Governing Values-Centered Tech Non-Profits; or, The Route Not Taken by FSF

A few weeks ago, I interviewed my friend Katherine Maher on leading a non-profit under some of the biggest challenges an org can face: accusations of assault by leadership, and a growing gap between mission and reality on the ground.

We did the interview at the Free Software Foundation’s Libre Planet conference. We chose that forum because I was hopeful that the FSF’s staff, board, and membership might want to learn about how other orgs had risen to challenges like those faced by FSF after Richard Stallman’s departure in 2019. I, like many others in this space, have a soft spot for the FSF and want it to succeed. And the fact my talk was accepted gave me further hope.

Unfortunately, the next day it was announced at the same conference that Stallman would rejoin the FSF board. This made clear that the existing board tolerated Stallman’s terrible behavior towards others, and endorsed his failed leadership—a classic case of non-profit founder syndrome.

While the board’s action made the talk less timely, much of the talk is still, hopefully, relevant to any value-centered tech non-profit that is grappling with executive misbehavior and/or simply keeping up with a changing tech world. As a result, I’ve decided to present here some excerpts from our interview. They have been lightly edited, emphasized, and contextualized. The full transcript is here.

Sunlight Foundation: harassment, culture, and leadership

In the first part of our conversation, we spoke about Katherine’s tenure on the board of the Sunlight Foundation. Shortly after she joined, Huffington Post reported on bullying, harassment, and rape accusations against a key member of Sunlight’s leadership team.

[I had] worked for a long time with the Sunlight Foundation and very much valued what they’d given to the transparency and open data open government world. I … ended up on a board that was meant to help the organization reinvent what its future would be.

I think I was on the board for probably no more than three months, when an article landed in the Huffington Post that went back 10 years looking at … a culture of exclusion and harassment, but also … credible [accusations] of sexual assault.

And so as a board … we realized very quickly that there was no possible path forward without really looking at our past, where we had come from, what that had done in terms of the culture of the institution, but also the culture of the broader open government space.

Katherine

Practical impacts of harassment

Sunlight’s board saw immediately that an org cannot effectively grapple with a global, ethical technological future if the org’s leadership cannot grapple with its own culture of harassment. Some of the pragmatic reasons for this included:

The [Huffington Post] article detailed a culture of heavy drinking and harassment, intimidation.

What does that mean for an organization that is attempting to do work in sort of a progressive space of open government and transparency? How do you square those values from an institutional mission standpoint? That’s one [pragmatic] question.

Another question is, as an organization that’s trying to hire, what does this mean for your employer brand? How can you even be an organization that’s competitive [for hiring] if you’ve got this culture out there on the books?

And then the third pragmatic question is … [w]hat does this mean for like our funding, our funders, and the relationships that we have with other partner institutions who may want to use the tools?

Katherine

FSF suffers from similar pragmatic problems—problems that absolutely can’t be separated from the founder’s inability to treat all people as full human beings worthy of his respect. (Both of the tweets below lead to detailed threads from former FSF employees.)

Since the announcement of Stallman’s return, all top leadership of the organization have resigned, and former employees have detailed how the FSF staff has (for over a decade) had to deal with Richard’s unpleasant behavior, leading to morale problems, turnover, and even unionization explicitly to deal with RMS.

And as for funding, compare the 2018 sponsor list with the current, much shorter sponsor list.

So it seems undeniable: building a horrible culture has pragmatic impacts on an org’s ability to espouse its values.

Values and harassment

Of course, a values-centered organization should be willing to anger sponsors if it is important for their values. But at Sunlight, it was also clear that dealing with the culture of harassment was relevant to their values, and the new board had to ask hard questions about that:

The values questions, which … are just as important, were… what does this mean to be an organization that focuses on transparency in an environment in which we’ve not been transparent about our past?

What does it mean to be an institution that [has] progressive values in the sense of inclusion, a recognition that participation is critically important? … Is everyone able to participate? How can we square that with the institution that are meant to be?

And what do we do to think about justice and redress for (primarily the women) who are subjected to this culture[?]

Katherine

Unlike Sunlight, FSF is not about transparency, per se, but RMS at his best has always been very strong about how freedom had to be for everyone. FSF is an inherently political project! One can’t advocate for the rights of everyone if, simultaneously, one treats staff disposably and women as objects to be licked without their consent, and half the population (women) responds by actively avoiding the leadership of the “movement”.

So, in this situation, what is a board to do? In Sunlight’s case:

[Myself and fellow board member Zoe Reiter] decided that this was a no brainer, we had to do an external investigation.

The challenges of doing this… were pretty tough. [W]e reached out to everyone who’d been involved with the organization we also put not just as employees but also trying to find people who’ve been involved in transparency camps and other sorts of initiatives that Sunlight had had run.

We put out calls for participation on our blog; we hired a third party legal firm to do investigation and interviews with people who had been affected.

