Linus Torvalds and the three stages of celebrity

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 15, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

No matter what you think of the accusations that Linus Torvalds encourages a culture of abuse in the kernel project, one thing is clear: he's well into the second level of celebrity, which complicates the situation immensely.

For years, Torvalds enjoyed the uncritical first level. It may be hard to remember today, but when Linux first became newsworthy, he was presented as a kind of counter-culture Bill Gates. Twenty-four years younger than Gates, he was known by his first name, not his last. He was more concerned with programming than business, and showed no interest in being more than comfortably wealthy. Unlike Gates, he seemed endearingly shy, and more accessible than Gates with his stories of inventing Linux in his dorm, and facing a charging penguin. Just as Linux was an alternative to Windows, so Torvalds was depicted as an alternative leader to Gates. Linux users were proud to be associated with his image.

How much of that picture was true is debatable. Probably, it had elements of truth. For instance, to this day, Torvalds looks uneasy up on the stage at LinuxCon. However, the truth is second in importance at best. What matters above all else is that the media chose to portray him that way.

The Second Stage
Then, sometime after 2010, Torvalds' image started to unravel. The resurgence of Apple, and Microsoft's less colorful CEOs after Gates and Ballmer meant that Torvalds was no longer needed as the counter-Gates. With growing fame, how Torvalds operated was perhaps more closely scrutinized.

The times, too, had changed, and with the rise of codes of conduct and the increase in women kernel contributors changed the perceptions of the kernel's ultra-macho culture of abuse. Where it had once been considered by many as refreshingly honest, or at least acceptable in an array of geniuses, increasingly it has come to be interpreted as as a culture of misogyny and harassment.

Yet all these only contributed to the shift in perspective. Many of the loudest condemnations come from people who are no strangers to abusing others themselves. For instance, the rudest person I have ever met in free software, who regularly bullies less verbally skilled opponents on Twitter, expresses an extreme loathing of Torvalds whenever his name occurs.

Similarly, when Sarah Sharp first voiced her objection to a lack of civility, she interrupted a different thread to blurt out, " Linus, you're one of the worst offenders when it comes to verbally abusing people and publicly tearing their emotions apart. I'm not going to put up with that shit any more" -- a sentiment which is true, but hardly the standard to be expected from an advocate of civility. Perhaps the rationale is that, if you are right, then the rules don't apply to you, but no doubt Torvalds could make the same argument from his perspective.

The uneasy mixture of truth and hypocrisy in the attacks on Torvalds may be an example of projection -- of people projecting their own rudeness on Torvalds so they can distance themselves from it. But it makes me suspect that the issue is not civility alone. Since many of those who chastise Torvalds are younger than him, I wonder if part of what we are seeing is the impatience of the new generation to take over from the generation in power. The fact that Torvalds could easily keep going for another twenty or thirty years before he needs a successor may only add to the impatience.

Torvalds' ways are no longer an alternative, and if they were ever refreshing, they no longer are. He has become the mainstream, and his responses to complaints about his behavior suggest that he is as out of touch with the younger generation of kernel developers as Bill Gates was out of touch with Microsoft's image when Linux first became news.

You might almost say that Torvalds is becoming the new Bill Gates so far as the media is concerned. He resists the labels placed on him better than Gates, because, in person he is more unassuming and comes across as modest and likable, but the tendency is there.

From the perspective of 2015, you can easily forget that, in the 1990s, Bill Gates was the media's darling, too. But it seems that most people with any claim to celebrity goes through a similar process thanks to the media and the rise of new generations, worshipped in the first stage of celebrity, and attacked in in the second stage. A steady flow of heroes and villains seems indispensable, no matter what the immediate reasons for the cycles.

The Third Stage Waiting
Torvalds is unlikely to quit his position in the kernel project. No doubt those who interact with him the most long ago grew accustomed to his outbursts. My own guess is that both Torvalds and the Linux kernel project will change as more women and another generation of men come into the project.

However, whether Torvalds changes or resists, if he continues for another decade or so, he will eventually enter the third stage of celebrity, in which he is honored as a pioneer and his important work is considered done. If he continues as he is, his rudeness will be remembered as "feisty" except among those who have been on the receiving end. If he encourages changes to increase civility, he will be remembered as someone who not only started an essential project, but who had the courage to change the ways members interacted.
Either way, he will be in the third stage of celebrity, his accomplishments in the past and those who write about him visibly warming up for the first draft of history. That is neither fair nor just to Torvalds, any more than it is to his detractors, but worth remembering all the same as you read the day to day coverage of events. The controversy over civility includes important issues, but it is also co-opted into the inevitable cycles of media coverage and the tide of one generation replacing the previous one.

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