07 September, 2011

Bikeshedding and CLS

I wrote a blog about bikeshedding some time ago. At the Community Leadership Summit this subject came up and as I promised to write some blogs about that and because the openSUSE conference is coming I decided that this should be the topic for my second CLS notes blog.

bike shed, brighton bicycle storage
What color should it be?


So what was bikeshedding again? It happens if on a mailing list or a IRC channel a subject comes up which is trivial enough for everyone to have an opinion on. The result is that everyone feels obliged to share that opinion and challenge whatever anyone else comes up with. Leading to a long and mostly useless discussion.

That is bad because, especially on lists with many subscribers, it clutters hundreds of mailboxes of busy people with pointless mails and it needlessly complicates decision making. Which in turn leads to people starting to ignore the mailing list or even unsubscribing. Usually the people who do a lot of work are the ones leaving, while those who prefer talk over work will stay... See bikeshed.com to learn where the term comes from.

Dealing with bikeshedding

So bikeshedding is bad and it's something to avoid. How? There are a few ways in which you can avoid it.

1 - Change the culture

First of all, bikeshedding is a 'cultural' thing. If it's seen as acceptable, if people say 'all opinions are valuable here', well, it won't stop. So people will have to speak up against it. Tell others "ok, it's been enough, let's move on" or "This is not on-topic, please don't do that". This is a responsibility of all people on the list in the spirit of Edmond Burke's "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" ;-)

2 - Be a good admin

But preventing bikeshedding and off-topic comments it is especially a responsibility for list admins and moderators: stop bikeshedding threads. On forums this is usually quite well established, on mailing lists less so.

Intervening as list or IRC channel admin should be done in the proper way: "praise in public, punish in private" is the golden rule here. Tell people privately that it's been enough. When a big group in thread engages in bikeshedding, give a general warning like "Ok, enough bikeshedding, please end this thread". It is possible on most mailinglists to block threads, so that might be a good next step if things don't improve. If people keep engaging in bikeshedding or other abusive things and don't listen (or fight your decision) a 24 hour ban can be a good cooling down period for some.

Oh, that's censorship? So we should allow a few people to make a whole list useless to protect their freedom of speech, you say? Realize that anyone can exercise that right in many places! A community has every right to have rules protecting their communication channels. openSUSE has these described on the mailing lists wiki page and our Guiding Principles.

3 - Try to turn it around

One thing a moderator but also anyone else on the mailing list could do is recognize the value of people who bikeshed. I've been talking all negative about it, but the discussions and sometimes conflicts which take place on the list also show that people care. One interesting tip which was brought up at CLS was to give people who often are involved in bikeshedding and conflicts a 'job'. After all, they seem to care a lot - giving them some responsibilities diverts their (negative) energy to something positive! It takes skills to turn a negative into a positive but it can be a powerful thing.

4 - From the start

A way of preventing bikeshedding lies in how topics are brought to the mailing list. Not only the kind of topics (irrelevant topics are of course bad) but also how you start. Yes, we are an open community, but that doesn't mean that you can't prepare your mails. It can help a lot if you first talk to some key people involved in what you want to discuss and include in your first message a list of the 'obvious' arguments. This prevents the first 20 mails from being trivial and keeps the thread short. Which in turn prevents these basic arguments from being brought up again and again because they people didn't bother to read the huge thread!

Amsterdam bikes
We need plenty of bike sheds, let's build one in each color...


If people take others up on their behavior and when list or channel admins moderate actively a lot of bikeshedding can be stopped. And prevented - yes, people learn, albeit slowly. You'll get a few fights and disagreements as those 'corrected' often don't like being corrected. But realize that the 'silent majority' will be grateful for it and the list will become more useful. And discussions can be shortened considerably if the topics are presented well prepared.

I do think that we, in openSUSE, allow too much bikeshedding at times, which hurts us. Feel free to argue with me at the openSUSE conference if you agree or disagree! But don't bikeshed about it ;-)

I think openSUSE can improve with the lessons learned in other, more established communities where the culture is so that bikeshedding rarely happens.