social guidelines for open communities

Some time ago, I read a paragraph on the book “Producing Open Source Software“, by Karl Fogel, explaining the need to write down conventions and agreements that have become essential for daily life in an open source community. In this way, people joining your community at a later point can quickly grasp its folklore and tacit rules (not only techincal rules, but also for social interaction).

Since the book is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0, I can post the following excerpt to illustrate the above point:

Don’t try to be comprehensive. No document can capture everything people need to know about participating in a project. Many of the conventions a project evolves remain forever unspoken, never mentioned explicitly, yet adhered to by all. Other things are simply too obvious to be mentioned, and would only distract from important but non-obvious material. For example, there’s no point writing guidelines like “Be polite and respectful to others on the mailing lists, and don’t start flame wars,” or “Write clean, readable bug-free code.” Of course these things are desirable, but since there’s no conceivable universe in which they might not be desirable, they are not worth mentioning. If people are being rude on the mailing list, or writing buggy code, they’re not going to stop just because the project guidelines said to

Well, I completely agree with this point of view. However, over the past years FLOSS has become quite popular among a broader audience. And we have to acknowledge that some of these new participants may not have this very simple, but fundamental perspective in mind, for multiple reasons. There have always been many examples of this kind, since human relationships are complex and frequently not as precise as we would need them to be in the digital world, without direct face-to-face interaction. But there was a general perception about a growing number of cases were good manner and politeness were flagrantly obviated, and not only in open source communities, but also in other open coumminites around free knowledge production.


That’s why this recent post on Jono Bacon’s blog quickly got my attention. Jono is the Ubuntu community manager, and he’s quite respected for his extensive experience in this role. He’s also the author of the authoritative book about Community management, “The Art of Community“. Once a year, he also hosts the Community Leadership Summit. I think these are strong arguments for taking his word for this. I really love this part:

I love to have a good debate, and I am never afraid to shake hands and say “let’s just agree to disagree” or calmly not participate.

In fact, a growing number of participants in debates (not only in virtual communities, but also in live debates, let alone TV shows) think that the ultimate goal is to completely convince the other interlocutors who don’t share their own point of view. However, the most positive side of debates is actually to exchange different points of view. Of course, there are key differences, depending on the topic. Sometimes, you discuss really technical stuff, and there are quite clear arguments in favor of a certain solution (for efficiency reasons, development guidelines, readability, maintainability, compatibility, etc.). But some other times, the arguments just express opinions on a certain issue, and there may be different points of view.

One way or the other, I think that this call for respect in open communities is really in place, right now. And thus I fully support its aim. Please, help to spread the word and preserve the healthy spirit of open collaboration around free knowledge.