We were very open in the way that we thought about who should be included in that—not just employees, but anyone who had something that they wanted to raise. That produced a report that we then published to the general public, really trying to account for some of the things that have been found.

Katherine

The report Katherine mentions is available in two parts (results, recommendations) and is quite short (nine pages total).

While most of the report is quite specific to the Sunlight Foundation’s specific situation, the FSF board should particularly have read page 3 of the recommendations: “Instituting Board Governance Best Practices”. Among other recommendations relevant to many tech non-profits (not just FSF!), the report says Sunlight should “institute term limits” and “commit to a concerted effort to recruit new members to grow the Board and its capacity”.

Who can investigate a culture? When?

Katherine noted that self-scrutiny is not just something for large orgs:

[W]hen we published this report, part of what we were hoping for was that … we wanted other organizations to be able to approach this in similar challenges with a little bit of a blueprint for how one might do it. Particularly small orgs.

There were four of us on the board. Sunlight is a small organization—15 people. The idea that an even smaller organizations don’t have the resources to do it was something that we wanted to stand against and say, actually, this is something that every and all organizations should be able to take on regardless of the resources available to them.

Katherine

It’s also important to note that the need for critical self scrutiny is not something that “expires” if not undertaken immediately—communities are larger, and longer-lived, than the relevant staff or boards, so even if the moment seems to be in the relatively distant past, an investigation can still be valuable for rebuilding organizational trust and effectiveness.

[D]espite the fact that this was 10 years ago, and none of us were on the board at this particular time, there is an accounting that we owe to the people who are part of this community, to the people who are our stakeholders in this work, to the people who use our tools, to the people who advocated, who donated, who went on to have careers who were shaped by this experience.

And I don’t just mean, folks who were in the space still—I mean, folks who were driven out of the space because of the experiences they had. There was an accountability that we owed. And I think it is important that we grappled with that, even if it was sort of an imperfect outcome.

Katherine

Winding down Sunlight

As part of the conclusion of the report on culture and harassment, it was recommended that the Sunlight board “chart a new course forward” by developing a “comprehensive strategic plan”. As part of that effort, the board eventually decided to shut the organization down—not because of harassment, but because in many ways the organization had been so successful that it had outlived its purpose.

In Katherine’s words:

[T]he lesson isn’t that we shut down because there was a sexual assault allegation, and we investigated it. Absolutely not!

The lesson is that we shut down because as we went through this process of interrogating where we were, as an organization, and the culture that was part of the organization, there was a question of what would be required for us to shift the organization into a more inclusive space? And the answer is a lot of that work had already been done by the staff that were there…

But the other piece of it was, does it work? Does the world need a Sunlight right now? And the answer, I think, in in large part was not to do the same things that Sunlight had been doing. …

The organization spawned an entire community of practitioners that have gone on to do really great work in other spaces. And we felt as though that sort of national-level governmental transparency through tech wasn’t necessarily needed in the same way as it had been 15 years prior. And that’s okay, that’s a good thing.

Katherine

We were careful to say at Libre Planet that I don’t think FSF needs to shut down because of RMS’s terrible behavior. But the reaction of many, many people to “RMS is back on the FSF board” is “who cares, FSF has been irrelevant for decades”.

That should be of great concern to the board. As I sometimes put it—free licenses have taken over the world, and despite that the overwhelming consensus is that open won and (as RMS himself would say) free lost. This undeniable fact reflects very badly on the organization whose nominal job it is to promote freedom. So it’s absolutely the case that shutting down FSF, and finding homes for its most important projects in organizations that do not suffer from deep governance issues, should be an option the current board and membership consider.

Which brings us to the second, more optimistic topic: how did Wikimedia react to a changing world? It wasn’t by shutting down! Instead, it was by building on what was already successful to make sure they were meeting their values—an option that is also still very much available to FSF.

Wikimedia: rethinking mission in a changing world

Wikimedia’s vision is simple: “A world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” And yet, in Katherine’s telling, it was obvious that there was still a gap between the vision, the state of the world, and how the movement was executing.

We turned 15 in 2016 … and I was struck by the fact that when I joined the Wikimedia Foundation, in 2014, we had been building from a point of our founding, but we were not building toward something.

So we were building away from a established sort of identity … a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit; a grounding in what it means to be a part of open culture and free and libre software culture; an understanding that … But I didn’t know where we were going.

We had gotten really good at building an encyclopedia—imperfect! there’s much more to do!—but we knew that we were building an encyclopedia, and yet … to what end?

Because “a free world in which every single human being can share in the sum of all knowledge”—there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia there. And there’s all sorts of questions:

About what does “share” mean?

And what does the distribution of knowledge mean?

And what does “all knowledge” mean?

And who are all these people—“every single human being”? Because we’ve got like a billion and a half devices visiting our sites every month. But even if we’re generous, and say, that’s a billion people, that is not the entirety of the world’s population.

