February 15, 2015

Birthday greetings, Packed committees, community, standards

Today is my birthday. I woke to find many birthday greetings on Facebook, and more roll in throughout the day. It's hard to admit how pleasing it is, embarrassing. I haven't asked for birthday greetings and don't usually give them. Maybe I'll change my mind.
Perhaps I'm late to the party but I'm still trying to understand the 'why' of social networking -- why does Facebook encourage birthday greetings? What human pleasure does getting 11 "happy birthday" notes trigger?
But it fits into the need to have and build community, and the mechanism for community requires periodic acknowledgement. We engage in sharing our humanity (everyone has a birthday) by greeting. Hello, goodbye, I'm here, poke. But not too often, once a year is enough.
I wrote about standards and community yesterday on the IETF list,  but people didn't get it.
Explaining that message and its relationship to birthday greetings is hard.
The topic of discussion was "Updating BCP 10 -- NomCom ELEGIBILITY".
  • IETF : group that does Internet Standards
  • BCP10: the unique process for how IETF recruits and picks leadership
  • NOMCOM: the "Nominating Committee" which picks leadership amongst volunteers
  • elegibility: qualifications for getting on the NOMCOM
I think BCP10 is a remarkable piece of social engineering, at the center of the question of governance of the Internet: how to make hard decisions, who has final authority, who gets to choose them, and how to choose the choosers.   Most standards groups get their authority from governments and treaties or are consortia. But IETF developed a complex algorithm for trying to create structure without any other final authority to resolve disputes.

But it looks like this complex algorithm is buggy, and the IETF is trying to debug the process without being too open about the problem. The idea was to let people volunteer, and choose randomly among qualified volunteers. But what qualifications? There's been some concern about the latest round of nomcom volunteers, that's what started this thread.

During the long email thread on the topic, the discussion turned to the tradeoffs between attending a meeting in person vs. using new Internet tools for virtual meetings or more support for remote participation.  Various people noted that the advantage of meeting in person is the ability to have conversations in the hallways outside the formal, minuted meetings. 

I thought people were too focused on their personal preferences rather than the needs of the community. What are we trying to accomplish, and how do meetings help with that? How would we satisfy the requirements for effective work.

A few more bits: I mention some of the conflicts between IETF and other standards groups over URLs and JSON because W3C, WHATWG, ECMA are different tribes, different communities.

Creating effective standards is a community activity to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons that would result if individuals and organizations all went their own way. The common good is “the Internet works consistently for everyone” which needs to compete against “enough of the Internet works ok for my friends” where everyone has different friends.
For voluntary standards to happen, you need rough consensus — enough people agree to force the remainder to go along. 
It’s a community activity, and for that to work there has to be a sense of community. And video links with remote participation aren’t enough to create a sense of community. 
There are groups that purport to manage with minimal face-to-face meetings, but I think those are mainly narrow scope and a small number of relevant players, or an already established community, and they regularly rely heavily on 24/7 online chat, social media, open source tools, wikis which are requirements for full participation.

The “hallway conversations” are not a nice-to-have, they’re how the IETF preserves community with open participation.
One negative aspect of IETF “culture” (loosely, the way in which the IETF community interacts) is that it isn’t friendly or easy to match and negotiate with other SDOs, so we see the WHATWG / W3C / IETF unnecessary forking of URL / URI / IRI, encodings, MIME sniffing, and the RFC7159-JSON competing specs based at least partly on cultural misunderstandings.
The main thing nomcom  needs to select for is  technical leadership (the skill of getting people to follow)  in service of the common good). And nomcom members should have enough experience to have witnessed successful leadership. One hopes there might be some chance of that just by attending 3 meetings, although the most effective leadership is often exercised in those private hallway conversations where compromises are made.