A wide-ranging discussion on the GNOME Foundation mailing list got rather
heated at times, but touched on a number of different problems that many
projects struggle with. The GNOME code of conduct (CoC) and
how to keep the project's communication channels free of inappropriate
content—including flamefests—was the topic, which makes it
fairly ironic that a sub-thread descended into flames. While there was
talk of voting on whether GNOME should leave the GNU project, cooler heads
seem to have prevailed, so any vote on that is unlikely. The negative
publicity that resulted from that proposal, however, led to suggestions
that the mailing list cease being public—or that a private list be created—essentially keeping some portion
of the foundation's discussion of its business out of the public eye.
The discussion sprung out of some complaints that the foundation board
got about an inappropriate blog posting from a community member. Since
many blogs of community members are aggregated on Planet GNOME (aka pgo), which is run by the
project, inappropriate content could chase contributors away or reflect
badly on the project.
But the roots of the concern go back further than that. It was brought up by foundation member Dave Neary
back in May, but it certainly wasn't new then either:
I have talked to too many people
who don't read pgo, or have turned off individual blogs, don't use IRC any
more, or avoid certain mailing lists, because they are unhappy with the
tone & content of discussions & posts. If someone is behaving in a way
which is negatively affecting a significant portion of the GNOME community,
the board should be the place to go where you can complain, and have your
complaint publicly recorded (in the minutes of a board meeting, for
example) with anonymity, investigated and evaluated, and if necessary, have
the guilty party censured and/or punished. Currently, this social policing
role has been completely ignored by the foundation and its leaders.
Not surprisingly, there are mixed feelings about having a "policing" role
for the board. But, any kind of solution to the problem requires an
understanding of what "inappropriate" means, and that's where the CoC comes
into play. The code itself is pretty general, listing four things that
community members should strive for:
- Be respectful and considerate
- Be patient and generous
- Assume people mean well
- Try to be concise
The overall intent is summarized in the code: "GNOME creates software
for a better world. We achieve this by behaving well towards each
" Also unsurprisingly there seems to be little disagreement
about the contents of
the code, at least until some kind of enforcement enters the picture.
In November, partially as a response to the problem reported to the board,
board member Lucas Rocha proposed that the CoC become "an official document that new Foundation members are expected
to explicitly agree with before being accepted". But the CoC explicitly
states that there is no "official enforcement of these
principles", so it doesn't sit well with some that folks could just
agree without there being a way to do something if they fail to follow it.
Others, of course, complain that the CoC is far too vague to serve as any
kind of guide for punishing violations. There are also those who think the
problem is small enough that it could be handled on an ad hoc basis by
the pgo editors, as Philip Van Hoof suggested:
My opinion is that incidents like this can be better managed by asking
the maintainers of the planet to do editorial control, and to not shun
away from skipping blog posts.
I think this could use some guidelines (for both the bloggers and the
planet maintainers who for example could inform the blogger about their
decision, allow the blogger to adapt his text, etc).
Others are concerned that GNOME is losing community members because of the
tone and content of Planet GNOME, mailing lists, and other channels. Would
a more formal enforcement section of the CoC—like the one proposed (and later withdrawn) by Jason
D. Clinton—actually help keep those members? Or would it just lead
to a different set becoming disgruntled with the "rules" and leaving because
of that? Those are difficult questions to answer. It is also unclear how
many people have been put off by inappropriate behavior rather than having
left because their interests or employment changed.
Most seemed to be reasonably comfortable with enforcement being left as it
is. There are some obvious problems—porn or spam were
mentioned—that will be dealt with immediately, any others will be
left to the discretion of pgo editors, community members in mailing list
threads, and/or the board.
For Planet GNOME, though, there is a great deal of content that falls well
within the CoC, but might be objectionable for other reasons. The site is
set up to be "a window into the world, work and lives of GNOME
hackers and contributors", but some are not that thrilled with
non-GNOME content being posted there. There was discussion of various
technical measures that could be taken: getting bloggers to limit their pgo
aggregation to posts with certain tags, adding some kind of voting system
to pgo that would raise and lower the visibility of posts based on their
popularity, and so on.