Katherine

As we discussed during parts of the talk not excerpted here, usage by a billion people is not failure! And yet, it is not “every single human being”, and so WMF’s leadership decided to think strategically about that gap.

FSF’s leadership could be doing something similar—celebrating that GPL is one of the most widely-used legal documents in human history, while grappling with the reality that the preamble to the GPL is widely unheeded; celebrating that essentially every human with an internet connection interacts with GPL-licensed software (Linux) every day, while wrestling deeply with the fact that they’re not free in the way the organization hopes.

Some of the blame for that does in fact lie with capitalism and particular capitalists, but the leadership of the FSF must also reflect on their role in those failures if the organization is to effectively advance their mission in the 2020s and beyond.

Self-awareness for a successful, but incomplete, movement

With these big questions in mind, WMF embarked on a large project to create a roadmap, called the 2030 Strategy. (We talked extensively about “why 2030”, which I thought was interesting, but won’t quote here.)

WMF could have talked only to existing Wikimedians about this, but instead (consistent with their values) went more broadly, working along four different tracks. Katherine talked about the tracks in this part of our conversation:

We ran one that was a research track that was looking at where babies are born—demographics I mentioned earlier [e.g., expected massive population growth in Africa—omitted from this blog post but talked about in the full transcript.]

[Another] was who are our most experienced contributors, and what did they have to say about our projects? What do they know? What’s the historic understanding of our intention, our values, the core of who we are, what is it that motivates people to join this project, what makes our culture essential and important in the world?

Then, who are the people who are our external stakeholders, who maybe are not contributors in the sense of contributors to the code or contributors to the projects of content, but are the folks in the broader open tech world? Who are folks in the broad open culture world? Who are people who are in the education space? You know, stakeholders like that? “What’s the future of free knowledge” is what we basically asked them.

And then we went to folks that we had never met before. And we said, “Why don’t you use Wikipedia? What do you think of it? Why would it be valuable to you? Oh, you’ve never even heard of it. That’s so interesting. Tell us more about what you think of when you think of knowledge.” And we spent a lot of time thinking about what these… new readers need out of a project like Wikipedia. If you have no sort of structural construct for an encyclopedia, maybe there’s something entirely different that you need out of a project for free knowledge that has nothing to do with a reference—an archaic reference—to bound books on a bookshelf.

Katherine

This approach, which focused not just on the existing community but on data, partners, and non-participants, has been extensively documented at 2030.wikimedia.org, and can serve as a model for any organization seeking to re-orient itself during a period of change—even if you don’t have the same resources as Wikimedia does.

Unfortunately, this is almost exactly the opposite of the approach FSF has taken. FSF has become almost infamously insulated from the broader tech community, in large part because of RMS’s terrible behavior towards others. (The list of conference organizers who regret allowing him to attend their events is very long.) Nevertheless, given its important role in the overall movement’s history, I suspect that good faith efforts to do this sort of multi-faceted outreach and research could work—if done after RMS is genuinely at arms-length.

Updating values, while staying true to the original mission

The Wikimedia strategy process led to a vision that extended and updated, rather than radically changed, Wikimedia’s strategic direction:

By 2030, Wikimedia will become the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge, and anyone who shares our vision will be able to join us.

Wikipedia

In particular, the focus was around two pillars, which were explicitly additive to the traditional “encyclopedic” activities:

Knowledge equity, which is really around thinking about who’s been excluded and how we bring them in, and what are the structural barriers that enable that exclusion or created that exclusion, rather than just saying “we’re open and everyone can join us”. And how do we break down those barriers?

And knowledge as a service, which is without thinking about, yes, the technical components of what a service oriented architecture is, but how do we make knowledge useful beyond just being a website?

Katherine

I specifically asked Katherine about how Wikimedia was adding to the original vision and mission because I think it’s important to understand that a healthy community can build on its past successes without obliterating or ignoring what has come before. Many in the GNU and FSF communities seem to worry that moving past RMS somehow means abandoning software freedom, which should not be the case. If anything, this should be an opportunity to re-commit to software freedom—in a way that is relevant and actionable given the state of the software industry in 2021.

A healthy community should be able to handle that discussion! And if the GNU and FSF communities cannot, it’s important for the FSF board to investigate why that is the case.

Checklists for values-centered tech boards

Finally, at two points in the conversation, we went into what questions an organization might ask itself that I think are deeply pertinent for not just the FSF but virtually any non-profit, tech or otherwise. I loved this part of the discussion because one could almost split it out into a checklist that any board member could use.

The first set of questions came in response to a question I asked about Wikidata, which did not exist 10 years ago but is now central to the strategic vision of knowledge infrastructure. I asked if Wikidata had been almost been “forced on” the movement by changes in the outside world, to which Katherine said:

Wikipedia … is a constant work in progress. And so our mission should be a constant work in progress too.

