Code and Conduct

This is a sort of short list of checklists and few ramblings in the wake of Fosdem’s Code of Conduct discussions and the not exactly welcoming statements about how to perceive a Code of Conduct such as this one.

Code of Conduct and OpenSource projects

A Code of Conduct is generally considered a mean to get rid of problematic people (and thus avoid toxic situations). I prefer consider it a mean to welcome people and provide good guidelines to newcomers.

Communities without a code of conduct tend to reject the idea of having one, thinking that it is only needed to solve the above mentioned issue and adding more bureaucracy would just actually give more leeway to macchiavellian ploys.

Sadly, no matter how good the environment is, it takes just few poisonous people to get in an unbearable situation and a you just need one in few selected cases.

If you consider the CoC a shackle or a stick to beat “bad guys” so you do not need it until you see a bad guy, that is naive and utterly wrong: you will end up writing something that excludes people due a, quite understandable but wrong, knee-jerk reaction.

A Code of Conduct should do exactly the opposite, it should embrace people and make easier joining and fit in. It should be the social equivalent of the developer handbook or the coding style guidelines.

As everybody can make a little effort and make sure to send code with spaces between operators everybody can make an effort and not use colorful language. Likewise as people would be more happy to contribute if the codebase they are hacking on is readable so they are more confident in joining the community if the environment is pleasant.

Making an useful Code of Conduct

The Code of Conduct should be a guideline for people that have no idea what the expected behavior is.
It should be written thinking on how to help people get along not on how to punish who does not.

  • It should be short. It is pointless to enumerate ALL the possible way to make people uncomfortable, you are bound to miss few.
  • It should be understanding and inclusive. Always assume cultural biases and not ill will.
  • It should be enforced. It gets quite depressing when you have a 100+ lines code of conduct but then nobody cares about it and nobody really enforces it. And I’m not talking about having specifically designated people to enforce it. Your WHOLE community should agree on what is an acceptable behavior and act accordingly on breaches.

People joining the community should consider the Code of Conduct first as a request (and not a demand) to make an effort to get along with the others.

Pitfalls

Since I saw quite some long and convoluted wall of text being suggested as THE CODE OF CONDUCT everybody MUST ABIDE TO, here some suggestion on what NOT do.

  • It should not be a political statement: this is a strong cultural bias that would make potential contributors just stay away. No matter how good and great you think your ideas are, those are unrelated to a project that should gather all the people that enjoy writing code in their spare time. The Open Source movement is already an ideology in itself, overloading it with more is just a recipe for a disaster.
  • Do not try to make a long list of definitions, you just dilute the content and give even more ammo to lawyer-type arguers.
  • Do not think much about making draconian punishments, this is a community on internet, even nowadays nobody really knows if you are actually a dog or not, you cannot really enforce anything if the other party really wants to be a pest.

Good examples

Some CoC I consider good are obviously the ones used in the communities I belong to, Gentoo and Libav, they are really short and to the point.

Enforcing

As I said before no matter how well written a code of conduct is, the only way to really make it useful is if the community as whole helps new (and not so new) people to get along.

The rule of thumb “if anybody feels uncomfortable in a non-technical discussion, once they say they are, drop it immediately”, is ok as long:

  • The person uncomfortable speaks up. If you are shy you might ask somebody else to speak up for you, but do not be quiet when it happens and then fill a complaint much later, that is NOT OK.
  • The rule is not abused to derail technical discussions. See my post about reviews to at least avoid this pitfall.
  • People agree to drop at least some of their cultural biases, otherwise it would end up like walking on eggshells every moment.

Letting situations going unchecked is probably the main issue, newcomers can think it is OK to behave in a certain way if people are behaving such way and nobody stops that, again, not just specific enforcers of some kind, everybody should behave and tell clearly to those not behaving that they are problematic.

Gentoo is a big community, so gets problematic having a swift reaction: lots of people prefer not to speak up when something happens, so people unwillingly causing the problem are not made aware immediately.

Libav is a much smaller community and in general nobody has qualms in saying “please stop” (that is also partially due how the community evolved).

Hopefully this post would help avoid making some mistakes and help people getting along better.

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