Open source communities: assuming intelligence?

Ubuntu is growing, there is no doubt about that. As the number of users grow, so does the number of potential community members. Not all Ubuntu users choose to spend time in the community, but a part does. This group is expanding with the number of users, and we are noticing this not only from the UDSes becoming busier and busier. The Ubuntu Beginners Team and Ubuntu Bug Control have both set up mentoring programmes to guide the flow of new contributors.

As we’re welcoming these new people to the Ubuntu community and introducing them to the various tasks there are, we can see a set of problems arise. There is the problem of increasing scale—community manager Jono Bacon has written about handling this on his blog several times—and the issues introduced by the increasing diversity of the community. I’ve written before about the effects of language differences, but there is something else we should realise, which shows itself more and more now the composition community diversifies.

Not everyone is equally intelligent. When considering other people, it is very hard not to assume they think like us, and judge from that viewpoint. Especially when you are intelligent it may be very hard to realise there are also a lot of people who have more trouble thinking. Life is not like Sims, where everyone has an equal amount of character points, only distributed across different character traits. With the knowledge of the human we have nowadays we can only conclude that ‘life’ is not fair, because not everyone gets the same amount of character points. Some people are smart and beautiful and nice and happy, and other people are stupid, ugly, unpleasant, depressed. Both situations are rare, but both can occur.

This is an important thing to consider in a community that seems to assume intelligence. Every contributor is welcome, which is a good thing, because we don’t want to shut someone out. Every contribution helps us. We can see this in the mentor programmes too. If you create a page at the Ubuntu Wiki and sign the Code of Conduct, you’ll be assigned a mentor. You do not have to sit an exam. At the Ubuntu Developer Summit we are discussing the future of Ubuntu almost as equals, and there are a lot of people that have something interesting to say.

However, what we are doing is not easy work. Building an operating system, writing applications to run on it, running a community, these are all tasks that require skills. Skills that not everyone has. We do, apparently. That makes us more intelligent than the average person, because that is how hard it is to do what we do.

Not all prospective bug triagers, MOTU applicants or passionate artists have got what it takes to build something like Ubuntu. A bad bug triager only causes more work, an unskilled MOTU ruins our credibility, ugly artwork scares users away. Even when the triager, packager, artist is a very kind person, we should say that.

I do not doubt that the community members are honest enough to tell people when they are not delivering good work. But that isn’t the only side to this. Say you are telling someone (s)he’s triaging bugs badly, you’ll first have to have seen badly triaged bugs. That means someone will have to correct those bugs, if the reporter hasn’t already stopped responding. It could also mean that someone has spent some time trying to mentor the bad triager. Valuable time of a volunteer has gone to waste. That is also bad for the motivation of the volunteer.

We should not make intelligence a requirement for joining the community, we should not look down on people because they happen to be less intelligent, we should not become an elitist club. We should, though, make sure we watch out that we do get the right people at the right place. We should realise that not everyone has something to say that is worth listening to, though you cannot make that judgement until you’ve heard what the person said. We should prevent frustration for volunteers and prospective volunteers by being clear about what it takes to join the community.

We should not assume intelligence.

Do I want to say something is wrong with the Ubuntu community? No. I do not think that there are things we need to change to fix the issue I just described. Yet. We should be watchful, considerate and aware that not everyone is equal. The sentence “Every man was created equal.” is wrong, because men where not created, just like women, and they are not equal as well. Everyone is unique, in a positive or negative sense.

Join the conversation

13 Comments

  1. the context of "Every man is created equal" is the US constitiution, and it means "equal in the eyes of the law." I don't think it makes sense to apply the quote to a discussion about human intelligence.

  2. Although I agree with you that bad work is a problem.
    I disagree with your label "intelligence", some very bright people can not only be bad at some tasks but also not realise they are failing. And some people of limited powers who work slowly and carefully can achieve much more.
    Maybe these are extremes but what the community needs is good work without regard to how that person works.

  3. Having read this post several hours ago, it took some time for me to formulate a response. First of all, Sense, you have excellent English language skills. Of that, I am not faulting. However, you are still not quite a native English speaker/thinker, so you are possibly missing some of the finer and subtle nuances of the vocabulary. You will get there very soon, trust me. 😉

    I do not wish to come across as being negative in any way. I respect your viewpoints, and almost always agree with them. My wish is only for your valid opinions to be more fully comprehended by your audience. Denotation and connotation of a word are major factors to consider. To help, I want to change one of your words in your blog above. I am only changing one word. However, that one small change sets a completely different tone for the whole essay. I am changing "intelligence" to "acumen."

    Both words are synonyms, but the connotation is quite different.