Many current and former GNOME contributors post about their work on their
blog and sometimes those posts refer to non-free software they are working
on. That seems perfectly in keeping with the stated mission of pgo, but it
didn't sit well with Richard Stallman: "GNOME
should not provide proprietary software developers with a platform to
present non-free software as a good or legitimate thing." He
suggested several different options for how he thought the project should
discourage those kinds of postings. That set off a firestorm.
Stallman is strident, and steadfast, in his opposition to non-free
software—something that should surprise no one—but he tends to be
generally polite in his email. Those who were upset by his
suggestions were rather less so. Their position is that the Planet is
following its mission and that none of its content is endorsed by the
project. David "Lefty" Schlesinger put it
Planet GNOME is not presenting anything as anything. It does
not have an editorial stance to espouse, nor a political position to
promote. It's about people, not polemics.
Stallman disagreed, noting: "What it says [has] a
substantial effect on what people think GNOME is all about."
Eventually, Van Hoof proposed a vote on GNOME's
membership in the GNU project, because he believes that GNOME members
do not agree with Stallman:
I understand your position. I think you might not understand the
position of a lot of GNOME foundation members and contributors.
Their position isn't necessarily compatible with your position that
GNOME should "avoid presenting proprietary software as legitimate".
Van Hoof eventually withdrew the proposal for lack of support, along with a
recognition that GNOME's membership in GNU is largely symbolic. When
Behdad Esfahbod pointed to the criteria for GNU
software, Luis Villa noted that "we've always ignored about 90% of this page with no ill
effects for either us or GNU." GNOME and GNU have broadly similar
goals, but overall are not closely aligned. Villa continued:
Which is really my position on the whole thing: the adults in this
project have always treated requests from GNU the same way we treat
requests from any other community member- if it makes sense, we do it;
if it doesn't make sense, we ignore it.
The proposal to leave the GNU project did hit Slashdot and other outlets,
though, which was seen as a bit of negative publicity the project could
just as soon do without. Esfahbod proposed
closing the mailing list to members only, but later amended that to propose
creating a new private list. The consensus seems to be against the
proposal, citing decision-making transparency as a desirable feature for
GNOME. Murray Cumming pointed out that
hiding the discussions will not solve the problem:
You cannot stop silliness on the internet. If you try to hide things
then you'll just make the hidden information seem even more interesting
and you'll have to argue with random unrepresentative public statements
without the benefit of pointing people to the archives for the facts.
Supporters of the idea point out that other projects do have some private
lists, and that allowing non-members to post can just derail the
conversation—much as Stallman and others did. Clinton describes the need for a private list as
This is about signal-to-noise ratio,
not about keeping secrets. It doesn't matter if someone leaks the
discussion; in fact, we should always behave on -private as though it
could and should happen. It objective is to cohesively attain consensus
amongst ourselves without constant, distracting nit-picking by others
whose weight of opinion is not as equal as ours.
One worry is that either all the conversations would migrate to the private
list, reducing the transparency of the project, or that all would stay on
the public list, which would make the new list moot. Sometimes projects
need to struggle with issues, doing so in the open may not make for the
best press, but it may make for the best decisions. As Miguel de Icaza put it:
Raw community discussion is like a kitchen, it might not be pretty,
but what counts is the result. We should be proud of the software that
we create, how we got there, and the fact that we have nothing to hide.
This is not the first time GNOME has struggled with some of these issues,
nor is it likely to be the last. There is much for other projects to consider
here: content of aggregation sites, codes of conduct and what to do if
they are violated, project transparency, and so forth. We are lucky in
many ways that GNOME did have these discussions in the open. Other
projects may make other decisions based on what has been discussed here,
but the recent threads certainly will provide much in the way of food for
thought as those decisions are being made.
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