It's Time for a FOSS Community Code of Conduct

Given the consistent level of attacks, a voluntary code would allow Free and Open Source users more time to focus on common goals.
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Personal abuse, quotes taken out of context, misrepresentations, outright lies -- if you have any visibility in the free and open source software (FOSS) community, the chances are that you regularly face all these kinds of attacks. You can try to answer them, but the people responsible seem to have endless energy for debate.

In the end, you have to fall silent for lack of time, leaving the attackers crowing over your defeat, and yourself wondering where the attack came from and what you do about it.

You can see this growing viciousness in the hostile reaction to KDE last spring, or in sites like the just-defunct Linux Hater's Blog, as well as the articles of professional and semi-professional journalists who demonize anyone who fails to agree with them completely. More often, though, you see it on mailing lists or in the comments on news sites.

Aaron Seigo of KDE described the problem the other month in his blog:

Every so often someone with a real crank on will start following me around the intrawebs posting their hallowed viewpoint on me. It seems to happen to everyone with an even moderately public profile. Usually they get stuck on one message and then post it consistently everywhere they can as some sort of therapeutic outpouring of their inner angst. Most people don't last more than a couple weeks at this, though I've had a couple of people with real commitment dog me for a year or more.
Seigo admits that, being visible, vocal, and outspoken, he makes an easy target. It's not that he objects to views he doesn't agree with, he says, but that "I don't have time for pointlessness."

Few will go on the record with Seigo, but, privately, I have heard complaints similar to his voiced at least half a dozen times in the last year or so. I've voiced them myself, although I suspect that I'm not hounded by a tenth of the cranks that plague someone like Seigo. And if a lowly journalist is facing these attacks, you can be sure that they are becoming more common everywhere.

Such attacks are abusing the freewheeling freedom of expression that is the norm in FOSS. By refusing to temper this freedom with responsibility, those who make them are seriously handicapping the community that they claim to represent.

To counter this abuse, I suggest that community members voluntarily subscribe to a code of conduct to create a frame of reference in which the abuse can be countered and judged. Getting everybody, or even many people to agree to such a code would not be easy, but it might be the quickest way to deal with the growing problem.

The sources of the attacks

The attacks that I am talking about are not unique to FOSS. The American fantasist Harlan Ellison touched on the subject decades ago in an introduction to one of his short story collections entitled, "I Don't Know You, You Don't Know Me." In another introduction, he talks about people attributing all sorts of attitudes to him on the assumption that he only writes what he believes. As Seigo suggests, a certain amount of these attacks seem inevitable whenever someone has any sort of reputation.

But why such attacks are becoming so prevalent in FOSS is harder to explain. Perhaps their origins are part of the worldwide fallout from the unusually heated and prolonged American presidential campaign, in which attack ads and ad hominem attacks have become the norm. After all, for all its economic problems, the United States remains the origin of many global trends and attitudes.

Or perhaps relative newcomers to FOSS are taking out their frustrations with unresponsive proprietary companies on prominent members of the community. Unlike company executives, FOSS developers and maintainers are accessible, so they get the suppressed anger that should be aimed at the executives.

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Tags: open source, Linux, software, IT

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