How do we align against a north star of our values—of what change we’re trying to effect in the world—while adapting our tactics, our structures, our governance, to the changing realities of the world?

And also continuously auditing ourselves to say, when we started, who, you know, was this serving a certain cohort? Does the model of serving that cohort still help us advance our vision today?

Do we need to structurally change ourselves in order to think about what comes next for our future? That’s an incredibly important thing, and also saying, maybe that thing that we started out doing, maybe there’s innovation out there in the world, maybe there are new opportunities that we can embrace, that will enable us to expand the impact that we have on the world, while also being able to stay true to our mission and ourselves.

Katherine

And to close the conversation, I asked how one aligns the pragmatic and organizational values as a non-profit. Katherine responded that governance was central, with again a great set of questions all board members should ask themselves:

[Y]ou have to ask yourself, like, where does power sit on your board? Do you have a regenerative board that turns over so that you don’t have the same people there for decades?

Do you ensure that funders don’t have outsize weight on your board? I really dislike the practice of having funders on the board, I think it can be incredibly harmful, because it tends to perpetuate funder incentives, rather than, you know, mission incentives.

Do you think thoughtfully about the balance of power within those boards? And are there … clear bylaws and practices that enable healthy transitions, both in terms of sustaining institutional knowledge—so you want people who are around for a certain period of time, balanced against fresh perspective.

[W]hat are the structural safeguards you put in place to ensure that your board is both representative of your core community, but also the communities you seek to serve?

And then how do you interrogate on I think, a three year cycle? … So every three years we … are meant to go through a process of saying “what have we done in the past three, does this align?” and then on an annual basis, saying “how did we do against that three year plan?” So if I know in 15 years, we’re meant to be the essential infrastructure free knowledge, well what do we need to clean up in our house today to make sure we can actually get there?

And some of that stuff can be really basic. Like, do you have a functioning HR system? Do you have employee handbooks that protect your people? … Do you have a way of auditing your performance with your core audience or core stakeholders so that you know that the work of your institution is actually serving the mission?

And when you do that on an annual basis, you’re checking in with yourself on a three year basis, you’re saying this is like the next set of priorities. And it’s always in relation to that that higher vision. So I think every nonprofit can do that. Every size. Every scale.

Katherine

The hard path ahead

The values that the FSF espouses are important and world-changing. And with the success of the GPL in the late 1990s, the FSF had a window of opportunity to become an ACLU of the internet, defending human rights in all their forms. Instead, under Stallman’s leadership, the organization has become estranged and isolated from the rest of the (flourishing!) digital liberties movement, and even from the rest of the software movement it was critical in creating.

This is not the way it had to be, nor the way it must be in the future. I hope our talk, and the resources I link to here, can help FSF and other value-centered tech non-profits grow and succeed in a world that badly needs them.

Reinventing FOSS user experiences: a bibliography

There is a small genre of posts around re-inventing the interfaces of popular open source software; I thought I’d collect some of them for future reference:

Recent:

Older:

The first two (Drupal, WordPress) are particularly strong examples of the genre because they directly grapple with the difficulty of change for open source projects. I’m sure that early Firefox and VE discussions also did that, but I can’t find them easily – pointers welcome.

Other suggestions welcome in comments.

Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1

tl;dr: I want to liberate people; software is a (critical) tool to that end. There is a conference this weekend that understands that, but I worry it isn’t FSF’s.

Feelings are facts, by wrote, CC BY 2.0

This morning, social network chatter reminded me of FSF‘s 30th birthday celebration. These travel messages were from friends who I have a great deal of love and respect for, and represent a movement to which I essentially owe my adult life.

Despite that, I had lots of mixed feels about the event. I had a hard time capturing why, though.

While I was still processing these feelings, late tonight, Twitter reminded me of a new conference also going on this weekend, appropriately called Open Source and Feelings. (I badly wanted to submit a talk for it, but a prior commitment kept me from both it and FSF@30.)

I saw the OSFeels agenda for the first time tonight. It includes:

  • Design and empathy (learning to build open software that empowers all users, not just the technically sophisticated)
  • Inclusive development (multiple talks about this, including non-English, family, and people of color) (so that the whole planet can access, and participate in developing, open software)
  • Documentation (so that users understand open software)
  • Communications skills (so that people feel welcome and engaged to help develop open software)

This is an agenda focused on liberating human beings by developing software that serves their needs, and engaging them in the creation of that software. That is incredibly exciting. I’ve long thought (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach) that it is not sufficient to free people; they must be empowered to actually enjoy the benefits of that freedom. This is a conference that seems to get that, and I can’t wait to go (and hopefully speak!) next year.

The Free Software Foundation event’s agenda:

  • licenses
  • crypto
  • boot firmware
  • federation

These are important topics. But there is clearly a difference in focus here — technology first, not people. No mention of community, or of design.

