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Monitoring Fedora's halls

By Jonathan Corbet
November 4, 2009
Like many development projects, Fedora would like for its mailing lists to be a nicer place. Hostile and flame-filled lists can only drive away potential contributors who do not have the stomach (or the email-reading bandwidth) for that kind of discussion. Fedora's approach to this problem is the "hall monitor policy," which empowers certain community members to act to suppress conversations which are deemed to be counterproductive. The monitors (Josh Boyer, Tom "Spot" Callaway, and Seth Vidal) recently made use of their power on fedora-devel-list; as a result, we can see what kind of discussion the project would rather do without.

The policy tasks the hall monitors this way:

They will be subscribed to and monitor the selected mailing lists for instances of posts that are out of line with the "be excellent to each other" motto. This includes, but is not limited to: personal attacks, profanity directed at people or groups, serious threads [sic] of violence, or other things seen by the monitor as to be purposefully disrespectful.

Should they encounter this kind of stuff, they can send warnings to specific participants in the discussion, force their email to go through moderators for a day or two, and issue "thread closure" notices to try to halt out-of-control conversations.

The thread which brought on the monitors seemed to start innocently enough - though many observers could have predicted what was going to happen. Ankur Sinha posted a help request noting that wodim was failing to burn DVDs correctly. Your editor can hear the forehead-slapping from here: any such post is well known, by now, to be an open invitation for Jörg Schilling to show up and complain about the existence of wodim (and its parent package cdrkit) when distributions should, of course, be shipping his cdrtools package. Show up he did, with predictable results.

This particular issue has been covered here before; there is really nothing new to report about it. But that did not stop Jörg from repeating his arguments on the list - lots of times. After a while, Tom served notice that the thread was "now covered under the hall-monitor policy" and that future posts would elicit formal warnings. It took a few of those warnings, but the intervention had the desired effect: the thread has pretty well died out.

One could see this action as a victory for those trying to improve the mailing list environment. Cdrtools-related threads, wherever they appear, tend to go on for a very long time and to accomplish very little. Doubtless there are plenty of fedora-devel-list subscribers who do not regret this thread's truncation.

But one should always question the suppression of conversation, and there are things to question here. The thread seemed to be profanity-free, and there were no threats of violence. Some messages could, perhaps, be seen as a "personal attack" or "disrespectful" against Jörg, but they were on the mild side; fedora-devel-list has seen far worse. Serious flames were all but lacking here. The discussion, while treading on the edge of what policy allows, did not clearly go beyond it. So one might speculate that the real reason this thread was shut down was (1) the monitors had good reason to believe that it was about to escalate into clearly policy-infringing territory, or (2) they just didn't want to endure yet another interminable cdrtools argument.

Either way, the shutdown could be seen as a little troubling. Distributors should think twice before silencing developers who are unhappy about how their software is being distributed (in all fairness, Red Hat and Fedora have given Jörg several opportunities to express his view on this matter). Some participants were trying to talk about the poor state of cdrkit, which is an increasingly serious problem. Many of us burn fewer disks than we used to, but there is still a need for a good program for the writing of optical media. Cdrkit works for a lot of people, but it has clear problems and does not seem to be under any sort of active development. Suppressing discussions will not make that problem go away.

This intervention may well have been justified; certainly it's unlikely that anything useful was going to come from that particular discussion. But the use of repressive power should always be reviewed. It would be a shame if, someday, an important development project came to have very polite "halls" where people were afraid or unable to talk about important issues.

Comments (4 posted)

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