IRC channel switcheroo

If you’re like me, you may have noticed a sudden drop in activity in #musicbrainz-devel (if you’re not like me, you may still have noticed it). This is not because we all suddenly dropped off the face of the earth (not all of us anyway), nay, we simply decided to move to #metabrainz!

#musicbrainz-devel was registered on Freenode on February 16th, 2009. That’s almost 6 years and 7 months ago! However, over the last months, it has been as much (if not more!) about AcousticBrainz, CritiqueBrainz, and two brand new members of the Brainz family (stay tuned for more news on these!) as it has been about MusicBrainz. The channel has also been home to a lot of non-MusicBrainz specific MetaBrainz talk, e.g., talk about my hire, Roman’s hire, upcoming hires (stay tuned for news on this as well!), server administration, finances, … – you get the picture. In light of this we decided to rename #musicbrainz-devel to #metabrainz, and also merge the more quiet channels of #bookbrainz and #bookbrainz-devel into this new channel.

So thank you to #musicbrainz-devel for your proud service over the years, and welcome to #metabrainz, I hope you do us just as much credit as your predecessor did! I hope to see a lot of you in #metabrainz over the next few days, to join in the celebrations with a nice virtual cup of tea or other beverage of your choice.

Freso, your friendly neighbourhood community manager ❤

Consolidating communications

There are already two themes emerging from the feedback on the various blog posts (especially yesterdays’s post):

  1. We have too many forms of communication: Blog, forum, mailing lists, Jira, edit notes and IRC. Some of these serve very specific purposes, such as the blog and jira, our ticket system. Others like the forum, mailing lists and IRC overlap quite a bit. In this area it seems that we should be able to consolidate a little, but people seem to be quite invested in their favorite form of communication. Forum users tend to dislike mailing lists and vice versa. People either hate or love IRC, there isn’t much middle ground.
  2. Lack of single sign on: To participate in most of these forms of communication the user needs to create a new, distinct account from their main MusicBrainz account. This hinders users from participating in more communication forms, which fractures our community.

How do we improve this then? I think we should focus our discussion on mailing lists, forums, IRC and in-site communication (MBS-1801, again), since they are more generic and overlap each other somewhat.

I see some possible ways of doing this, so let me think out loud for a minute:

  • Drop mailing lists and forums and use a “cloud hosted” instance of Discourse. Discourse is open source, supports single sign on, and looks like it could easily replace forums and mailing lists. I doubt this would be sufficient to replace IRC, but overall very promising.
  • Drop mailing lists, forums, IRC and implement a really kick ass communication/chat/edit note system in MusicBrainz itself. Layer’s offerings look like they might make this not too hard and are not too expensive. Our own system would allow the greatest level of control and integration and needs no new sign-on. However, it may also be the most amount of work.

(Regardless of what we decided to do, worry not, we would keep historical archives of whatever communications form we decides to drop.)

I’d also briefly considered using Slack, but since it isn’t open source and not geared towards open source, this doesn’t quite feel right. What other interesting tools are out there? What other ways do you see that we can consolidate our forms of communication?

Robustness principle applied to communities

The great internet pioneer Jon Postel once wrote the following in an early draft of the TCP specification:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others

He wrote this in the context of computer networking and this philosophy arguably helped the Internet become robust to faults. Personally, I think this is great wisdom even in a larger scope — it can be applied to many other contexts in life. Today, I would like to apply this wisdom to our community:

If members of the MusicBrainz community could work hard to craft their edits so that they adhere to the guidelines as much as possible and to add supporting links to their edits, that would fit the bill of “being conservative in what you do”. Then, when you consider other edits, be liberal in accepting other people’s edits. If an edit makes the database better, vote yes, even if you don’t fully agree with it. If you see a small mistake and you’re an auto-editor, accept the edit and fix the small mistake. See if you can find a way to accept the edit, rather than shooting it down.

Our attitudes shouldn’t be “How can I shut this person down?”, but “How can I help this person make better edits?”. If an editor gets shut down for small mistakes, the editor is going to be discouraged from doing more edits. This harms the project overall! But, if an experienced editor politely helps a less experienced editor to improve their edits, the less experienced editor will feel more welcomed and is much more likely to continue learning and to continue making more edits.