This difference in focus is where this morning’s conflicted feels came from. On the one hand, I support FSF, because they’ve done an incredible amount to make the world a better place. (OSFeels can take open development for granted precisely because FSF fought so many battles about source code.) But precisely because I support FSF, I’d challenge it, in the next 15 years, to become more clearly and forcefully dedicated to liberating people. In this world, FSF would talk about design, accessibility, and inclusion as much as licensing, and talk about community-building protocols as much as communication protocols. This is not impossible: LibrePlanet had at least some people-focused talks (e.g.), and inclusion and accessibility are a genuine concern of staff, even if they didn’t rise to today’s agenda. But it would still be a big change, because at the deepest level, it would require FSF to see source code as just one of many requirements for freedom, rather than “the point of free software“.

At the same time, OSFeels is clearly filled with people who see the world through a broad, thoughtful ethical lens. It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software. I’ll look forward to the day (maybe FSF’s 45th (or 31st!) birthday) that both groups can speak and work together about their real shared concern: software that liberates people. I’d certainly have no conflicted feelings about signing up for a conference on that :)

What tools are changing our world next?

Quick brain dump after a bike ride home: free software took a huge leap in the late 90s and early 00s in large part because of non-ideological advantages that the rest of the world is now competing with or surpassing:

HDR automatically created by Google Photos from my old pictures of Muir Woods. Not perfect, but better than I ever bothered to do!

  • Collaboration tools: Because we got to the ‘net first, our tools for collaborating with each other were simply better than what proprietary developers were doing: cvs, mailman, wiki, etc., were all better than the silo’d old-school tools. Modern best-of-breed collaboration tools have all learned from what we did and added proprietary sauce on top: github, slack, Google Docs, etc. So our tools that are now (at best) as productive as our proprietary counterparts, and sometimes less productive but ideologically agreeable.
  • Release processes: “Release early/release often” made us better partners for our users. We’re now actively behind here: compare how often a mobile app or web user gets updates, exactly as the author intended, relative to a user of a modern Linux distro.
  • Zero cost: We did things for no (direct) cost by subsidizing our work through college, startups, or consulting gigs; now everyone has a subsidize-by-selling-something-else model (usually advertising, though sometimes freemium). Again, advantage (mostly?) lost.
  • Knowing our users: We knew a lot about our users, because we were our biggest users, and we talked to other users a lot; this was more effective than what passed for software design in the late 90s. This has been eclipsed by extensive a/b testing throughout the industry, and (to a lesser extent) by more extensive usage of direct user testing and design-thinking.

None of these are terribly original observations – all of these have been remarked on before. But after playing some with Google Photos this weekend, I’m ready to add another one to the list:

Worth asking what your project is doing that could be radically changed if your competitors get access to new technology. For example, for Wikipedia:

  • Collaborating: Wiki was best-of-breed (or close); it isn’t anymore. Visual Editor helps get editing back to par, but the social aspect of collaboration is still lacking relative to the expectations of many users.
  • Knowledge creation: big groups of humans, working together wiki-style, is the state of the art for creating useful, non-BS knowledge at scale. With the aforementioned machine learning, I suspect this will no longer the case in a (growing) number of domains.

I’m sure there are others…

Come work with me – developer edition!

It has been a long time since I was able to say to developer friends “come work with me” in anything but the most abstract “come work under the same roof” kind of sense. But today I can say to developers “come work with me” and really mean it. Which is fun :)

By Supercarwaar, CC BY-SA 3.0
Details: Wikimedia’s new community tech team is hiring for a community tech developer and a team lead. This will be extremely community-intensive work, so if you enjoy and get energy from working with a community and helping them achieve their goals, this could be a great role for you. This team will work intensely with my department to ensure that we’re correctly identifying and prioritizing the needs of our most active editors. If that sounds like fun, get in touch :)

[And I realize that I’ve been bad and not posted here, so here’s my new job announce: “my department” is the Foundation’s new Community Engagement department, where we work to support healthy contributor communities and help WMF-community collaboration. It is a detour from law, but I’ve always said law was just a way to help people do their thing — so in that sense is the same thing I’ve always been doing. It has been an intense roller coaster of a first two months, and I look forward to much more of the same.]

I am the CADT; and advice on NEEDINFOing old bugs en masse

[Attention conservation notice: probably not of interest to lawyers; this is about my previous life in software development.]

Bugsquad barnstar, under MPL 1.1

Someone recently mentioned JWZ’s old post on the CADT (Cascade of Attention Deficit Teecnagers) development model, and that finally has pushed me to say:

I am the CADT.

I did the bug closure that triggered Jamie’s rant, and I wrote the text he quotes in his blog post.1

Jamie got some things right, and some things wrong. The main thing he got right is that it is entirely possible to get into a cycle where instead of seriously trying to fix bugs, you just do a rewrite and cross your fingers that it fixes old bugs. And yes, this can particularly happen when you’re young and writing code for fun, where the joy of a from-scratch rewrite can overwhelm some of your other good senses. Jamie also got right that I communicated the issue pretty poorly. Consider this post a belated explanation (as well as a reference for the next time I see someone refer to CADT).

But that wasn’t what GNOME was doing when Jamie complained about it, and I doubt it is actually something that happens very often in any project large enough to have a large bug tracking system (BTS). So what were we doing?

First, as Brendan Eich has pointed out, sometimes a rewrite really is a good idea. GNOME 2 was such a rewrite – not only was a lot of the old code a hairy mess, we decided (correctly) to radically revise the old UI. So in that sense, the rewrite was not a “CADT” decision – the core bugs being fixed were the kinds of bugs that could only be fixed with massive, non-incremental change, rather than “hey, we got bored with the old code”. (Immediately afterwards, GNOME switched to time-based releases, and stuck to that schedule for the better part of a decade, which should be further proof we weren’t cascading.)

This meant there were several thousand old bugs that had been filed against UIs that no longer existed, and often against code that no longer existed or had been radically rewritten. So you’ve got new code and old bugs. What do you do with the old bugs?

It is important to know that open bugs in a BTS are not free. Old bugs impose a cost on developers, because when they are trying to search relevant bugs, old bugs can make it harder to find the things they really should be working on. In the best case, this slows them down; in the worst case, it drives them to use other tools to track the work they want to do – making the BTS next to useless. This violates rule #1 of a BTS: it must be useful for developers, or else it all falls apart.

So why did we choose to reduce these costs by closing bugs filed against the old codebase as NEEDINFO (and asking people to reopen if they were still relevant) instead of re-testing and re-triaging them one-by-one, as Jamie would have suggested? A few reasons:

  • number of triagers v. number of bugs: there were, at the time, around a half-dozen active bug volunteers, and thousands of pre-GNOME 2 bugs. It was simply unlikely that we’d ever be able to review all the old bugs even if we did nothing else.
  • focus on new bugs: new bugs are where triagers and developers are much more likely to be relevant – those bugs are against fresh code; the original filer is much more likely to respond to clarifying questions; etc. So all else being equal, time spent on new bugs was going to be much better for the software than time spent on old bugs.
  • steady flow of new bugs: if you’ve got a small number of new bugs coming in, perhaps you split your time – but we had no shortage of new bugs, nor of motivated bug reporters. So we may have paid some cost (by demotivating some reporters) but our scarce resource (developers) greatly appreciated it.
  • relative burden: with thousands of open bugs from thousands of reporters, it made sense to ask old them to test their bug against the new code. Reviewing their old bugs was a small burden for each of them, once we distributed it.

So when isn’t it a good idea to close ask for more information about old bugs?

  • Great at keeping old bugs triaged/relevant: If you have a very small number of old bugs that haven’t been touched in a long time, then they aren’t putting much burden on developers.
  • Slow code turnover: If your development process is such that it is highly likely that old bugs are still relevant (e.g., core has remained mostly untouched for many years, or effective use of TDD has kept the number of accidental new bugs low) this might not be a good idea.
  • No triggering event: In GNOME, there was a big event, plus a new influx of triagers, that made it make sense to do radical change. I wouldn’t recommend this “just because” – it should go hand-in-hand with other large changes, like a major release or important policy changes that will make future triaging more effective.

Relatedly, the team practices mailing list has been discussing good practices for migrating bug tracking systems in the past few days, which has been interesting to follow. I don’t take a strong position on where Wikimedia’s bugzilla falls on this point – Mediawiki has a fairly stable core, and the volume of incoming bugs may make triage of old bugs more plausible. But everyone running a very large bugzilla for an active project should remember that this is a part of their toolkit.

  1. Both had help from others, but it was eventually my decision. []

Forking and Standards: Why The Right to Fork Can Be Pro-Social

[I originally sent a version of this to the W3C’s Patents and Standards Interest Group, where a fellow member asked me to post it more publicly. Since then, others have also blogged in related veins.]

Blue Plastic Fork, by David Benbennick, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It is often said that open source and open standards are different, because in open source, a diversity of forks is accepted/encouraged, while “forked” standards are confusing/inefficient since they don’t provide “stable reference points” for the people who have to implement the spec.

Here is the nutshell version of a critical way in which open source and open standards are in fact similar, and why licensing that allows forking therefore matters.

Open source and open standards are similar because both are generally created by communities of collaborators who must trust each other across organizational boundaries. This is relevant to the right to fork, because the “right to fork” is an important mechanism to help those communities trust each other. This is surprising – the right to fork is often viewed as an anti-social right, which allows someone to stomp their feet and walk away. However, it is also pro-social: because it makes it impossible for any one person or organization to become a single point of failure. This is particularly important where the community is in large part a volunteer one, and where a single point of failure is widely perceived to have actually failed in the past.

