Ubuntu: Restoring the Community Link

The latest Canonical vs. community uproar has been defused, but for how long?
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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."

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Canonical, community

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