An open letter to the Ubuntu IRC community and wider Ubuntu community

Below is a copy of An open letter to the Ubuntu IRC community and wider Ubuntu community sent to the Ubuntu IRC Team mailing list. Please post responses on the list if you want to take part in the discussion.

This is an open letter addressed to the Ubuntu IRC Council, the Ubuntu Community Council, the Ubuntu IRC Team, and the wider Ubuntu community.

In this letter we intend to raise some concerns that we, the undersigned, have regarding the maintenance of the Ubuntu IRC channels and the attitude of those responsible for that maintenance.
The first few words of the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, and central to the point of this letter, are “Ubuntu is about showing humanity to one another”. These words are at the very core of our shared philosophy, and something we all strongly believe in. They serve as the core motivation for this letter as we, sadly, believe this is something the IRC team are failing at.

It is the shared opinion of those of us who have signed this letter, that over recent years the management of the Ubuntu IRC channels has become less about showing humanity towards others and more about robotically enforcing rules and punishing those who stray from them.
It is not our intent or the purpose of this letter to single out any individual, or group, as being responsible for this. This letter is not, and should not be interpreted as, an attack of any particular operator or their specific actions. Rather, it is our belief that this is something that’s evolved in the culture of the IRC team, and is not the fault or failing of any single person or group within the team. This is a failing of all of us in the IRC community, especially those of us who have or have had leadership roles and high standing in the community, to maintain the high standard which we must hold ourselves and each other to.
Several of us within the IRC community have, quietly, mumbled to each other of our discontent with the culture that seem to be evolving, but have none of us have stood up and spoken out. This is an attempt to rectify that mistake in the hope of bringing this to the attention of the wider community and to encourage an open debate.

There has been a growing tendency amongst the channel operators to use kicks/removes and bans as the sole means of keeping the IRC channels free from disruption. These actions are taken at the first sign of variation from the channel rules, and action is often taken against users without attempting to understand the context of situations that arise.
While this tactic does generally work to maintain order in our channels, it’s what most other channels on freenode do after all, we maintain that this is just not good enough for the Ubuntu community. We believe that we can, should, and must do better. And we will point out some of the ways we believe this can be done in this letter.
More and more, within the IRC team, there is a growing culture of kick/ban first and ask questions latter, or not at all. We believe that this is unhealthy and goes against the philosophy of Ubuntu. We believe that it is the responsibility of every member of the IRC team to avoid using kicks/bans unless there is no other choice. It should be our aim to at least try to resolve issues without using these means, and use them only when we fail at our attempts to resolve issues by other means. We must work harder to resolve any issues that arise in our channels by talking with those involved, not by immediately taking authoritative action.
Contrary to this there is also a growing culture of giving people “enough rope to hang themselves with”, this is plainly wrong and must stop. If we notice someone skating along the edges of our rules we should first open a dialogue with them, with the aim to prevent the need to take action, and not wait for (or even provoke) a ban-worthy action. We should be more willing to investigate the context of complains or calls for operator assistance, so we have a good understanding of the situation before deciding what kind of action to take. We are not just charged with maintaining order in the Ubuntu IRC channels, but with maintaining the open and friendly culture which attracted many of us to these channels in the first place.

We believe that simply using operator action, without any attempt to defuse or discuss an issue, only leads to situations where those people on the other end are made to feel angry and upset, they feel like they have been victimised by those who wield power over the channel. More over, it does not promote a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, it only serves to inflame already emotionally tense situations.
There is more and more an assumption that people who appear to be disruptive are “just trolls” and are’t worthy of any effort on our part, that we should simply remove them for the good of the channel and forget about them. Although this is sometimes the case, it is our view that we, as maintainers of the IRC channels, should only reach for our operator powers when we have no alternative. Ideally, we should do so when we have already tried to resolve a situation unsuccessfully, or when a users intent is abundantly clear to only to cause disruption to the channel. It should be our intent, whenever possible, to resolve any situation in as much of an amicable was as possible. Our goal should be to strive for a “problem user” to be “talked around” and remain in the channel, and help them to become an active and positive contributor to the community.
Part of this is that we should be more inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt and a second chance, and less inclined to simply banish, shove links and bot commands containing rules down people’s throats, and demand blind obedience from them. We should convince them of why we have the rules we have, that they are there to serve the goal of creating a safe, friendly, and welcoming environment for anyone who wishes to be a part of it. It is our responsibility to act as ambassadors of the Ubuntu community, and to live up to the high standards we set ourselves and to which others hold us to. This includes us being actively involved in maintaining pleasant and friendly atmosphere in our channels, which the mechanical and rigid application of the letter of the rules does not serve.
It is the responsibility of every single channel operator to actively work towards avoiding situations that end in people feeling victimised by those with power. It is the purpose of our operators to not only maintain order in our channels, but to make them a friendly and relaxed place for all members of our community to collaborate in. A place where people can freely exchange their knowledge and expertise, talk with those who share a common interest, or just relax in.

