation on the Hitler meme. Scenes from Downfall showing Hitler reacting to bad new are given English sub-titles that relate to the news that community members were complaining about the repositioned link.

Against Kerensa's intention, Terranova briefly made the video public, calling it "brutally funny" and claiming that Kerensa included a dig at him in it. Terranova even asserted that Shuttleworth would find the video funny, despite the comparison of him to Hitler.

Yet Teranova had to admit that the video came close to violating Godwin's law—the unofficial Internet rule that anyone who mentions Nazism automatically loses a discussion. Still, he defends the parody as a necessary escalation after other means to gain attention had failed.

Others, however, are not so sure. Ex-Fedora organizer Greg DeKoenigsberg replied with a simple "-1" to indicate his disapproval. In another comment, he suggested that Kerensa stick to facts rather than attempt parody.

An even stronger reaction came from Jef Spelata, a frequent critic of Ubuntu who has been known to be controversial himself. Noting that he had learned to moderate his own tone so he would be more likely to be heard, Spelata writes, "None of the decisions being ridiculed in that video are good ones, really, and there is a lot to sympathize with." However, he goes on to describe the video as "strategically poor, if the goal is to keep [the] community engaged and involved in the Ubuntu project."

The video, Spelata suggests, "is going to tighten up the collective mental sphincters" in Ubuntu and "put them into a several defensive posture." However, so far, Canonical has yet to show its awareness of the video, much less what anyone thinks about it.

Terranova has prepared an image consisting of the front page of the Ubuntu site with "Make room for Community" printed on it. He is also preparing an open letter to Shuttleworth. However, what reaction these efforts will provoke remains uncertain. Unless others agree with Terranova's view of the video as a joke, it may be too over-the-top for people to identify publicly with its perspective.

From Any Perspective, a Problem

It is still unclear just how much support exists for the complaints about Canonical's leadership. Except for the Hitler video, community reactions have had few hostile responses, but that might be due to the Ubuntu Code of Conduct.

At the same time, mention of the repositioned link on mailing lists and social media generates some expressions of sympathy, but not in the numbers that suggest overwhelming support. Each mention results in four or five supportive comments, but not the dozens that might be expected if mass support existed.

Yet perhaps those numbers, too, reflect the limits imposed by the Code of Conduct. Or possibly, potential supporters wish to avoid being viewed as troublemakers. In the absence of evidence, you can make the facts fit almost any theory.

However, even if the complaints do not represent a majority viewpoint, they should still be cause for concern in Ubuntu and Canonical. Even if the complainers are a minority, they are a persistent and vocal minority.

But the biggest reason for concern is that the complainers tend to be community leaders. Unless Canonical proceeds carefully, any attempt to quell dissatisfaction could fragment its community support and perhaps seriously affect its long-range plans.

At this point, all that can be safely said is that Ubuntu has community problems, and that past reactions to similar problem do not offer much hope of an amicable solution. But unless one can be found, Ubuntu and Canonical are beginning to look as though they just might stumble before they can manage the last few steps towards success.

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