Not coincidentally, “largely volunteer” and “failed single point of failure” describes the HTML working group (HTML WG) pretty closely. W3C was a single point of failure for HTML, and most HTML WG participants believe W3C’s failures stalled the development of HTML from 1999 to 2006. For some of the history, see David Baron’s recent post; for a more detailed
history by the author of HTML5, you can look in the spec itself.

Because of this history, the HTML WG participants voted for permissive licenses for their specification. They voted for permissive licenses, even though many of them have the most to gain from “stable reference points”, since they are often the ones who (when not writing the standards) are the one paid to implement the standards!

An alternate way to think about this is to think of the forkable license as a commitment mechanism for W3C: by committing to open licensing for the specification, W3C is saying to the HTML WG community “we will be good stewards – because we know otherwise you’ll leave”. (Alternate commitment mechanisms are of course a possibility, and I believe some have been discussed – but they’d need careful institutional design, and would all result in some variety of instabililty.)

So, yes: standards should be stable. But the options for HTML may not be “stable specification” or “unstable specification”. The options, based on the community’s vote and discussions, may well be “unstable specification” or “no (W3C) specification at all”, because many of the key engineers involved don’t appear to trust W3C much further than they can throw it. The forkable license is a popular potential mechanism to reduce that trust gap and allow everyone to move forward, knowing that their investments are not squandered should the W3C screw up again in the future.

Information diet weekend

As a slight sequel to my “feed reading is an open web problem” post, so far this weekend I have taken the following information diet steps:

RSS feeds: 610→339 (and counting).

Based on Google’s stats, I’d probably read about a million feed items in Reader. This is just too much. The complaints about attention span in this piece and in The Information Diet1 rang very true. Reader is a huge part of that problem for me. (Close friends will also note that I’ve been mostly off gchat and twitter during the work day since I started the new job, and that’s been great.) So I’ve spent time, and will spend more time soon, pruning this list.

National news feeds: lots→~0; weekly paper news magazines: 0→2; local news feeds: small #? large #?

My friend Ed put in my head a long time ago that national news is not very useful. It riles the passions, but otherwise isn’t helpful: you’re not making the world a better place as a result of knowing more, and you’re not making yourself happier either.2  So you’re better off reading much less national political news, and much less frequently: hence the two new on-paper subscriptions to weekly news magazines.

Besides allowing you to get off the computer(!), the time saved can also be used to focus on things that either make your life better (e.g., happier) or that give you actionable information to resolve problems. To tackle both of those needs, I’d like to curate a set of local news feeds. I’ll be blogging more about this later (including what I’m already reading), but suggestions are welcome. I suspect that will make me much happier (or at least less angry), and present opportunities to actually do things, in ways that the national news obviously never can.

Moved from reader→feedly.

The impending shutdown of Reader was obviously the catalyst for all this change; feedly seems not perfect but pretty solid. I continue to keep an eye on newsblur (still a variety of issues) and feedbin.me (no mature Android client yet), since feedly is still (1) closed source and (2) has no visible business model – leaving it susceptible to the same Reader shutdown problem.

“Two young children picket for the ILGWU carrying placards including ‘I Need a Healthy Diet!’ outside the Kolodney and Myers Employment Office” by the Kheel Center at Cornell University, used under CC-BY 2.0.

Steps still to come:

Separate the necessary from the entertaining

Joe pointed out to me that all news sources aren’t equal. There are feeds you must read in a timely manner (e.g., for me right now, changes in work-critical Wikipedia talk pages), and feeds that can be sampled instead. The traditional solution to this is folders or categories within the same app. But we’re starting to see apps that are optimized for the not-mission-critical entertainment feed stream (Joe specifically recommended Currents). I’d like to play with those apps, and use one of them to further prune my “serious feeds” list.  Recommendations happily accepted.

Improve publication

I do want to participate, in some small way, in the news stream, by creating a stream of outbound articles and commentary on them. I never used Reader’s features for this, because of the walled garden aspect. Many of our tools now make it easy to share out to places like Twitter and Facebook, but that means I’m contributing to the problem for my friends, not helping solve it. I’d like my outbound info to be less McDonalds and more Chez Panisse :) The tools for that aren’t quite there, but this morning I stumbled across readlists, which looks like it is about 90% something I’ve been looking for forever. I’ll keep keeping an eye out, so again: good suggestions for outbound curation tools happily accepted.

What else?

I hate the weasely “ask your audience” blog post ending as much as anyone, but here, I have a genuine curiosity: what else are friends doing for their info diets? I want to eventually get towards the “digital sabbath” but I’m not there yet; other tips/suggestions?

