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Re: Both DPL candidates: handling social conflict

Hi Lars,

On 13 Mar 2014, at 10:05, Lars Wirzenius <liw@liw.fi> wrote:
> We have, from time to time, situations within the project where
> people's feelings are strong and raw at the same time. These might
> turn into outright flame wars, but even before they go that far, they
> can be damaging. For example, most of the init system discussions of
> the past couple of years haven't been flame wars, but they have been
> divisive and have caused hurt feelings and generally made Debian be
> less fun for a lot of people.
> Some of these situations are traditionally difficult for us to deal
> with. Clear trolling, or name calling, or unambiguous flaming is easy
> to deal with.

Indeed, though I’m a little bit concerned about the amount of flack that some of our teams (BTS owners and listmasters) have had to deal with for doing a difficult job in this area.

> Where we typically fail, as a project, is dealing well
> with situations when people mainly talk past each other, not listening
> to the other parties, and are entrenched and uncompromising, leading
> to quite voluminous discussions that often don't make any progress.

I think this is an element of how people communicate on the Internet, unfortunately. This isn’t to say that this is *right* or that we should  accept it, but we should recognise the underlying causes here.

> My question is: what do you think we, as a project, and you, if
> elected as DPL, can do to handle such situations, and ideally prevent
> them? I am asking a general question, not specifically about the init
> discussions.

In general, and not specific to the init system, I think the code of conduct does go quite some way to help define what we accept as a community.

Having in my political career been involved with a number of negotiations affecting thousands of staff, my experience is that the core way of avoiding situations and being able to look past disagreements is to accept that the “other side” has legitimate views and concerns.

This can be both technical, and social. Debian has always prided itself as managing to fulfil both these roles. I don’t think that any contentious decision can be described as purely technical. After all, if it was just a technical decision, then the answer would be the technically correct one, right? :)

I believe the process we have for resolving these disputes is actually working well, but is perhaps not clear enough for those either outside the project, or those inside the project who have not seen or studied these before. The reminder of yet another how-do-we-release debate, or the periodic nonfree-firmware-in-main GRs should serve as a reminder to us that our collective memory as a project isn’t the best., especially for people who weren’t around at the time.

Now, on specifically, what can the DPL do to help this, I have two answers.
Firstly, the DPL can act as a mediator for issues. It’s important that the DPL can evaluate both sides of a disagreement without favour. They can also work with various parties to try and come to a successful outcome.
Secondly, as DPL, I would not do the above unless required. The DPL has an important role, they have a mandate from the electorate to deliver their goals and help drive the project on. However, this does not mean getting involved in every little argument. To be successful (and remain sane!) I believe the DPL should ensure that the major issues are dealt with, and that less important problems are pushed to the sidelines. If there’s something that’s harming the future progress of the project, then that’s legitimate. Otherwise, the DPL will spend an enormous amount of time on something that’s (in the long run) just not that important as a whole.

For preventing the situations in the first place, I think that a) ensuring that people understand the process and b) understand the context in which they may or may not affect decisions is key for someone (or failing the mythical someone appearing, which seems to happen fairly regularly, the DPL) to communicate.

I seem to have written quite a lot of text above, but I don’t think the atmosphere in Debian is actually bad, especially compared with the past. There are issues which require attention, but we should also remember our core values as mentioned in my platform. Debian is a disparate group, but one who is bound together by common goals. Remembering that is key to understanding that we all share the same ideals.

> In previous years we've had a number of discussions about this, and in
> those a "social committee" has been proposed. What do you think about
> that?

I’m undecided when it comes to the social committee, mainly because I’m not sure what it’s trying to do in Debian in 2014, rather than back in 2007. A key quote shamelessly taken from http://lwn.net/Articles/221077/ for me would be that we should "develop social and cultural norms for the entire project first, based on what all developers could agree to. After all, members of the Debian project all agree on certain aspects, which could be summarized, just like the project's technical policy.”

After that, I believe that instead of a full blown social committee, we should be able to resolve issues via the DPL as above, or a trusted third party who the DPL asks to look into the issue. If the above fails, and I don’t see any reason why at the moment it should, then a social committee may well be the answer, but this should be a final option as it seems to me a rather heavyweight process.


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