Safety or a fake community?

Back in the heyday of Tony Blair's New Labour, an undercover journalist went to work for the party, producing a goldmine of material for the Dispatches documentary Undercover in New Labour.

It tells us a lot about the problems facing large free software communities today.

Blair goes from one village to the next, attending "community" meetings where it appears that local people come to participate and ask questions. The documentary exposes these people as hacks from the party's headquarters who follow him from one village to the next while police set up a perimeter and keep real locals as far away as possible. They review footage from the meetings in detail, exploring the diversity of those present: a woman with a baby, coloured people, aged pensioners, business people. Then they show that it is always the same woman and same baby at every meeting. It is always the same coloured woman. Always the same pensioner. Finally, they show us that those people are paid to be there, they are staff from the party headquarters.

Many large free software communities have taken a similar approach. People who don't echo the views of incumbent management are threatened, subject to character assassination, expelled or censored on mailing lists. Codes of conduct and access to travel funding are some of the tools used to control and coerce people.

Watching a discussion on a mailing list, it often appears that there are a large group who are in agreement. In fact these people are not representative of the community at large, the other side of the story is not being told because people are too afraid to speak or not visible because the messages with diverging opinions are blocked from the public lists or silently removed from mailing list archives.