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 …

17 thoughts on “Respect and the Linux Kernel Mailing Lists

  1. Lubomir Rintel

    I’m not too active in the kernel community. Over the years I’ve submitted a couple of fixes and few new drivers and my contributions were all but perfect. Not sure if this was specific to the trees I’ve been interacting with, but I’ve always gotten the best possible feedback imaginable. People were very kind and willing to spend their time helping me get my code in shape.

    Thank you for this article. Reading the Sarah’s piece made me worry that the the helpful and nice behavior on the Linux lists just somehow goes unnoticed in the shadow of insults or misunderstandings (and that’s not to say they didn’t justify Sarah’s concerns).

    It’s very refreshing to read that a someone who’s far more involved with the Linux community notices an improvement in civil behavior on lists and appreciates it. Thank you!

  2. David Smith

    “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”

    Hmmm. You might want to rethink that one.

    1. Neal P. Murphy

      Perhaps it would be better written as, “… the only people who can afford to be rude or abusive are those who are.”

      Civility always matters. And the old advice is still sage: “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing.” If a piece of code is technically ugle, folks should still phrase their comments in a positive manner.

      1. N

        @Neal: Perhaps it would be better written as, “… the only people who can afford to be rude or abusive are those who are.”

        Those certain players who can afford to be rude and abusive are those who can afford it. The famous ilk of aggressive posting, Linus and Naggum and such, on any particular forum, have accepted behavior because they actually have that kind of weight to throw around. In the same way a king does not bow to the nobleman, but the nobleman bows to the king, it doesn’t describe the interaction between nobleman and nobleman.
        You can argue that we’re all equal, all fellow men banding together to break the tyranny of commercial software, or terrible software, or just hacking for fun, but regardless, we’re not actually equal in strength. A power hierarchy still remains, be it through merit, or history, or social aptitude or whatever; its still there.

        Whats been done here is not the elimination of “bad” behavior, but rather the increase in cost to do so. It is a form of mitigation through (de)incentivization. And so the minor players, the (socially) poor can no longer pay the cost of bad behavior (to go in debt, here, is to encourage retaliation by the community).
        But the rich are still rich, and they are free to spend where they like. The key being, in spending so frivously, they must maintain an income to match. If they can do so, or at least act in sufficient pulses (such that they maintain economic equilibrium), then they are able (but not free) to act in their “bad” ways.

        But the existence of linus, and his ilk, does not imply that the general population has not (mostly) ceased in their “malicious” behavior. To judge the whole community solely by those wealthy few is to entirely disregard the significance of the community.
        In my mind, this would be a far more disrespectful act than linus has ever committed.

  3. Sanders

    The majority of the people complaining about rudeness are of the SJW variety, people who love the smell of their own BO. Special snowflakes that think they know better than the rest, a chip in their shoulder comes as standard as well, they feel compelled to tell the rest of the world what to think and how to behave.

    These people is normally prone to feel insulted even by conversations that had nothing to do with them.

    They could be intelligent do not get me wrong, but most of the time they cause lots of “always unintentional” damage to individual’s and institution’s reputations (for which they do not feel anything), and other times cause others to waste their time.

    The irony is that in the end, when it comes to politics/society they are fairly stupid and professionally aggravated all the time.

    1. David Smith

      I hope one day you and your ilk will obtain the maturity and insight to recognize the self-destructive folly of the attitude you so fulsomely limned. Not holding my breath or anything. Have a great day!

      1. Jdbn

        Maturity? Insight?

        Just look in the mirror..

        He is spot on. A certain mindset, a certain ideology, that is what is at play here.
        Politics, as always, is to blame.

        But go ahead, bury your head in the sand. And see if that will make problems go away…

    2. Kamilion

      > Special snowflakes that think they know better than the rest, a chip in their shoulder comes as standard as well, they feel compelled to tell the rest of the world what to think and how to behave.

