The Ubuntu Philosophy

One of the special elements of Ubuntu which seems to work to especially attract people who are coming to Linux for the first time, is the name and the implicit South African philosophy of shared humanity and common roots. The About Ubuntu page in the Ubuntu system menu says:

A rough translation of the principle of Ubuntu is “humanity towards others”. Another translation could be: “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
– Archbishop Desmond Tutu

As a platform based on GNU/Linux, the Ubuntu operating system brings the spirit of ubuntu to the software world.

Not only do they quote Desmond Tutu, but they also include a video of Nelson Mandela explaining the term on the Ubuntu install CD!

Both Ubuntu developers and the marketing team agree that the term ubuntu communicates what they want to achieve with Ubuntu very well: To make Linux for human beings.

But what is interesting is the way that they adopt ubuntu to fit with the F/OSS philosophy that they already share. It doesn’t appear that often, since there is nobody who are being directly “humiliated or diminished” or “tortured or oppressed” in the Ubuntu community. In fact, it is quite often almost eerily quiet in this regard. This is in part because of the Code of Conduct which is the amalgamation of the ubuntu philosophy and F/OSS philosophy – though, I guess, ubuntu is mostly indirectly represented.

Building on years of social interactions in F/OSS development, the Code of Conduct seeks to promote the positive energies in F/OSS and minimize the negative energies which often result in flamewars, trolling and the like. Time and again, the tone of an email discussion or IRC chat will go towards the personal and aggressive. But when this happens, most often people will simply refer to the CoC and the discussion fizzles.

The passion is there, but it is being kept on a leash. As Benjamin Mako Hill, the Ubuntu developer who drafted the Code of Conduct, puts it:

I think that’s it’s clear that as a community with a goal and a message (that of spreading freedom through free/open source software), it’s to our strategic advantage to not be nasty because that just makes us easier to dismiss. […]

The CoC is not a stick to be wielded — although it sometimes gets used that way. Don’t let the misuse of an otherwise very good document deter from the real point.

The CoC is a voluntary code and set of guidelines that, through explicit agreement, sets the tone for the community. If you’ve read it and think it’s a good idea, go ahead and sign it.

Whether CoC kills potentially productive discussions or merely the ones that already have gone wrong is difficult to say. Other F/OSS communities prefer the un-mediated, un-regulated atmosphere where people can shout their heads off if they want too, and some even make fun of the need for a Code of Conduct.

But it does make it easier for people who aren’t used to the often intensely passionate discussions in F/OSS communities to find their feet and get involved. Even though the Ubuntu community is growing explosively, there are very few incidents that require intervention from the governing bodies of the community.

UPDATE: The GNOME community are having serious discussions about the need for a Code of Conduct in their community. One such has been proposed, and some community members are basically asking:

“Do you really think that writing down “Be nice” makes us nicer and makes us look nicer to the outsiders?”

To which the replies so far has been:

Reply one: “That’s the funny thing – YES! Strange analogy, but even while a lot of people have lost confidence in the USA in recent times, I don’t think anyone’s forgotten about the ideas the country was built on, and that hopefully it will return to. Their dead while males wrote them down for great justice. ;-)”

Reply two: “Just reminding people nicely can make a big difference. The reminder can make people think, and a considerable fraction, after thinking, will consciously decide to follow the reminder.”

Oh, and as Jeff Waugh, one of GNOME members behind the drive towards a Code of Conduct notes about the spirit of the proposed code:

“be firm, but lighthearted – I didn’t suggest “Be Excellent To Each Other” as a joke!”

Geeky humour strikes again!

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