Challenging bad behavior

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Jono considers how to deal constructively with the negativity that can crop up within the community.

I have been working with Open Source communities for almost 15 years, and I have been working as a community manager for the past 10 of those years. During this time, I have been touched by many wonderful, giving, and selfless people who take time away from their families and friends to create Free Software for others to use. This generosity and collaboration has fueled my own passion for community and optimizing how we grow and foster great communities.

Unfortunately, every coin has two sides, and the other side of this fantastic generosity and selflessness are some people who are disrespectful, mean, and rude to others. We see this in many different communities, inside and outside the Free Software community.

This negativity tends to manifest in two forms. First, a decision or announcement in a project will spark a flurry of blog posts and angry comment threads, and the press will often pick up on this and report on the controversy. Second, people are mean and disrespectful on a one-on-one basis when commenting on an individual or their contributions. Regardless of how this happens, it all boils down to the conduct that is exhibited during discussion and commentary.

This negative behavior has frustrated me for quite some time for one simple reason: It demotivates good people.

Speaking personally, I have developed a pretty thick skin over the years. In my position as a public figure in a large community like Ubuntu, which has always sought to challenge itself and the norm, decisions have been made that people have disagreed with. This has sometimes resulted in people aiming angry rhetoric in my direction, often presuming that I make all the decisions at Canonical, which is not the case. Consequently, I have worked to psychologically separate legitimate criticism that can help the project improve from angry shouty nonsense that is best ignored.

Although I have had the opportunity to make my hobby my career and thus acquired this thick skin as part of my job, most Free Software contributors are hobbyists and have not had this opportunity. Many of these folks contribute in their spare time after work and on weekends. Their efforts are shared with the wider Free Software commons, and they put their heart and soul into it. Consequently, positive feedback is massively motivating, but negative feedback and disrespectful barbs can be hugely demotivating to a volunteer who is creating something and sharing it openly with others.

This is where my frustration lies. When people don't provide constructive and respectful feedback and instead resort to aggressive and disrespectful conduct, it chips away at the motivation of many people. This can happen on a one-on-one basis with individual contributors. But, in a larger project like Ubuntu, when disrespectful language is directed at one part of the project, it can demotivate members of other teams within the Ubuntu family. Isolated incidents are not as much of a problem, but persistent negative conduct can cause people to give up and use their time for something else.

My view has been pretty consistent. Every community should welcome critical viewpoints; different perspectives are valuable in helping us challenge who we are and the software and projects we create. The important point here is that all feedback should be polite, respectful, and preferably focused on finding a solution or providing context for the feedback.

For example, I often see posts such as "XYZ sucks" or "XYZ is a buggy piece of crap." These criticisms would be much more valuably communicated as "I don't use XYZ because of foo, bar, and baz," and "I stopped using XYZ due to some bugs I found in foo and instability in bar." The latter way of communicating (a) removes the personally disrespectful tone (which prevents demotivating folks) and (b) provides more context and detail about the viewpoints shared that could then trigger a longer discussion about potentially resolving those issues.

The challenge of this situation is that neither I nor anyone else can press a button to solve this problem. The only practical solution is to confront rude and disrespectful conduct when it happens and emphasize the points I have raised here. If we all confront this kind of negative conduct head on, we will have an opportunity to change the general tone and quality of collaboration across our various communities and make participating more fun and inspiring for us all.

Jono Bacon

Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, engineering manager, consultant, and author. Currently he works as the Ubuntu Community Manager at Canonical, leading a team that grows, inspires, and encourages the global Ubuntu community.

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