Abusive Criticism

Another blogger’s recent blog post links to an article about criticism in FOSS projects. It’s an quick and interesting read, and mentions the sort of criticism Linus Torvalds finds hard to deal with.

Much of the culture of harshly criticizing what’s wrong in the Linux project is cultivated by Linus, a guy who admits he likes to argue or to flame as he puts it. Flaming involves insults and provocation, according to the jargon file. Let’s just say insults have never been a clever approach to team building.

I find that discussion culture to be the greatest failure of the Linux community1.

You can have equally useful discussions about the merits of one approach or the other, without having to develop a thick hide, if everyone involved realizes that choosing abusive words isn’t the way to go.

The linked article’s attempt at analyzing why people chose this provocative style of uttering criticism is to blame it on the high pressure on the project. I know several Apache guys, who work under similarly high pressure, but manage to be quite a lot more friendly. Somehow that argument doesn’t ring true.

The real reason, I think, lies in the people involved. I can’t provide a psychologically sound analysis of their motivations, of course, but if you can accept broad generalizations, it’s usually people who need to bolster their own egos that lash out at others.

One attempt at explaining why Linux has a high enough percentage of contributors that have such a need might be to blame it on the nerd stereotype: FOSS development is a rather nerdy thing to do2. Nerds have a history of being socially inept and persecuted for that, which in turn makes it harder for them to interact with others and develop social skills.

Now throw a bunch of socially inept people in with each other, and watch several things simultaneously happening:

  1. Everyone realizes that the others have the same handicap, and won’t blame each other for having it.
  2. Everyone shares at least one interest, in addition to sharing the same handicap. The realization dawns that this is a group of people where one won’t be singled out for one’s failure to integrate, but for one’s achievements, something hitherto unknown.
  3. Everyone tries to grab hold of that chance of being distinguished, and in order to achieve that goal, employs their inept social skills: in other words, everyone tries to make sure that everyone else looks stupider than oneself.

And there you have the beginnings of a culture where any misstep is harshly criticized, and everyone looks out for other people’s missteps. If that sounds very much like Pratchett‘s description of wizards to you, then I suspect there’s a reason for that. They also protect their status by implying everyone else may not have the mental faculties required to reach it.

Now that picture of parts of the FOSS community I’m painting here isn’t terribly nice. Then again, it’s not the only nerdy subculture I’ve had the opportunity to watch a bit, being quite a nerd geek myself.

Of course that doesn’t automatically make me right, but maybe this article offers a less self-congratulatory view on the mechanics of FOSS communities than popular slogans proclaiming to see dumb people would.

  1. And one that propagates to many other FOSS projects. []
  2. As an aside, I realize that most people involved or interested in FOSS development would prefer the term geeky here. Let’s just say that the term nerd in my opinion reflects better the outside view of such people, whereas the term geek is one they might more eagerly apply to themselves. []
  • http://chanweiyee.blogspot.com Wei-Yee Chan

    Great analysis. The worst trolls are usually the technically incompetent who contribute nothing but trouble – people who have serious character defects and are intellectually-challenged.

  • http://www.unwesen.de/ unwesen

    Thank you – I agree, those are the worst!