The free software media and cults of personality

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 08, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

It's all the media's fault. Or, if not, the media helps perpetuate it.

I'm talking about the cults of personality that often dominate the free software  community -- not just the respect for accomplishment in an alleged meritocracy, but the undue influence that certain people are allowed to exercise.

As Aaron Seigo points out in a blog that anticipates much of what I would otherwise have said, such cults are contrary to community values. Worse, they can do untold damage, imposing commercial values at the cost of community ones, or dividing the community as those at the center of such cults decide to air their personal grudges in public. They can cause people to discard their own judgment and choose software on the basis of who endorses what, and even to compromise themselves morally by choosing sides in a flame war when they should be condemning everyone involved. 

I'm not naming names, but if you follow community news, you'll know that all these things have happened in the last month, as well as many, many times before. Moreover, each time that they happen, they distract people from more important matters.

And, like I said, the media of which I am a member deserves part of the blame.

The media connection
The problem is not so much that a few journalists use their ability to publish to operate as thinly disguised trolls, rousing flame wars while claiming to keeping people informed. These claims are clumsy rationalizations, because with so much to write about, no one has to cover the latest vendetta or evidence of the cults. However, several of this kind of journalist who were prominent a few years of ago have been reduced to hissing their venom for a small circle of supporters, and are noticeably less influential today.

Rather, the problem is that journalism as it is practiced today finds cults of personality convenient.  Being able to mention celebrities in the headlines increases page views, and, with so-many online publications barely scraping by, few editors object to larger numbers to show advertisers as proof of their clout.

As for writers, mentioning someone famous is a quick way of validating a point. Even if the celebrity fails to make a logical argument or offer a scrap of insight, readers are more likely to be swayed to a viewpoint by learning that a celebrity supports it. 

Similar to a product endorsement, this line of argument is often called the associational fallacy, and has been known as an invalid -- if persuasive -- form of argument for over 2500 years. You can sometimes see the associational fallacy in one of its more lethal forms in pseudo-trend stories, in which trends are extrapolated from one or two anecdotes, without the slightest bit of hard evidence to support them.

However, even when a writer is not stooping to such tactics, not feeding a cult of personality can be difficult. Readers want to hear about what the famous are doing or thinking. They are far less interested in ordinary people, which is why stories about people behind the scenes, while well-meaning, rarely keep people reading unless the writer can quickly establish an interesting angle.

Just as importantly, bringing a story down to the personal is simply effective writing. Explain that ten thousand people are about to be laid off, and the statistic barely moves readers. Find a representative of those ten thousand who will go on the record as saying, "Come winter, my family is going to be burning our furniture for warmth," and suddenly the layoffs become vivid.

Another reason why avoiding cults of personality is difficult for a writer is that news stories are expected to have quotations from experts. In free software, experts are often celebrities, and, if they are not, enough journalists quoting an expert can transform them into one.

What makes this situation all the more likely is that the number of people quoted in a story is severely limited. Although journalists are trained to avoid having only one person quoted in a story unless they are writing an interview, a 750-1000 word  story can usually only manage to squeeze in 3-4 quotations. Even a 1200-1500 word story can only manage 1-2 more who are saying anything of more substance than, "I agree."

Because of this limitation, any citation of a person is going to be noticeable, and, potentially, help to contribute to a cult of personality. Sometimes, it may create one where none existed.

Opposing the cults
Under these circumstances, even the most ethical of journalists has trouble keeping their hands clean. Personally, I regret in retrospect writing at least one story that not only helped to launch a cult of personality, but made me party to a personal attack that was none of my business. The target's opinions deserved to be called out, but that didn't make the exercise in defamation any more justified -- both the opinions and the attack on them were wrong. I've taken the story down, but I consider it my low point in personal irresponsibility.

So what can writers do to help detonate free software's cults of personality? To start with, we can try not to avoid reporting what somebody says simply because they are well-known. The famous usually reached their status by doing important things, but they are only somewhat more likely to be relevant with everything they say than an average person. When they are relevant, citing them is reasonable, but they should earn the mention, just like anyone else.

We can try, too, to avoid allowing ourselves to become the pawns of the famous. When you are pushing deadline and someone hands you a story ready-made, the offer can hard to exist, but we still need to be more cautious. If nothing else, we can make sure that we do not prepare a story with borrowed opinions, or without adequate consideration of opposing viewpoints. Even an opinion piece is stronger for considering all sides of the story.

Most of all, we can make a stronger effort to report on the non-famous, the non-showboating -- those who get their job done and manage to maintain a sense of proportion about themselves. There are dozens of such people in free software, and while making them interesting to readers is more challenging than encouraging cults of personality, it isn't impossible.

In fact, just as a side-effect of free software has been to create de-centralized means of collaboration, those of us who are free software journalists can try to create our own standards for a story -- one that doesn't depend on celebrities, but on skilled writing.

That's a lofty goal, but it's one at which I'm determined to aim.


  • thanks :)

    I deeply respect your self-awareness and willingness to address this issue as you have, fairly and without pulling punches. It's the sort of engagement free software needs to keep moving forward. Thanks happy

    Oh, and if you ever need to be pointed towards "non-famous, non-showboating" developers on a given topic in the UI worlds of Free software (even outside of KDE), just ask and I'll be happy to pass on names.
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