When enthusiasm for free software turns ugly

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 27, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Last week, I wrote an article about the decline of Apache OpenOffice, and how its attitude towards other projects might be part of its problem. "No one wants to see OpenOffice humiliated," I wrote -- but apparently I was wrong. At least half a dozen people contradicted me, saying they did want to see the project humiliated, and incidentally demonstrating the dark side of the strong feelings that free software evokes.

These strong feelings can be one of the most attractive aspects of free software. Few of those who are lucky enough to work full-time on free software are apathetic about their employment. Almost without exception, they are convinced that they are helping to change the world. They believe that they are doing their part to get the poor and developed nations get online, and that they are eroding the commercial monopolies that block the potential of the Internet. They believe they are shaping the future, not just doing a job, and they are proud of their contributions. Some are even working at a lower salary than they might manage elsewhere, just so that they can feel that their work is meaningful.

However, the same passion that fuels this justified pride can have an ugly side. From its start, free software advocacy has been disfigured by a hatred for Microsoft that goes far beyond an evidence-based dislike of the company's practices into outright paranoia. Even today, this hatred can be so strong that an accurate analysis of the company's actions and statements is almost impossible.

An almost equally strong dislike persists of corporations, even though corporate betrayals are vastly outnumbered by corporate contributions to free software. The dislike is a holdover from the days when free software was new and its standards seemed incompatible with the expectations of business.

But at least the hatred of Microsoft and corporations is understandable. Both have deep roots in free software history, and are based on some fundamental, probably irresolvable differences. What disturbs me far more is when the strong feelings devolve into insularity that excludes other free software projects.

Why, for example, would I possibly want to see OpenOffice humiliated? I prefer LibreOffice's releases, and  -- with some misgivings -- the Free Software Foundation's philosophy and licensing over that of the Apache Foundation. I also question the efficiency of having two office suites so closely related to each other. Yet while exploring such issues may be news, I don't forget that, despite these differences, OpenOffice and the Apache Foundation still have the same general goals as LibreOffice or the Free Software Foundation.

The same is true of other famous feuds. Why, because I have a personal preference for KDE, am I supposed to ignore GNOME's outstanding interface designs? Similarly, because I value Debian's stability and efforts at democracy, am I supposed to have a strong distaste for Ubuntu? To me, a personal preference is no excuse for a rabid hate. I may dislike the direction certain projects are going, and even consider them misguided, but that is very different from condemning them wholesale.

Sometimes, this kind of insularity may reflect which projects a person works on. However, at least as often, it is voiced by average users with no direct connection to any of the projects involved. It appears an expression of the human need to belong, although an unusually misguided one. Hearing it always reminds me of a teenager who once contacted me to show his sketches. Some of them were clever and talented, but all amounted to amateur ads for companies like Google and Apple. Expressing insularity seems to me exactly the same sort of misapplied effort as those sketches. It may give a sense of identity, but by definition it is a fragile one, defined more by what people oppose than by accomplishments that they might take a genuine pride in having assisted.

In fact, I suspect that this insularity is responsible for much of the opposition to diversity efforts. After all, when your sense of who you are depends on externals and what you define yourself as not being, any change becomes uncomfortable -- and, often, an outright threat to your sense of self. Instead of welcoming women's participation as a natural consequence of free software goals, the insular view even a few new women as a threat. They turn themselves into trolls, hurling abuse online in the same way that the neurotic chimps at a zoo hurl their own feces.

In theory, maybe some way exists to encourage the enthusiasm that free software inspires while discouraging the ugliness of insularity. The idealism of free software has shaped my life so thoroughly that I wince when it is twisted.

In practice, though, how to accomplish that goal remains elusive. Sometimes, I worry that the enthusiasm and the insularity are so closely related that one cannot exist without the other, and I can only hope that I am wrong.

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