Ubuntu: Restoring the Community Link

Tuesday May 21st 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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The latest Canonical vs. community uproar has been defused, but for how long?

The story of Ubuntu and the Missing Community Link has progressed in the last week. A conflict that initially seemed symbolic of the division between Canonical employees and Ubuntu volunteers has since transformed into an illustration of Ubuntu's skill at handling community conflict.

For now, at least, the issue appears to have been resolved, although concerns linger about how to avoid similar divisions in the future.

The conflict arose when Canonical's design team removed the link to the community site from the main menu on the Ubuntu home page to a sub-menu at the bottom of the page. The change resulted in one-third fewer click-throughs to the community site, but more importantly, the change seemed to confirm fears of a continuing de-emphasis of the Ubuntu community.

As a result, Benjamin Kerensa and Mark Terranova, two prominent Ubuntu members, began a campaign to restore the position of the link. Much of the campaign was kept within conventional channels, but events reached a low point when Kerensa's private video that compared Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth to Adolf Hitler was briefly made public by Mark Terranova.

Terranova argued that the humor in the video was broad enough that even Shuttleworth would appreciate it. However, others were not so confident. Several people condemned the video outright.

Kerensa himself tweeted to me that "it was not representative of how I feel about Canonical or Ubuntu," and resumed looking for ways to address his concerns within Ubuntu's existing structures.

Drawing Back from the Edge

Last week, Canonical's head of web design, Alejandra Obregon partially defused the situation when he blogged about the reasons for the repositioned link.

According to Obregon, the repositioning of the link was part of a global re-design across Ubuntu-associated sites and was always meant as temporary. She stated that the design team would "restore the balance" by the end of May, and she gave limited acknowledgement to community concerns, writing, "We appreciate why this might cause concern in the community, [e]specially in the absence of an understanding of the broader context."

That left the underlying animosity to be handled. Kerensa proposed a session at last week's online Ubuntu Development Summit, which was approved by Jono Bacon after he consulted with both Kerensa and Terranova.

The video meeting took place on May 13. With the issue of the link largely resolved, the meeting quickly took the form of participants backing down from any aggressive stance and discussing how to avoid future problems.

Kerensa began the meeting by saying that the problem was "partly my fault. It doesn't seem like a fail on Canonical's part when I look back at it—just that we could do a better job at community."

Peter Mahnke, a member of several Ubuntu website teams, did not apologize directly. However, his tone was noticeably different from the original blog post that announced the change after the fact as a piece of spring-house cleaning.

"You have to assume that we're trying to right by everybody," Maynke said. "And if we've done something, or probably is a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, or really is a mistake. We're just human sometimes."

Everybody's restraint is obvious in the video, and the meeting concluded in less than twenty minutes, prompting a cheer from several participants.

Looking for Leadership Solutions

What remained was the question of how to avoid similar problems in the future.

At the meeting, Bacon told the design team that what concerned him was that "There was almost a feeling like people didn't believe you. And that's uncool. We need to presume a layer of trust in our community. If we easily distrust people, it's just going to mean bad blood."

Bacon went on to suggest that when changes were announced, the discussion should be "as unemotional as possible." He also suggested that the regular leadership meetings that were proposed several months ago should also be implemented as a means to increase communication.

Later, in his blog, Bacon expanded on these comments. In a telephone conversation, he described the complaint about the link as "absolutely just," but said, "The thing that was unacceptable was how it was handled and the way it was expressed."

On his blog, Bacon described the incident as "yet another storm in a teacup," and suggested three problems that the Ubuntu community needed to address.

To begin with, Bacon expanded on the need to act in keeping with the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, and treat other opinions respectfully:

Respect must always be present in our discourse, irrespective of the content of our opinions; without it we become a barbaric people and lose the magic that brought this wonderful set of minds together in the first place. There is simply no excuse for rudeness, and inflammatory FUD that has no evidence to back it up other than presumed ill-intent serves nothing but to demotivate folks and ratchet up the flames, as opposed to resolve the issue and make things better.

Bacon continued by emphasizing the need for trust based on meritocracy—or, more precisely, the recognition of everyone's previous contributions and an avoidance of "paranoid debate" that questions people's motives.

In particular, he tried to address distrust of Canonical. "I can assure you there is no nefarious scheme at place at Canonical," he wrote. "If I felt Canonical was fundamentally trying to demote and shut the community out, I wouldn't work here."

Finally, while Bacon agreed that communication could be improved, he emphasized that "Ubuntu is not a consensus-based community. It would be impossible and impractical to notify our community of every decision we make, let alone try to base a decision on a majority view."

However, he suggested that more information could be provided to team leaders and talked of the need to find the right degree of transparency in decision-making.

Some might argue that Bacon is guilty of a tone argument—that is, that he is focusing on how things are said, rather than what is said, in order to deflect criticism.

However, Bacon described such a response to me as "absolute nonsense," suggesting that accusations of a tone argument were, in fact, a deflection in themselves. To Bacon, the idea that people are more likely to listen when you are polite is so basic that he says, "I find it annoying that we even need to have this conversation."

In fact, Bacon's calls for respect are so consistent and so obviously sincere that they are probably a major reason that such incidents have been defused over the years. Volunteers might feel dubious about Shuttleworth or Canonical executives they only see occasionally, but Bacon's example is more frequently seen and harder to doubt. Another community manager might make the same efforts at transparency and be less effective.

Temporary and Permanent Solutions

That's not to say that community divisions within Ubuntu are solved—just that the immediate issue has been handled. Many potential divisions in the community, such as the one between the community and the Canonical design team, go back several years, and are not likely to be defused by one person's example or a single online meeting.

As andrewsomething commented on Bacon's blog, "While I think the Ubuntu.com community link issue was a bit overblown, it does point to some real fault lines in the community." Possibly, the Ubuntu community is simply too large for many members to feel part of its whole.

In addition, as community volunteer Valorie Zimmerman blogs, the approaches used by Bacon seem to ignore the class differences within the community. Apparently alluding to the differences in status between Canonical staff and Ubuntu volunteers, Zimmerman writes:

There are always power imbalances and privileges. . . . The fact of class must be acknowledged, and those with privilege and power must realize what they have, and use them on behalf of the project. . . . Recently there has been a breakdown—or an apparent breakdown—in that hierarchy of function in Ubuntu. And I think that both those inside Canonical and those outside, perceive that the other is the one causing that break. So, some repair is needed.

For now, Ubuntu seems quiet, thanks to the traditional free software tools of transparency and open discussion, as well as Bacon's personal example. However, considering that the link issue was the second in three months to create dissent in the community, you might wonder whether these advantages are enough to prevent a third or fourth. But whether Ubuntu can break the apparent cycle in the long term remains uncertain—and the fact of that uncertainty could matter as much as any additional outbreak of discontent.

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