After all, happy teams are vastly more productive than unhappy teams.

Happy editing!

Transparent communications

In the past few months I’ve tried to re-iterate that MusicBrainz is an open source project and that open source projects should carry out their work in public whenever possible. I received quite a bit of push-back every time I suggested this, so I feel it necessary to reinforce this concept.

I’ll reference the “Producing Open Source Software” book and in particular the Chapter 2:

Even after you’ve taken the project public, you and the other founders will often find yourselves wanting to settle difficult questions by private communications among an inner circle. … All the obvious disadvantages of public list discussions will loom palpably in front of you: the delay inherent in email conversations, the need to leave sufficient time for consensus to form… The temptation to make decisions behind closed doors and present them as faits accomplis, or at least as the firm recommendations of a united and influential voting block, will be great indeed.

Don’t do it.

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. Sadly this has been happening inside our community for some time. I am now going to put my foot down and insist that communication about the project happen in public. Since I will be setting the dev tasks and will be working to establish a rough road-map for the project, I’ll know what level of communication is appropriate for the current tasks at hand. And I’ll be watching for signs of this improving!

I am going to set an example and keep my communication visible to the public if at all possible. Some things are private matters (pay, personal issues) that should not be discussed in public and I will not discuss those in public — there is no change for private topics. But for all other topics, I am going to insist that we discuss matters in a public channel where the community can follow along. So, if you send me a private message in IRC or a direct email, expect me to ask you to move the discussion to a public forum if the communication really doesn’t need to be private. As a guideline, I would expect about 98% of the project communication to be public.

In the coming weeks I am going to define the various roles that people hold in MusicBrainz and then document them on the spiffy new MetaBrainz web site. If you plan to take on any role in MusicBrainz (or any of the MetaBrainz Foundation projects) I will require that your communications be transparent. Please keep this in mind as I work to bring some clarity in the project.

I would really recommend to everyone that they read all of Chapter 2 linked above — it makes a lot of solid points that are very important to our project right now.

A positive outlook going forward

My next installment of MusicBrainz management changes focuses on how we should frame our discussions going forward. Currently there is a lot of animosity in our community and a lot of finger pointing — neither of these are constructive for moving forward, so I will aim to cut these short and focus on fixing rather than blaming.

I’d like to offer an analogy to start this discussion: When two people are in a personal relationship and when that relationship starts falling apart, a lot of negative feelings come up. The two people will often blame each other and be convinced that the other person is the reason for all of their troubles. If you’ve ever had an opportunity to talk to two people in a failing relationship, you’ll probably have seen that failing relationships are usually the fault of both people. I’ve yet to find a relationship that failed, solely on the actions of one person alone. Both people are involved, both people had a hand in it.

That said, I’ll step forward and say it: I am guilty. I am partially to blame for what is going on. Go ahead, feel free to blame me for the troubles we’re facing.

But, that is it. Basta! We’re not going to engage in finding every little thing that was done wrong, by whom and work hard to lay blame. That is pointless and it brings up unnecessary emotions. Instead of finding blame we’re going to find problems to our solutions and we’re going to move forward.

As part of me restructuring MusicBrainz, I’m going to be asking everyone what problems they perceive with the project right now. I will listen to the problems, catalog them and attempt to build a plan for tackling these problems in the future. However, I will insist that problems are stated without aggressive communication (e.g. passive aggressive communication) and without value judgements. If you cannot state your issue without being aggressive or disrespectful, you can count on me calling you on your behaviour. I will not address problems that are stated in an aggressive or disrespectful manner.

For instance, it is not acceptable to say: “I don’t think that anyone is going to listen to me anyway, but I think that because of Joe’s idiotic decision to not allow white space in code, all of our code is a freaking mess — this was the worst idea ever!” This statement has passive aggressive communication, it lays blame and contains a value judgement. One way to express the same concern in a constructive manner could be: “The decision to exclude whitespace from our code has created a number of difficulties for people to follow our code. We should re-consider this decision.”

This means of expressing problems, ideas and solutions allows us to focus our energy on moving forward and improving the project. It avoids painful discussions that won’t gives us much insight on moving forward. As we work to mend our community, I will be relying on these communication tools heavily. If you run afoul of these new communication guidelines, expect me to remind of you of this blog post. 🙂