Archive for July 30th, 2010

Tribalism is the enemy within

Mark Shuttleworth, the first African tourist in space spent eight days in the Mir space station, in… errr… space! He went on to start a Linux distribution package called Ubuntu and although his article is aimed at the Ubuntu community, there are lessons for us all here. When reading, just discount references to software packages and read this as if it were about your own world.

Mark has given me permission to reproduce this here so it is only right to give a plug to the Ubuntu website.
Now read on:

Tribalism is when one group of people start to think people from another group are “wrong by default”. It’s the great-granddaddy of racism and sexism. And the most dangerous kind of tribalism is completely invisible: it has nothing to do with someone’s “birth tribe” and everything to do with their affiliations: where they work, which sports team they support, which linux distribution they love.

There are a couple of hallmarks of tribal argument:

1. “The other guys have never done anything useful”.

Well, let’s think about that. All of us wake up every day, with very similar ambitions and goals. I’ve travelled the world and I’ve never met a single company, or country, or church, where *everybody* there did *nothing* useful. So if you see someone saying “Microsoft is totally evil”, that’s a big red flag for tribal thinking. It’s just like someone saying “All black people are [name your prejudice]“. It’s offensive nonsense, and you would be advised to distance yourself from it, even if it feels like it would be fun to wave that pitchfork for a while.

2. “Evidence contrary to my views doesn’t count.”

So, for example, when a woman makes it to the top of her game, “it’s because she slept her way there”. Offensive nonsense. And similarly, when you see someone saying “Canonical didn’t actually sponsor that work by that Canonical employee, that was done in their spare time”, you should realize that’s likely to be offensive nonsense too.

Let’s be clear: tribalism makes you stupid. Just like it would be stupid not to hire someone super-smart and qualified because they’re purple, or because they are female, it would be stupid to refuse to hear and credit someone with great work just because they happen to be associated with another tribe.

The very uncool thing about being a fanboy (or fangirl) of a project is that you’re openly declaring both a tribal affiliation and a willingness to reject the work of others just because they belong to a different tribe.

One of the key values we hold in the Ubuntu project is that we expect everyone associated with Ubuntu to treat people with respect. It’s part of our code of conduct – it’s probably the reason we *pioneered* the use of codes of conduct in open source. I and others who founded Ubuntu have seen how easily open source projects descend into nasty, horrible and unproductive flamewars when you don’t exercise strong leadership away from tribal thinking.

Now, bad things happen everywhere. They happen in Ubuntu – and because we have a huge community, they are perhaps more likely to happen there than anywhere else. If we want to avoid human nature’s worst consequences, we have to work actively against them. That’s why we have strong leadership structures, which hopefully put people who are proven not to be tribal in nature into positions of responsibility. It takes hard work and commitment, but I’m grateful for the incredible efforts of all the moderators and council members and leaders in LoCo teams across this huge and wonderful project, for the leadership they exercise in keeping us focused on doing really good work.

It’s hard, but sometimes we have to critique people who are associated with Ubuntu, because they have been tribal. Hell, sometimes I and others have to critique ME for small-minded and tribal thinking. When someone who calls herself “an Ubuntu fan” stands up and slates the work of another distro we quietly reach out to that person and point out that it’s not the Ubuntu way of doing things. We don’t spot them all, but it’s a consistent practice within the Ubuntu leadership team: our values are more important than winning or losing any given debate.

Do not be drawn into a tribal argument on Ubuntu’s behalf

Right now, for a number of reasons, there is a fever pitch of tribalism in plain sight in the free software world. It’s sad. It’s not constructive. It’s ultimately going to be embarrassing for the people involved, because the Internet doesn’t forget. It’s certainly not helping us lift free software to the forefront of public expectations of what software can be.

I would like to say this to everyone who feels associated with Ubuntu: hold fast to what you know to be true. You know your values. You know how hard you work. You know what an incredible difference your work has made. You know that you do it for a complex mix of love and money, some more the former, others the more latter, but fundamentally you are all part of Ubuntu because you think it’s the most profound and best way to spend your time. Be proud of that.

There is no need to get into a playground squabble about your values, your ethics, your capabilities or your contribution. If you can do better, figure out how to do that, but do it because you are inspired by what makes Ubuntu wonderful: free software, delivered freely, in a way that demonstrates real care for the end user. Don’t do it because you feel intimidated or threatened or belittled.

The Gregs are entitled to their opinions, and folks like Jono and Dylan have set an excellent example in how to rebut and move beyond them.

I’ve been lucky to be part of many amazing things in life. Ubuntu is, far and away, the best of them. We can be proud of the way we are providing leadership: on how communities can be a central part of open source companies, on how communities can be organised and conduct themselves, on how the economics of free software can benefit more than just the winning distribution, on how a properly designed user experience combined with free software can beat the best proprietary interfaces any day. But remember: we do all of those things because we believe in them, not because we want to prove anybody else wrong.

Mark Shuttleworth

Advertisements

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: