F as in Freedom: Codes of Conduct & Community Guidelines

I haven’t read the code of conduct, but I’m pretty sure I’m about to violate it

Presented at FOSDEM 2017, Brussels, Belgium

This year I attended my first FOSDEM, which was my first European community organized free software conference. It turns out that if you add enough classifiers, anything can be your first something. There were some great sessions.

I gave a talk!

In early 2016, I gave a humor talk on the use of “bad language” and the words “open source” and “frees software” in various combinations on twitter. It was a party. Since then, I adapted the general premise into a very un-scientific study on the use of slurs on mailing lists (specifically the Linux Kernel Mailing List), and the possible role rules and guidelines might have on these things.

Thanks to the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom team at FOSDEM 2017, I had an excuse to delve into this more.

When I was preparing this talk, I wanted people to leave the room knowing:

  1. what awfulness can actually look like, and
  2. that policies are important to providing infrastructure for reporting and acceptable behavior.

Now, almost a month on, I think the most important takeaways are:

  1. Bad things are actually a pretty small part of all the things, but
  2. we cannot let this be an excuse to not actively make ourselves do better.

The talk was a little more spastic than I would have liked it to be—there was, frankly, too much ground I tried to cover. Part of this was an attempt to keep it at least slightly lighthearted by adding some humor, but it was also the overwhelming sense that a lot of things are important and I had to get them all out at once.

Some deets about said talk

To create a shared foundation, we discussed what sorts of things dictate behavior within communities:

  • standards (and other formal policies)
  • best practices
  • social contracts
  • norms

It is at least depicted that a lot of what happens on the internet (or cyber, as I think the politicos are calling it these days) revolves around people being mean. It is commonly accepted that this actually isn’t most of what happens, but it does happen (a lot) and garners a lot of attention. Why it happens is on a case by case basis and the people perpetrating meanness frequently can be categorized as:

  • a desire to “be correct” or “fix wrongness”
  • lack of repercussions
  • group think
  • culture norms
  • mental health, lacking sense of self
  • some people are just mean

This is also where I threw in a Taylor Swift reference and apparently someone in the audience legit did not know who Taytay is. I hope dude got himself some Swiftamine.

The next section of my talk contained a number of examples of the way people talk about free software and how people within free software communities talk to one another. I used examples because I like making people laugh, but also because providing individual cases is more compelling than throwing out charts and graphs and numbers. One death is a tragedy, a thousand a statistic. Or something like that. This was contextualized in various policies used concerning behavior and enforcement. My focus shifted into terms I identified as slurs–words that are treated as insults based on someone’s demographic identifiers or deeply held beliefs (like “gay” or “feminist”).

I briefly touched on codes of conduct, anti-harassment policies, and some rough numbers on incident reports from conferences, looking at what I could pre/post the adoption of a behavioral policy. This was even less scientific, even more scattered, and something I would LOVE to do more of.

I’m really hoping to do more poking around at this and these ideas. If you run a conference or event and are willing to (as anonymously as you are interested in) talk about harassment at your event, please contact me. I’m planning on doing more poking around on mailing lists too, since the LKML is really only one case and super unscientific.


Slides: (FOSDEM 2017) – mdb

Video: F as in Freedom: Codes of Conduct and Community Guidelines

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