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Open Respect: about time

I recently became aware of the new initiative from Jono Bacon called “open respect”. As you may know, this campaign and accompanying website aims to improve the standard of communications between members of the Free Software community, particularly where it takes place in informal environments, such as online forums.

Although this initiative resulted from some potentially just community criticism of Canonical’s recent actions relating to Gnome, I’d like to stress the importance of this project’s message.

The importance of maintaining a fair and civil tone in online FS exchanges may seem obvious to many. However, I see this issue as more than merely lipservice or sour grapes. In fact, I consider the tone and spirit of a community and its communication to be critical to the continued growth of Free Software’s user base.

Around the end of July a crisis developed at the British Computer Society (a chartered institute with headquarters in London’s Covent Garden). The BCS’ published an article by the director of a British FS company which made several contraversial and arguably unsubstantiated claims regarding the relartive insecurirty of GNU/Linux in comparison to proprietary operating systems. Bedlam ensued in the form of hundreds of comments (several streching to hundreds of words) submitted to the article, and tens of others on FSFE’s UK mailing list. Multiple complaints were filed with BCS.

The tone of responses turned personal, expletive, and enraged by comment number two. Diatribes were exchanged. And even on FSFE’s list, verbal attacks came thick and fast, and were at times just as unsubstantiated as the article which they rebuked. Some contributions sounded positively rabid. The venom was palpable.

For me, the fact that the BCS had been foolish enough to publish the poorly thought out piece was not particularly newsworthy. Biased stories concerning Linux security are published every day of the year, by more reputable agencies than BCS. The disproportionate reaction of the British Free Software community was, however, unwelcome news. When I voiced my concerns about the escalation and degeneration of debate to those concerned, I found myself in an apparent minority of one.

“I don’t think that this kind of reaction does Free Software in the UK any favours…from reading these comments many people would think that Free Software advocates are extremists” – from my post to FSFE’s UK list.

Managing the atmosphere of online communities takes work. Creating an environment where newcomers feel confident when asking questions, and where knowledgeable members stay around long enough to correct and inform those less experienced requires skill and patience. When its done correctly however, a productive and resilient community can develp, and provide the necessary catalysis for knowledge and development to thrive. Here I would point to two examples of groups that have achieved this balance: the PCLinuxOS community forums, and the Maemo.org community website. Both are routinely cited as their respective project’s ‘killer feature’, and both have successfully retained users and visitors over a period of several years.

For Windows users coming to a GNU/Linux desktop for the first time there is a huge amount to learn. Much of this information isn’t written down, and that which is takes skill to find for those who are uninitiated. Whether or not these details get communicated clearly and quickly, with patience and understanding, can be a deciding factor in whether an intrepid Free OS adventurer becomes a habitual user, and potential advocate. It is therefore of vital importance that users are routinely treated with respect. If this is overlooked then new users will never graduate from asking irritating obvious questions, and existing users will become disillusioned and cease to provide the necessary framework of support that makes a voluntary community.

Respect, tolerance and dignity are necessary components of effective communication and group cohesion in a medium which doesn’t allow for tempering body-language or verbal inflection. For these reasons I warmly welcome the Open Respect initiative. This inter-community effort to address such a critical issue is long overdue.

So, what do you think ?