Saturday, August 10, 2019

Decision making and governance in Tatoeba

I would like to take you behind the scenes of the Tom and Mary discussion and share with you my story on this controversial topic and what it actually took to come up with a decision.

The most important message I hope you’ll take from this is that anyone has the power to make a change in Tatoeba. If something bothers you and you think we should take measures for or against it, there’s a way to have an influence, beyond posting your thoughts on the Wall. I’ll explain to you how, through this story.

First, let me set up the context.

We have a lot of sentences with “Tom” and “Mary” in our corpus. This was not the result of any official decision. This was the result of our most prolific contributor. His goal was to avoid redundancy. If everyone could use the same names in their sentences, it’s less likely to have many sentences that are similar in patterns. For instance, you don’t want everyone to be adding sentences with “My name is”: “My name is Trang”, “My name is Tom”, “My name is Mary”, “My name is Bond” (“... James-Tom-Mary Bond”).

So the chosen names were Tom and Mary, but those names were chosen arbitrarily (to my knowledge). After some time, the idea started being contested. For good reasons. Among other things, Tom and Mary were quite inconvenient names for languages where names are subject to declensions. People translating from English into such language felt that Tom and Mary sentences were not allowing them to express all the linguistic properties of their language.

This didn’t stop Tom and Mary from proliferating. I had no particular plan to make an intervention on this topic but it became a recurring topic. Every now and then, I would see people posting about it on the Wall, but I would still choose to let the community handle it on their own.

Lately, I’ve been cleaning up issues on GitHub. My main goal is to clean up as much as possible our issues before starting some small campaign to find new developers. We now have a much easier way to set up Tatoeba locally and I would like to put it under test.

So as I was cleaning up GitHub issues last weekend, I stumbled upon one issue that was pointing to a post in a thread that was proposing a solution to diversify names. It reminded me about another thread, that was posted more recently and that I only briefly saw, on the topic of using a small set of names. I decided to actually read it entirely.

And at that point, I just felt annoyed. I felt annoyed that after all this time, there was still no closure on this topic. I wanted to carry on cleaning up the GitHub issues, but I felt annoyed. Kind of like when you’re trying to focus on something, or worse, when you’re trying to sleep, and there’s this freaking mosquito/fly bzzz’ing around your head. That’s how annoyed I was.

This is a topic that already started a couple of years ago, and I understand that some topics are not easy. But by now, it was pretty clear to me that the wildcard idea was not a good idea. People gave good arguments against it. Still, it didn’t seem to be clear for everyone.

So I asked myself, what can I do? What can I do to put a stop to this madness?

Technically, I can do a lot of things. I can change the source code to reject every sentence containing “Tom” or “Mary”. Or I can automatically convert “Tom” or “Mary” into a random name upon saving. Or I could block everyone from contributing until I receive a private message saying “I understand I don’t have to use Tom or Mary in my sentences and I will not try to influence other people to do so”. Obviously, that’s not my type of approach.

I decided I would initiate a discussion with a radical question: should we stop Tom and Mary sentences? I already had the answer to “Should we enforce Tom and Mary sentences?”, but what about the opposite? I had no clear answer to that. But I gave it a try.

I tried to gather my best arguments on why we should stop Tom and Mary’s expansion, I drafted a proposal on what to do to stop Tom and Mary sentences, and I posted it on the Wall. I was quite convinced by my arguments and I really felt it would be a good thing to do. But knowing that this whole idea was way too recent to be a final decision, I made sure to not close my mind on it: to leave a door open for opposite points of view and not be carried away by my newfound convictions.

Now comes the tough part. Because while it may look like I’m trying to convince the world that we have to stop Tom and Mary, in my own head, I’m still battling against it. If all I had to provide was just a “yes” or a “no”, I could just flip a coin; it’s much less trouble. But the decision itself doesn’t matter. The “yes” or the “no” doesn’t matter. The reasons behind it, is what matters. I needed to find the strongest reasons, reasons that no one in their right mind could argue against.

Eventually, I found these reasons and they led me to decide against my own proposal. I did not find them directly from the conversation, that is, no one really said anything that was so well-argued and made so much sense that I changed my mind. But the fact that there was opposition to my proposal was a sign that I had to look further, to look deeper into the core values of Tatoeba. Even knowing that I can never make everyone happy, I still had to look.

In all of this, the real goal was not to find out what is the “best decision”. The real goal was to find common ground. And the common ground here was that diversity and redundancy are not exclusive from each other. Diversity can and will still grow in a corpus that looks very repetitive. It will take a lot of time, but patience is our most important virtue.

It all makes sense now but it wasn’t easy, I can tell you. It took several days of intense reflection, which probably totaled to 40 hours, if not more. 40 hours for thinking, for replying to people on the Wall and for formalizing the official decision. It took as much time as a full-time job and it heavily felt like one.

I will not do this again anytime soon, and hopefully, you understand why.

But that conversation we had on Tom and Mary was an important one. And there are many, many other important conversations that we need to have and will need to have. Who will be leading them, if not me?

Well, anyone else.

Find a problem, make a proposal on the Wall, discuss with the community, challenge everyone’s opinions (even your own), gather enough information and points of view until you can make a decision backed up with a rationale that no one can contest, then formalize the decision in a document.

Up to this point, it could be done by any member of Tatoeba. It doesn’t have to come from me. Anyone who has access to the Wall and access to a brain can do this.

The only steps where I would need to step in is to make it official and to help enforce the decision. You send me the document, I read it, it makes sense, I publish it on the blog, it becomes official and we follow through.

This is it.

It takes time, it takes skills, it takes a lot of empathy. I won’t deny it’s difficult, my story shows it. But all of that you can learn and practice. Please, don’t be afraid to give it a try. As long as you know the process, which I just described, you too can become a decision maker.

My dream is to see, one day, proposals being formalized without my intervention at all, and all I have to do (aside from being convinced) is to make them official. In the much longer term, my dream is to be able to transfer my authority to other people and let them officialize decisions instead of me, to no longer be the one and only almighty governor of Tatoeba.

I know it will take time but with the case of Tom and Mary, I hope I showed you the way, at least one way. I hope you spread the word. I hope you spread the love too. I think I did my part. The rest is up to you.


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