Happy St Patrick's day (17 March)

In February, we had an annual general meeting (AGM) of the Irish Free Software Organization in Dublin.

If you are in Ireland, please consider joining IFSO or making a donation.

The sock puppet next door

There is a very interesting story about how this meeting came about.

When discussions took place in the FSFE community about the decision to abolish elections, approximately 15 people participated, with about 10 people against democracy and only about 5 people speaking up in favour.

Looking at those numbers is deceptive: of the 10 people speaking against elections, all were in what other people perceive as the cabal, a group of 27 people who have full membership, over and above the fellows. Cabal people hadn't lost anything in the constitutional change. The 5 people speaking in favour of democracy where not members of the cabal, they were ordinary members of the 1500-strong fellowship. In such circumstances, is it fair to extrapolate the voice of those 5 people and consider it to be representative of the majority of 1500 fellows? Or do we accept the more simplistic 10 against 5? The more simplistic case, where it is not obvious to outsiders that the 10 people are cabal members, is one of those fake community situations.

Imagine if every participant in that conversation had to state in their email signature whether they were cabal or fellow, or even better, if the emails could be colour-coded by membership class. Would it be easier to see the correlation between the vested interests and the opinions?

In any case, the more outspoken members of the cabal tried to intimidate the fellows, trying to discredit them with personal attacks and calling some of them sock puppets. As fellowship representative, I simply emailed some of these people personally asking "can you please tell me if you are a sock-puppet or a fellow?"

What I found was surprising: not only were they real people, one of them lives just around the corner from my home in Dublin. Stefan and I met for burgers late in 2018 and helped put things into motion to reboot the IFSO.

One fellow told me he (or she?) was not using their real name because the FSFE cabal censors discussions about governance issues, blocking people from the mailing lists or moderating their posts. But they are still a real person making real contributions to the organization. Another fellow observed that one member of the cabal, Cryptie, doesn't use her real name and asked why should anybody else?

Another thought that crossed my mind after meeting Stefan: why is it easier for me to meet a so-called sock-puppet in real life than it is to meet the leader of the Debian project when serious issues need to be discussed? The DPL's refusal to meet with people in person and then deciding he knows them well enough to give opinions about them to people in other communities feels like one of the major reasons there has been stress for many people in Debian recently.

Now Debian has similar problems to FSFE: undemocratic behaviour by the leaders, censorship and then, for fear of retribution, it looks like some people stop using their real names when posting on the debian-project mailing list and other people may erroneously be accused of not using real names. With over five thousand people subscribed to the list, I don't feel that two people with similar names is a compelling example of sock-puppeteering and some of the accusations are uncomfortable for multiple people. Even fewer people dare to open their mouth next.

This brings us to another of the benefits of setting up local associations like IFSO: people can meet face to face more often, maybe monthly and then nobody is wondering if they are corresponding with a sock puppet. FSFE's 27 members (what they call the "General Assembly", or other people regard as a cabal) only officially meets once per year. It has become too big to function like a board or have regular meetings but too small to have the credibility that would come from acknowledging all volunteers/fellows as equal members.

According to the treasurer's report at the IFSO AGM, there is no money in the bank so there is nothing for sock puppets to fight over anyway. So come along and join the next meeting for some fun.