    Intelligent – having or indicating a high or satisfactory degree of intelligence and mental capacity.
    Intelligence – the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations

    Acumen – keenness and depth of perception, discernment, or discrimination, especially in practical matters

    To me, that one word change allows your essay to come across as much less offensive, and still getting your point across in a positive way. When I replace that one word, I more closely agree with your observation of the open-source community.

  4. This is a good discussion to have. I am pleased that the Ubuntu community is taking the time to think about these very important issues.

    It's true people have differing abilities. Unfortunately concepts like "intelligence" or even "acumen" can be applied with too broad a brush stroke. We all know people with powerful intellectual skills — who can be very productive at writing code — who are unwilling to genuinely understand the needs of other people. When combined with a bit of arrogance and a touch of impatience, such people can do bad things even if they are totally well-intentioned. Typically such people end up solving the wrong problems. Their coding skills are misdirected and even wasted. (Those of us who code can probably all point to embarrassing times in our past when through arrogance or ignorance we failed to understand the needs of people we were writing code for to the extent we ought to have).

    Is such a coder intelligent or do they possess acumen? It depends in which domain you want to apply the concept. In this case, they do and they do not. Being a good coder, like many areas of life, requires being good in more than one domain. Of course the same goes for all the things mentioned above.

    1. Indeed you cannot work well in a community if you reject the community and only focus on your own interests and needs. We could redefine the definition of 'intelligence' used in this discussion to not only require intellectual prowess, but also the skill to apply that correctly and satisfyingly. Of course, we're now stuck with defining what we consider to be correct and satisfying, but we could forget about that now.

  5. "Skilled" might work better than "intelligent" or "possessing acumen," IMO. >.>b And what's being overlooked here is that even a "stupid" contributor wants to help and has taken the first steps towards doing so. Not everyone knows how to file a bug report, or commit a patch, or contribute artwork at all — it is not obvious how to do so, to people with average skillsets.

    If we're getting a lot of "bad" contributions, maybe that isn't a problem with the people who are contributing. Maybe that's a problem with us — maybe we aren't willing to "waste" our time mentoring, and/or fix the bugs in our own processes that cause the need for mentorship to begin with.

    Not everyone's building something so awesome that they get totally unskilled volunteers jumping on board, trying to help with it. Keep that in mind. I'm glad to see the other commenters seem to have.

  6. I would agree that skilled is a better term than intelligent (most people regard intelligent as raw mental capacity, like IQ, which is hard to change). Having said that, I don't like what feels like a large grouping of the skilled vs. unskilled. Different people have different skill sets (e.g., a programmer can write brilliant code, but can't create a UI to save themselves).

    The part that sounds the most elitist is this quote:
    "However, what we are doing is not easy work. Building an operating system, writing applications to run on it, running a community, these are all tasks that require skills. Skills that not everyone has. We do, apparently. That makes us more intelligent than the average person, because that is how hard it is to do what we do."

    I suspect that if everyone added up their unique skill sets (e.g., welding, musical abilities, editorial skills) we would find everyone is "above average"… which those of us with math abilities realise makes absolutely no sense ;-). I think for the discussion here, intelligence is irrelevant, as all that matters is the skill and determination the individual shows. If someone lacks one or both of these, that's fine, we just need to find areas of work that suite what they are willing to dontate to the community.

  7. First off to be completely philosophical: there is no average. So all comments on intelligence, acumen and skills would be futile. There isn't even an reality for that matter, because we all view the world slightly different.

    With that settled: The MOTU and bugs etc. already have admittance requirements. All entries must be first checked by current members, so in the quality stays up. You must have had a few reviews before you can join MOTU or others like that. So your concerns were not necessary =)

  8. "I do not doubt that the community members are honest enough to tell people when they are not delivering good work. But that isn’t the only side to this. Say you are telling someone (s)he’s triaging bugs badly, you’ll first have to have seen badly triaged bugs. That means someone will have to correct those bugs, if the reporter hasn’t already stopped responding. It could also mean that someone has spent some time trying to mentor the bad triager. Valuable time of a volunteer has gone to waste. That is also bad for the motivation of the volunteer.'

    You'll never know if the person is capable of triaging until you've let them try the task and see if they can learn from their mistakes. Mentoring a bad triager may be a waste of time, but you'll never be able to assess them until you've mentored them a bit.

    1. That is a valid point. We can't take entry-exams to check whether prospective triagers, or other community volunteers, are capable. We often must first see them in action. However, I do think that we should be more aware that not everyone has the skills to execute every task well (enough), and spot that in time, to prevent a waste of energy, motivation and resources.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.