Monthly Archives: October 2015

Respect and the Linux Kernel Mailing Lists

I recently noticed that Sarah Sharp resigned publicly from the kernel giving a failure to impose a mandatory code of conduct as the reason and citing interaction problems, mainly on the mailing lists.  The net result of this posting, as all these comments demonstrate, is to imply directly that nothing has ever changed.  This implication is incredibly annoying, firstly because it is actually untrue, secondly because it does more to discourage participation than the behaviour that is being complained about and finally because it totally disrespects and ignores the efforts of hundreds of people who, over the last decade or so, have been striving to improve all interactions around Linux … a rather nice irony given that “respect” is listed as one of the issues for the resignation.  I’d just like to remind everyone of the history of these efforts and what the record shows they’ve achieved.

The issue of respect on the Mailing lists goes way back to the beginnings of Linux itself, but after the foundation of the OSDL (precursor to the Linux Foundation) Technical Advisory Board (TAB), one of its first issues from OSDL member companies was the imbalance between Asian and European/American contributions to the kernel.  The problems were partly to do with Management culture and partly because the lack of respect on the various mailing lists was directly counter to the culture of respect in a lot of Asian countries and disproportionately discouraged contributions from that region.  The TAB largely works behind the scenes, but some aspects of the effort filtered into the public domain as can be seen with a session on developer relations at the 2007 kernel summit (and, in fact, at a lot of other kernel summits since then).  Progress was gradual, and influenced by a large number of people, but the climate did improve.  I have to confess that I don’t follow LKML (not because of the flame war issues, simply because it’s too much of a firehose); however, the lists I do participate in (linux-scsi, linux-ide, linux-mm, linux-fsdevel, linux-efi, linux-arch, linux-parisc) haven’t seen any flagrantly disrespectful and personally insulting posts for several years now.  Indeed, when an individual came along who could almost have been flame bait for this with serial efforts to get incorrect and badly thought out patches into the kernel (I won’t give cites here to avoid stigmatising individuals) they met with a large reserve of patience and respectful and helpful advice before finally being banned from the lists for being incorrigible … no insults or flames at all.

Although I’d love to take credit for some of this, I’ve got to say that I think the biggest influencer towards civility is actually the “professionalisation”  of Linux: Employers pay people to work on Linux but the statements of those people become identified with their employers (no matter how many disclaimers they have) … in many ways, Open Source engineers are the new corporate spokespeople.  All employers bear this in mind when they hire and they certainly look over the mailing lists to see how people behave.  The net result is really that the only people who can afford to be rude or abusive are those who don’t think they have much chance of a long term career in Linux.

So, by and large, I’m proud of the achievements we’ve made in civility and the way we have improved over the years.  Are we perfect? by no means (but then perfection in such a large community isn’t a realistic goal).  However, we have passed our stress test: that an individual with bad patches to several mailing lists was met with courtesy and helpful advice, in spite of serially repeating the behaviour.

In conclusion, I’d just like to note that even the thread that gave rise to Sarah’s desire to pursue a code of conduct is now over two years old and try as they might, no-one’s managed to come up with a more recent example and no-one has actually invoked the voluntary code of conflict, which was the compromise for not having a mandatory code of conduct.  If it were me, I’d actually take that as a sign of success …