What is freedom anyway?

Late last year Steve, the co-founder of Shimmer Project, wrote a longish blog entry about freedom. I wholeheartedly recommend that you read the article thorough. Today I’d like to raise up some points from Steve’s blog entry and go even further, pondering what freedom means for me and how I feel it actualizing. Things aren’t going to be easy to say, probably harder to read and even harder, almost heartbreaking, to admit.

A small introduction…

The Ubuntu community is definitely not the worst there is. However, there is lots of room for improvement. I’ve always felt that the Ubuntu community lacks communication. That’s very much what Steve said earlier, but what he said is not the complete truth. Even the Xubuntu team lacks communication and even once we have the contact with each other, probably the majority of us lack communication skills, more or less.

The freedom to speak and to be heard

Xubuntu has come a long way from when I started, and it’s totally because every individual in the team now and then. We all share the same passion – to make Xubuntu better. Developers come and go, but one could expect at least some natural growth for a project that has improved as much as Xubuntu has done. So why is the Xubuntu team as small as I started, or even smaller?

Steve mentioned the lack of information/communication making starting contributing really hard for a newcomer and a possible future contributor. I think Steve agrees with me that this comprises both technical and the more subtle, emotional, human-oriented communication. Getting the technical information out more efficiently would only need a bit more work, but fixing the human-oriented communication is way harder, probably even impossible via online methods only.

Getting the developer-user -communication working is a completely different story. While some of our contributors are seemingly spread amongst the community, there has been debates on how much “official” information they can output for example in their blogs. While I understand that an opinion of a single developer is not the official opinion, who can tell the users what the developer community has been working on and what kind of ideas we have?

The words we don’t have a community Steve promptly said (referring to the fact the Xubuntu developer community hadn’t actually grown at all) actually mean way more than just that. In the end, we’re just individuals who work together, enjoying each other’s company more or less. If our communication doesn’t work or we use our time arguing, where’s the community then? None of us is completely innocent, and I plead my own guilty as well. Sometimes we just don’t have a community at all.

What I’ve learned from my social service studies is that listening is not hearing. The fact that the Xubuntu team has now lost two contributors due to bad communication does tell everything is not alright. To grow our community and get things done in the future as well, we need to communicate better and actually hear each other.

Respecting volunteers

As you all probably know, Xubuntu is not sponsored financially by Canonical. We are an official derivative, using the same repositories as Ubuntu and all the other derivatives. This leads to many technical details and problems in addition to the communication problems inside the project. (The technical details are described in Steve’s blog, if you want to read more about those.)

While the Ubuntu project has a specific governance that the Xubuntu project also has to obey, nobody is saying how we should organize our inner governance. We definitely need a project leader that is well aware of the project overview, but I don’t think we need a project leader who can use a veto-vote everywhere.

With all respect to Cody, our former project leader, I regretfully have to say I’ve experienced a bit too much micromanagement for quite a long time. Weighting this and some recent discussions, I’m left with the feeling I’m not heard and especially that my skills are not valued. Comments like “you can be replaced” and “we don’t have to use your work anyway” are totally true, but tell a lot about the communication and relationships between community members, especially as long as there is no-one else in the sight replacing anybody and as long as the community like what you do anyway. Once you hear these comments from your own leader, who originally appointed you to take care of some area of the project, you will lose part of your motivation. That motivation is really hard to build up again.

Our vision…?

I was really excited to be building a new kind of Xubuntu community, based on council rather than a single project leader with complete dictatorship. Our meeting about the new governance went actually pretty well and we made some nice progress; the main direction seemed to be that experts (people who are given the responsibility for a specific area in a project, for example marketing, artwork, documentation, or packaging) and leaders on their subjects should have somewhat more weight in their words than other developers, since they most probably know their subject better than someone else in the team, including the project leader.

The sad truth is that after this meeting we’ve kind of reversed back to the old way of working. Right now I don’t even know if there is a possibility to get the council-type approach at least partially as our new governancy structure. Are people too afraid to do something wrong, to fail, to admit they were wrong? Is it better to go the “safe way” and continue struggling with the ever-decreasing amount of developers, with the Xubuntu project eventually diminishing for the lack of developers – or passion? What do we have to lose here?

Taking the next step

What do we need to do now to be able to step to the next level and bring more sustainability for the Xubuntu developer community and in consequence of it, the whole project?

Get the rest of the Ubuntu community communicate with us.

Again, this is mostly what Steve already described in his blog. As long as Xubuntu is part of the larger Ubuntu family, sometimes referred as hugebuntu, we need to get the latest news from the rest of that community. Many things affect us directly or indirectly and we could save the diminishing amount of developer hours if we knew most of the changes and plans the broader Ubuntu community did beforehand.

Too bad I don’t know where to start. As long as there are even a few people who are almost hostile about any cooperative efforts between the derivatives, not even talking about all the different core teams, our possibilities to work on the subject are very limited. I already tried to rant about communication in the Jaunty developer summit, but the outcome was pretty bad. I’ve heard a few efforts with similar ambitions have greatly failed before.

All this just leaves me thinking there is a big problem inside the Ubuntu community – lack of communication. I don’t know what would be the best solution for this, but the first step to get rid of problems is to acknowledge them. To be fair though, there is also people who get the community working better, but sadly enough their scope can’t cover all of the project.

Communicate more with users.

While I’ve already had some good feedback on listening what our users want and being available for them, it can’t be a one-man show. The developer community as a whole needs to reach out for our users. Our users are giving us valuable information on what could be better on Xubuntu and what already is awesome. Communicating with our users is the only way to build up a decent user community.

We also need to keep our work as transparent as possible, giving the users as much information on what we do and what is going on. This also means we shouldn’t do all we can to hide the negative vibes our community is having. Listening to our users first gives us the possibility to get them listening to us – whatever we want to say.

Communicate more with each other.

Any developer community needs communication. We’ve made progress on this already, but we have to start thinking what is the correct kind of communication. We are working on the project together and we should encourage and cheer each other as much as possible. We need to respect the fact that we are all volunteers and we all are pretty good in what we do for Xubuntu.

Good communication means people can throw suggestions around and give constructive criticism without anybody feeling they are not valued. We should trust our developers work according to the responsibility they got when they were appointed as team leaders and became part of the Xubuntu team.

Now that all this is said, it’s time to start taking actions. Let’s continue the discussions about new governance, start communicating more efficiently and attract new developers. If we can do that, it’s very likely that the Xubuntu community will be more powerful than ever.

This article is part of the article series .