It should be made clear that every single one of our operators is a volunteer. They have been generous enough to devote their time and energies to the Ubuntu IRC community, because it’s something they care about. It’s that we care so greatly that’s motivated us to write this letter, and it’s also why we believe we can and must do better than we currently are.
When volunteering, every one of us agreed to the responsibilities involved when we accepted the position, we did so because we wanted to give back to the community, to help it to grow and to keep, at its core, the humanity we all share. It may sound somewhat harsh, but if an operator no longer feels that they are up to these responsibilities, they should take a break from active duty or, in the extreme, retire from the team.
Being an operator in our channels is hard work, we often spend the majority of our time dealing with the very worst that IRC has to offer and get little to no thanks for our efforts. However, we must not let this diminish our core belief in the humanity Ubuntu stands for, it is after all that humanity we all strive to protect by volunteering our time and effort.

It is our opinion that, unfortunately, the task of maintaining this humanity is something we are currently failing at. We have become lazy in our responsibilities, and complacent with the growing culture of reaction over prevention. It is not that we have become lax in keeping the channels in order, we have become lazy in how we decide to achieve this.
Too often we tend to reach for operator powers at the first We need to at least attempt to convince people why we have the rules we have, and not just demand people follow them or be banished.sign of trouble. We use bots to give automated responses, when we could instead talk to people directly. We shove links for rules and appeal processes in peoples faces, instead of being actively involved with trying to disarm a situation before it develops into something we must take action against. We should be more willing to talk with people, in our channels, even if it’s “offtopic” at first. A few lines of off-topic chat are worth it, and we can always move the conversation to private message or #ubuntu-ops/#ubuntu-irc if it becomes more involved or disruptive to other activities in the channel. We need to at least attempt to convince people why we have the rules we have, and not just demand people follow them or be banished.
We need to realize and remember what it’s like to be on the other side, how people can react to it, how it makes them feel, and we need to show understanding to them. The internet is often a cold and hostile place, and people react accordingly. We are here to show them we have a better way, one that’s based on mutual respect and understanding for everyone. It should always be our intent to bring people into the community, not chase them out of it. The way we are going now is only damaging the community which we all care so much about.

When dealing with an appeal against action, in #ubuntu-ops, there is a bad habit for many of us to say something similar to “come back in 24 hours” and end the conversation there. When people question this, the response becomes “come ban in 48 hours, want to keep going?”. The original idea of this 24 hour break was to allow people to cool off before coming back to discuss problem behaviour, It is completely unacceptable that it has come to be used as a further punishment, as a stick to beat people into submission with, or because we simply don’t want to deal with someone right now.
There is no excuse for this, just a culture which accepts it blindly. Each of our channels have many operators, this is not just so we have all time-zones covered, but so we can share the work load of dealing with issues and pass them along to disinterested team members. If we feel that we are too emotionally involved, or that there is a perception of bias, we should try to find another team member to take over the discussion. Even if they are team members who aren’t operators in the channel the issue arose in, they can help to work out a resolution to be enacted by a channel operator.
Another part of the problem is that there’s a long standing “policy” amongst our operators that a ban can only be removed, or even discussed, by the operator who set it. Operators do not “own” bans. This was not an official policy, and is still not today. It only grew out of the rational that the operator who took action knows the most about the situation, and is best placed to resolve it.
However, since back then we have put a system in place, in the ban tracker, that allows us to add notes to any actions we take in channels, and “mark” noteworthy incidents. For this reason that old rational no longer makes sense. If we utilise the ban tracker properly, there is no reason that the original operator should have any special knowledge that makes them the only ones capable of resolving an issue. Anyone should be able to understand a situation by looking at the notes and try and come to a resolution, and we need to get rid of the fear of doing so.

There has been a noticeable increase of extremely upset and angry interactions in #ubuntu-ops between users and our operators, we don’t believe that this is a coincidence. We believe it’s a direct consequence of the style of management we have come to use, and that it’ll only continue to get worse if we choose to do nothing about it. The aggressive, authoritative, and rigid application of channel rules in our channels, #ubuntu especially, is a direct cause of these interactions. It is a consequence of the culture amongst the IRC team to assume the worst in people, to assume that people are “trolls” and it would be pointless to attempt to talk to them.
There is a freenode policy, Catalysts http://freenode.net/catalysts.shtml, that has much in common to how we would like our operators to behave, and also how we encourage every user of our channels to act. We aren’t suggesting that adopting this policy will solve our problems, rather we want to show that it’s not unique to our community. But we believe we can be the shining example of the spirit that was written in.
The IRC management aim for our channels to be mostly self-regulating, where we respect others opinions and are considerate of their views regardless of how much “power” they have. We need to work towards more of that, if only to reduce the work load on our operators and slow the rate of burn-out. This is about making cultural changes in how we choose to implement our policies, and to involve the wider community.

We know there will be some who point out that the action of those angry users in #ubuntu-ops can not be tolerated, so to be absolutely clear: we do not condone the words and actions of these people in #ubuntu-ops. We only wish to point out that we should all understand the reasons this happens, so we can work towards avoiding them in the future and resolving them when they do arise.
It is also worth pointing out that we, as operators, are role models for the community. When we are seen being strict and rigid, it is the example we are setting for the rest of the community to follow. This is is damaging to our community, and it is up to us all to work towards changing how we act in future. In the hope of not just fewer angry exchanges in #ubuntu-ops, but to making our IRC channels a pleasant and friendly place for all who wish to use them.

The IRC Council, as a relatively new council, have done much amazing work over the last few years. The council have been very good at creating policies, at standardizing how the IRC team operate, and at encouraging separate sections of the IRC community to come together. These are all accomplishments the council should be congratulated for, and we congratulate them here. There are areas where we feel the council has not stepped up to its responsibilities, and one of these is managing the IRC team effectively.
The council, from time to time, will appoint new operators to channels when needed. But it has never revoked operator privileges from or taken disciplinary action against a single person, even though in our opinion it has been warranted in the past.
Several of us in the IRC team have served terms in the IRC council, including some of the signatories to this letter. And so speaking ex-members, we’d like to expose that there’s a fear within the council of the vocal minority. The fear is that it would be too difficult, and/or too disruptive, to ever take disciplinary action against a member of the IRC team. It’s simply not an acceptable situation for the oversight body of the IRC team to be this reluctant to act when team members overstep their bounds.
This is a historic issue and not one that is specific to the current council or its members. As previous councillors, we recognise and accept that we share fault for this. But it does seem to be easier to bring this issue to bring this issue forward when not an actively serving member of the council, with some detachment from that fear.

It is our opinion that the IRC team has become complacent and somewhat jaded. No one questions the status-quo, no one questions overly authoritative stance taken or actions which can easily be perceived as aggressive. No one questions anything any more. New operators come along, see that this is the way things are done, and are soon copying what they see as the norm.
This is the culture we must work towards rejecting and changing. We all know the ideals we should be striving for and we believe most, if not all, of us know that we’re falling short of them.
What we must do now is muster the strength and commitment required to make a concerted effort to get back on track. It is our hope that this letter will be the catalyst we need to revitalize our community, remind ourselves of our commitments and responsibilities to it, and give us all the motivation to work together for a stronger, more human, community.

Signed:
Terence Simpson (tsimpson), Jussi Schultink (jussi), Liam Dunn (ldunn), John Chiazzese, (IdleOne)

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