Watching the watchers


A bit less than two years ago the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) started centrally imposing behavior regulation on OSMF provided communication channels – channels which were previously largely individually self governed by their users. Originally this applied only on two mailing lists but since then it was successively extended more and more. I had commented on that quite in detail already back then (and before) and it seems a good time now to look at how this turned out so far.

Back in 2021 i had expected the practical consequence of this to be primarily that

  • community members less aligned to the Anglo-American-European Leitkultur of the OSMF would be more reluctant to actively participate on the channels in question or would withdraw from participation.
  • remaining participants would engage in preemptive self-alignment, adjusting their communication to diminish the risk of it being interpreted to clash with what is considered acceptable by the powers that be.

The first point is probably something that indeed happened – though it is hard to reliably measure because other changes in communication culture (like the emergence of various new platforms and channels as means of communication of the OSM community, including – among others – the OSMFs discourse based platform), evidently have an effect on that as well that is hard to separate.

The second point is something where i seem to have been wrong. Since the behavior rules imposed are largely vague and often cryptic and difficult to interpret objectively, it seems that contributors on the channels in question largely ignore them. At the same time we see a remarkable volume of punitive measures being imposed by the OSMF-board appointed moderators based on perceived violations of the rules. To me this is a bit surprising because this is not how behavior regulation typically works in Anglo-American style tech communities.

What i think shines through here is what i have pointed out in the past: that OpenStreetMap is not a tech project and local OSM communities have more recently developed a quite robust self confidence in their specific cultural styles of communication and social interaction. Nudging towards self-alignment does not work as well in OSM as it would in a group that is culturally more homogeneous from the start with more effective peer pressure towards conformity.

The way behavior regulation is enforced now contrasts quite strongly in many ways with what during the discussion in 2021 was communicated how it is supposed to work, namely through moderators also otherwise active on the channel in question defusing conflicts through counseling and being a moderating voice in the true sense of the word. This still happens, but in most cases not through the official OSMF moderators. It is positively remarkable and pleasantly surprising how well quite a few people in the OSM community manage to address even strong expressions of emotions in many cases with empathy and sensitivity. But what you can see quite frequently now is that after that, when the participants of a channel have already made substantial progress to defuse the situation and foster understanding and respect for different views among the participants in a heated discussion, the official moderators swoop in (typically without having been involved in the discussion to that point), identify a single culprit and dispense some sort of punishment on them – either merely through an official reprimand (and this way implicitly exonerating everyone else from their responsibility) or through a ban from participation. I like to emphasize this is not universally the case, there are also situations where the OSMF moderators defuse conflicts through counseling in a sensitive manner. But the described pattern is quite common in those cases where ultimately substantial punitive measures are imposed.

On the positive side – official moderation activities are quite decently documented. I can recommend everyone to look a bit through this documentation to get your own impression on how centrally imposed behavior regulation is implemented on OSMF channels these days. A bit of warning though when you look at the official record of the communications on the discourse platform referenced in these incident reports: These are often incomplete since messages have been removed afterwards and are selectively quoted in the incident reports. If you are subscribed to the mailing list mode the picture you get from some of these conversations is substantially different from that you get on the web interface where messages are not only hidden (with there still being a marker indicating where there formerly was a message) but also fully removed from the view of both the general public and logged in members. And the management of this hiding/removing of messages is done not by the official moderators but by a separate self appointed governance team, without either independent oversight or meaningful public reporting. Using the mailing list mode can help with that and with maintaining a more complete record of communication but there is apparently a built in 20 minutes delay in the mailing list mode which makes this not fully reliable either.

Looking at the incident reports and the moderation activities you can make some in my opinion quite remarkable observations. First: The OSMF-board appointed moderation team consists formally of five people. Practically, however, it seems only two of them are actively pursuing moderation. These two (both of them Americans) act as rapporteurs and the other three merely confirm the decisions prepared by these two. Second: eight out of nine documented cases of moderation activity are about sanctioning non-native English speakers for communication activities in English language.

Now i want to keep this blog post relatively brief so i will not discuss the merits of the individual cases here. As said – everyone is invited to read up on these cases for themselves. If anyone is in need of any of the messages that have been removed from public record related to any of these incidents feel free to contact me directly about them. I also won’t further analyze what the statistical observations made mean in this post. Feel welcome to share your own thoughts on this in the comments below.

Apart from that it is worth noting that the original promise that local communities will be allowed to individually self govern their own channels on the discourse platform is not kept. According to comments made, bans on the discourse platform are always implemented globally. Practically that seems to mean someone who runs into conflict with the OSMF rules on the channels under control of the official OSMF moderators will also be banned from participating in their local community channel, even if what they did was perfectly acceptable under their local community’s social standards and conventions. The interesting question is of course if this will practically also work the other way round – that someone violating the local community standards anywhere in the world also will get banned from all the other channels on the OSMF platform.

One other thing that might be food for thought: At least one of the people that have been officially banned by the OSMF-board appointed moderation team so far has made a public statement in the past indicating that they might have a learning disability.

How are things going to develop in the future? I don’t really know of course. There are quite clearly two trends active here pointing in opposite directions. On the one hand the efforts to induce cultural homogenization on OSMF provided communication channels are quite clearly successful to some extent. On the other hand we can quite clearly also observe a trend towards diversification in terms of communication channels and platforms used outside of OSMF control. And while this cannot be reliably proven of course, it is likely that the latter at least partly happens as a reaction to the former – local communities, which are denied true self governance on the OSMF managed channels, opt to establish and use channels they have more control over.

But as much as i welcome and applaud initiatives for true cultural diversity and self determined bottom-up cooperation and think this is essential for OpenStreetMap to function in the long term, it is important to realize that cultural homogenization is an attractive strategy for many as a means to facilitate and simplify cooperation in larger groups – and not only for those whose culture in being imposed on others, even for quite a few of those who need to adjust and denounce their culture in the process. True cultural diversity is hard, even for those who strongly depend on it.

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