      Well, yeah. I actually understand physics, unlike most people, so when overhearing something BLATANTLY out of line with how physics and basic reality works, one cannot help but point out the flaw.
      I’ve unintentionally insulted quite a number of people simply by being my natural self and allowing my abilities to map concepts to eachother to conflict with my ability to keep quiet.

      How do you reason with a person with an obviously false notion in their heads, like an 8 foot tall whitebearded man sitting in a cloud, watching everything you do and judging you?
      When basic physics are screaming “Something organic that large and dense cannot sit in a cloud, nor see over the horizon unaided…”?

      A person with mapping tendencies receives new information; facts, techniques, abilities, and undergoes a process of incorporating the new information into a personally developed and self-adaptive model of the world. The individual then operates in their lives with the expectation that this model is largely correct, and strives to revise the model when his/her experiences can not be interpreted as compatible with the current state of the model. Each successive revision approaches a more accurate representation of the world for that individual, proceeding in a positivist manner.

      It is claimed that mapper behavior can be very confusing when observed by individuals who do not have the mapper orientation. Since mappers *do not want to continue to interact with the world* when their map is in conflict with their experiences, they can appear introverted at times, or completely engaged in resolving an issue such as a subtle terminology quirk. Non-mappers have difficulty decoding the motivations behind a mapper’s actions, and may jump to judgmental conclusions based on what would have motivated themselves to act in the same way. As a result, the non-mappers project motivations onto the mapper’s actions which probably do not correspond to the actual driving factors for the mapper.

      > These people is normally prone to feel insulted even by conversations that had nothing to do with them.

      Well, it seems as if you’re talking about public conversations on the internet. The whole point of a public comment system is for individuals to register their own opinions on a conversational topic, so it’s quite common for someone who was previously uninvolved with a conversation to jump into an already established thread of comments.

      And, well, I think Linus Torvalds himself said it best recently with his quote, “If you GET offended, you should BE offended.”
      In context, he was referring to most of humanity being unable to control their individual emotional state; and requesting others around them to do it for them.

      I tend to share his attitude with regard to people that lack that ability.

      However, to put things in perspective, in my opinion, one of Ken Thompson’s greatest quotes from before y2k is:
      “I must say the Linux community is a lot nicer than the Unix community. A negative comment on Unix would warrant death threats. With Linux, it is like stirring up a nest of butterflies.”

  4. NeilBrown

    > no-one’s managed to come up with a more recent example
    They don’t need to. With no apology forthcoming, these are still open wounds. I believe a public apology would go a long way to healing wounds and silencing complaint. But instead we get the reverse.

    > and no-one has actually invoked the voluntary code of conflict,
    That sets a very low bar. Better than no bar at all. But I suspect for many people, by the time they feel hurt enough to invoke that, they would probably rather just leave.

    (otherwise I agree – in general things are improving, but there is still bluster and insults)

    1. Kimble

      > I believe a public apology would go a long way to healing wounds and silencing complaint.

      That’s naive. A public apology would simply embolden the next complaint. Each offense, duly apologised for increasingly abjectly, would be less severe than the last. Until a point in time where no offense was seen to be given, but the “victim” insists some was taken and invokes their right to a sufficiently grovelling apology and ten strokes of their ego.

      Just look at the list Sarah has up on her blog about how to design the perfect community (because that has worked so well in the past!). Note that she calls it “basic human decency” to respond to an accusation you have committed a micro-aggression* by stopping immediately, listening and, when given permission to respond, to apologise. That’s it. That’s all you are allowed to do.

      God help you if you try and say you weren’t being racist/sexist/homophobic or whatever.

      * a micro-aggression is where you do something without any malicious intent, that another person decides to find offensive. It can literally be any action at all.

    2. George Spelvin

      > With no apology forthcoming, these are still open wounds. I believe a public apology would go a long way to healing wounds and silencing complaint. But instead we get the reverse.

      First of all, who should be apologizing? The complaint as I understand it is about general tone, not specific incidents by specific people who can apologize. Or are there some that need addressing?