  1. capsule book review: great diagnosis of the problem, pretty poor recommendations for solutions []
  2. It’s pretty much a myth that reading the news makes you a better voter: research shows even supposedly high-information voters have already decided well before they read any news, and if for some reason you’re genuinely undecided, you’re better off reading something like ballotpedia than a streaming bunch of horse-race coverage. []

Why feed reading is an open web problem, and what browsers could do about it

I’ve long privately thought that Firefox should treat feed reading as a first-class citizen of the open web, and integrate feed subscribing and reading more deeply into the browser (rather than the lame, useless live bookmarks.) The impending demise of Reader has finally forced me to spit out my thoughts on the issue. They’re less polished than I like when I blog these days, but here you go – may they inspire someone to resuscitate this important part of the open web.

What? Why is this an open web problem?

When I mentioned this on twitter, an ex-mozillian asked me why I think this is the browser’s responsibility, and particularly Mozilla’s. In other words – why is RSS an open web problem? why is it different from, say, email? It’s a fair question, with two main parts.

First, despite what some perceive as the “failure” of RSS, there is obviously  a demand by readers to consume web content as an automatically updated stream, rather than as traditional pages.1 Google Reader users are extreme examples of this, but Facebook users are examples too: they’re no longer just following friends, but companies, celebrities, etc. In other words, once people have identified a news source they are interested in, we know many of them like doing something to “follow” that source, and get updated in some sort of stream of updates. And we know they’re doing this en masse! They’re just not doing it in RSS – they’re doing it in Twitter and Facebook. The fact that people like the reading model pioneered by RSS – of following a company/news source, rather than repeatedly visiting their web site – suggests to me that the widely perceived failure of RSS is not really a failure of RSS, but rather a failure of the user experience of discovering and subscribing to RSS.

Of course, lots of things are broadly felt desires, and aren’t integrated into browsers – take email for example. So why are feeds different? Why should browsers treat RSS as a first-class web citizen in a way they don’t treat other things? I think that the difference is that if closed platforms (not just web sites, but platforms) begins to the only (or even best) way to experience “reading streams of web content”, that is a problem for the web. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate email, the open web doesn’t suffer. If my browser doesn’t tightly integrate feed discovery and subscription, well, we get exactly what is happening: a mass migration away from consuming (and publishing!) news through the open web, and instead it being channeled into closed, integrated publishing and subscribing stacks like FB and Twitter that give users a good subscribing and reading experience.

To put it another way: Tantek’s definition of the open web (if I may grotesquely simplify it) is a web where publishing content, implementing software that consumes that content, and accessing the content is all open/decentralized. RSS2 is the only existing way to do stream-based reading that meets these requirements. So if you believe (as I do) that reading content delivered in a stream is a central part of the modern web experience, then defending RSS is an important part of defending the open web.

So that’s, roughly, my why. Here’s a bunch of random thoughts on what the how might look like:

Discovery

When you go to CNN on Facebook, “like” – in plain english, with a nice icon – is right up there, front and center. RSS? Not so much. You have to know what the orange icon means (good luck with that!) and find it (either in the website or, back in the day, in the browser toolbar). No wonder no one uses it, when there is no good way to figure out what it means. Again, the failure is not the idea of feeds- the failure is in the way it was presented to users. A browser could do this the brute-force way (is there an RSS feed? do a notice bar to subscribe) but that would probably get irritating fast. It would be better to be smart about it. Have I visited nytimes.com five times today? Or five days in a row? Then give me a notice bar: “hey, we’ve noticed you visit this site an awful lot. Would you like to get updates from it automatically?” (As a bonus, implementing this makes your browser the browser that encourages efficiency. ;)

Subscription

Once you’ve figured out you can subscribe, then what? As it currently stands, someone tells you to click on the orange icon, and you do, and you’re presented with the NASCAR problem, made worse because once you click, you have to create an account. Again, more fail; again, not a problem inherent in RSS, but a problem caused by the browser’s failure to provide an opinionated, useful default.

This is not an easy problem to solve, obviously. My hunch is that the right thing to do is provide a minimum viable product for light web users – possibly by supplementing the current “here are your favorite sites” links with a clean, light reader focused on only the current top headlines. Even without a syncing service behind it, that would still be helpful for those users, and would also encourage publishers to continue treating their feeds as first-class publishing formats (an important goal!).

Obviously solving the NASCAR problem is still hard (as is building a more serious built-in app), but perhaps the rise of browser “app stores” and web intents/web activities might ease it this time around.

Other aspects

There are other aspects to this – reading, social, and provision of reading as a service. I’m not going to get into them here, because, well, I’ve got a day job, and this post is a month late as-is ;) And because the point is primarily (1) improving the RSS experience in the browser needs to be done and (2) some minimum-viable products would go a long way towards making that happen. Less-than-MVPs can be for another day :)

  1. By “RSS” and “feeds” in this post, I really mean the subscribing+reading experience; whether the underlying tech is RSS, Atom, Activity Streams, or whatever is really an implementation detail, as long as anyone can publish to, and read from them, in distributed fashion. []
  2. again, in the very broad sense of the word, including more modern open specifications that do basically the same thing []