Ubuntu Developers Debate Diversity Statement
Depending on your reference point, and on your definition of “diversity,” the Ubuntu ecosystem may or may not be a diverse place. In one developer’s eyes, however, the community suffers from enough “social obstacles” to merit the establishment of an official diversity statement. Here’s the scoop, along with some thoughts.
Viewed from the right angle, the Ubuntu world is already subject to plenty of heterogeneity. To a much greater extent than OS X and Windows — not to mention Red Hat — Ubuntu is the work of a truly international community of programmers, and it’s available in lots of languages.
By other measures, however, Ubuntu is no bastion of diversity. Mark Shuttleworth has made unfortunate comments about women more than once, and although Canonical’s current CEO, Jane Silber, is female, Ubuntu is no exception when it comes to the broader trend of women’s under-representation in the free-software world (though the Ada Initiative, a new project launched just this week, aims to address that deficiency).
In addition, while users can download Ubuntu in an impressive variety of languages, the community itself remains fragmented along linguistic and national lines. The most popular community-support sites for French and German speakers remain entirely separate from the “official” Ubuntu Forums, for example.
Ubuntu developer Matt Zimmerman had issues like these in mind when he proposed this week that the Ubuntu community draft an official diversity statement, reinforcing its policies of inclusion for everyone. Or at least these are the sort of examples I presume he was thinking of; he mentioned only knowing “various people who participate in Ubuntu today, but sometimes face difficult social obstacles in order to do so,” which I’d write off as a strawman argument if it weren’t for the clear and present issues discussed above.
Strawmen aside, however, I am a little wary of official proclamations of virtue and goodwill. They’re nice and all, but as many commentators on Zimmerman’s blog point out, they don’t do much to guarantee results. And in some cases they can even scare away eager contributors.
No community is perfect, and there will always be some problems with acceptance and cooperation among Ubuntu contributors and users. A diversity decree doesn’t make those issues go away. But it does make it easier for Ubuntu’s detractors to level one more charge against it when it inevitably fails to uphold its expressed ideals to the letter. It also redirects the energy of contributors whose time could be spent improving Ubuntu itself.
Diversity and Free Software
Whatever one might think of the diversity statement proposal, it points to some interesting cultural realities of the free-software ecosystem which are worth thinking about.
In the proprietary half of the IT world, diversity and toleration are official policy, spelled out in corporate mission statements and enforced “from above” by HR departments. In the free-software community, however, almost all of the the work is done by volunteers, and even if they are employed somewhere, there are no official rules regulating their interactions with other members of the community at large. There are virtually no institutions with the capital or the authority to tell the constituents of the open-source ecosystem how to behave.
As a result, the only self-sustaining vehicle for ensuring the acceptance of diversity within the free-software world is the will of the users themselves. They must tolerate heterogeneity of personnel and opinion — or seek it out, where necessary — not because a hackneyed declaration published on some website decrees it, but because they understand that in a world free of centralized authorities, and where the user’s voice has the potential to extend far beyond her purchasing power, they reap what they sow.
In other words, a centralized diversity statement is not the answer; it’s a dirty hack for a problem that can only be truly addressed by hooking into the cultural fabric of the free-software community, by exploiting the social energy bricked into the system itself. That’s what Ubuntu needs more of.