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Does Debian need a Social Committee?

February 7, 2007

This article was contributed by Joey Schulze

The idea of a "Social Committee" came up during a private discussion. With about 1,000 active developers the Debian project has grown to a size where a lot of problems are expected to happen. As an international project, Debian people originate from different countries and have different social backgrounds which may contribute to some problems.

Josip Rodin proposed to establish a "Social Committee" within the Debian project, a term Andreas Tille coined. Such a committee would try to resolve or mitigate conflicts between various members of the Debian project which are not of a technical matter. For the latter, the "Technical Committee" has developed the Debian policy manual.

According to Josip, the mere existence of such a committee would already indicate a major change in the thinking of Debian developers. In fact, many developers have evolved into strong personalities. It's good to have self-confident people maintain important packages and infrastructure, but it is not always helpful when dealing with different opinions or even conflicts.

Social conflicts could emerge when two developers get in dispute over a bug report or a discussion and don't seem to accept the other person's opinion. On mailing lists, a participant could demonstrate difficult behavior when communicating with other people. This could be a situation where mitigation is required. When teams inside the Debian project cause non-technical problems with other groups, or with the general developer body, the "Social Committee" could be called for help.

Josip outlined how such a committee could work. First, it would have to agree on its own charter, similar to other groups within the Debian project. Once established, the committee would become active only upon request by other developers or mailing list participants, just like the Technical Committee.

The social committee would delegate certain tasks such as monitoring mailing lists and teams inside the project. The developers acting as delegates would have a bit more authority to talk about problems than the average member of the groups they're sent to. However, they may need to earn this authority or respect first, by monitoring the discussions and ensuring that all problems are addressed and no complaints go unresolved.

Manoj Srivastava, leader of the Technical Committee, questioned this proposal, however. He noted that all social problems are very much subjective. Participants come from a variety of cultures and may recognize interaction with others differently. Often they come with different norms and metrics which could make solving conflicts difficult for a neutral third party.

In response, Lars Wirzenius, countered with the suggestion to develop social and cultural norms for the entire project first, based on what all developers could agree to. After all, members of the Debian project all agree on certain aspects, which could be summarized, just like the project's technical policy.

Currently, it is not clear which powers such a committee could use to enforce a social policy, due to the nature of the Debian project. Its members are volunteers and not employees on a company's payroll. Hence, adding pressure to people could become an interesting exercise.

While the "Social Committee" will become active only upon special request, it can also only exercise selective enforcement which might be interpreted as unfair. The same behavior by other people on the same mailing list may be tolerated.

If there is something resembling a discussion culture in the Debian project, it's most probably a very tough one. Some list participants usually put on armored pants when discussing controversial issues on the lists. Debian people are known for raising their voices loudly. This is not limited to Debian developers, though. However, it's surely a detail that drives away interested people when they accidentally find themselves in the middle of a flame war.

It happens every now and then that discussions on mailing lists end up as flame wars of one sort or another. One side pretends to know what another participant thinks and their words get interpreted in a way that was not intended. This is often followed by smearing and more smearing, soon the entire discussion becomes totally useless and only eats up bandwidth and disk space.

Because of this behavior, a "Social Committee" or at least a mildly enforced charter for Debian lists is due. For several years the Debian code of conduct has asked participants not to use foul language and not to flame. However, the number of discussions that have been turned into flame wars has rather increased recently.

The code of conduct for the Ubuntu community covers the behavior of its members in any forum, mailing list, wiki, web site, IRC channel, install-fest, public meeting or private correspondence. The Ubuntu Community Council will arbitrate in any dispute over the conduct of a member of the community. The number of flame wars in this community demonstrates at least that it is possible to limit them to a minimum.

Several responses in the discussion on the "Social Committee" for the Debian project indicate a strong interest in this, and a desire to improve the climate. However, some developers are skeptical both on the establishment of such a committee and its potential exercise of power. In the meantime Gustavo Franco started to build an ombudsman team that will improve several social issues.

Comments (4 posted)

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