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

Terence Simpson tsimpson at
Wed Oct 30 18:03:15 UTC 2013

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

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
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
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
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

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, 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.

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

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