      Secondly, I took the 2013 kernel summit session on the issue as a sincere attempt to address the issue as opposed to whitewashing it. Which is frankly much more significant than a pro forma apology. Doing it at the kernel summit made all kinds of sense to me; it’s easier to resolve contentious issues in person, while we all know how misunderstandings can persist in e-mail.

      Maybe I’ve just grown up with LKML and am used to it. Certainly scorn is heaped on some bits of code, but it doesn’t feel to me like an attack on the person proposing it.

      As for Linus, it seems to be there’s actually a point to his occasional tantrums. Remember, the people sending him code don’t work for him. Someone else signs their paycheques, so Linus doesn’t have a lot of stick to back up soft speech. He needs to make points clear to not only kernel contributors, but the layer of managers above them. “Boss, it’s not going to fly. I ran it up the flagpole and here are the bullet holes.”

      An example I remember particular clearly was an epic series of rants, which escalated to the point of threatening to stop pulling the tree, about the ARM architecture configuration mess. While I don’t feel qualified to judge the technical issues, I can see how his pushback had to go to Russel, to ARM contributors, to *their* various employers, to change the “business as usual” pattern that was being complained about.

      As others have pointed out, Linus reserves his ire for people who disappoint his trust. His top-level lieutenants are the final sign-off for the code that passes through them; he doesn’t check it very much. So if one of them sends him something broken, he lights up. I don’t see him berating people who aren’t expected to know better.

      Saying “no” loudly enough that 100 people can hear it can be a lot more efficient than saying it gently 100 times.

  5. Aris Rozanski

    Just so people know that there’re some that think differently:

    I’ve been flamed multiple times submitting kernel code. I came from a culture that we don’t learn to differentiate between someone just criticizing my work than simply criticizing me. It’s all taken very personally. In all of these situations I got upset with the response. And all these situations were because I was trying to do something incredibly stupid and part of my anger was not only for being called on the piece of (…) I submitted but for realizing I was wrong too. No matter how harsh, there always been a technical point behind it. Nowadays I check my code tons of times, make sure it builds, test it again and review a ton more, even sleep on it before submitting. What was left was /respect/ for the community and for the work. Respect for the people whose I wasted time by submitting something that I could probably find that was stupid before submitting it. Respect for a crucial component of my operational system of choice.

    Now I was treated “politely” in a different open source project. Not a single caps. No cursing. I was forced to redo this patch over and over to comply with aesthetics for weeks until it was over v10 and I simply gave up. I threw the brand new device on the drawer and gave up on using it on Linux. I found later that my patch was pulled in, without fixing the last list of items I was supposed to fix and without a *single*mention or credit for my work.

    Guess which project I stay as far away as possible and which one I still contribute and respect?

    I perfectly understand Linus’ arguments. I know people that are “polite” but I have to keep second guessing if what they’re saying is legit or just masking something with politeness and it’s very draining, specially if English isn’t your first language. And it’s specially irritating when you want to get stuff done instead of waste time with politics.

    The kernel is about people getting together to write the best kernel we possibly can. This mythical place where if you write decent, correct and better code, doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are or who you know. So much different than a company. And that’s *awesome*. If we start wasting time paying attention on *how* people express their ideas more than we care about their ideas and patches soon we’ll require people to write a fuzzy warm story about ponies or teddy bears on patchset cover letters because otherwise you’ll not set the correct “mood” for your following patches.

    And yes, I’m glad that I got flamed on those patches. I still remember every single one of them, what I did wrong and why it’s wrong. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that is not affected so negatively by some
    well respected folks in the community that are known to be more harsh than others.

  6. H.Trickler

    I agree that a friendlier tone would be much better.

    But this young lady on her blog does not publish all those comments that she does not like, and some even get edited without saying so!

    May she have a long happy life in her own world!

    1. Alex

      I think it’s perfectly fair to control/reject who comments on your own website. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean I can shout my views in some strangers house or that people have to listen to what I say.


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