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Ow! Ow! OW!


Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

In the past couple of months, I have been witness to a cascading series of rants, both online and off. It started with a prominent developer dissing the members of the Open Source community as a whole. Then, a diehard Open Source developer dissed Open Source community managers. Finally, just last week, I was at a talk where an Open Source community manager dissed journalists from the tech press.

And, all the while I was: "Ow! Ow! OW!"

At some stage or another, I have worn all those hats. I work exclusively within the realm of Free Software/Open Source; I have been a community manager/social media hack, and, of course, my day job is that of a tech journalist. Apparently, all these tasks are unseemly, and I'm starting to feel a bit dirty every time I send out a GNU/Linux-themed tweet.

The problem is that the moment you generalize, you are in the wrong. Take the first guy, for example. The developer may have had a point about how rude and spiteful some of his colleagues were with each other and outsiders. That was until he started describing the Open Source community in its entirety as especially "toxic" and a place where hateful attitudes towards minorities, towards women, and towards him were encouraged more so than in other online communities.

This of course is rubbish. On one hand, everybody who's reading this probably follows Open Source communities other than that of the almighty Kernel (the group that sparked the developer's rage). As far as I can see, there is very little in the way of vitriol and belittling within the KDE, Blender, Krita, and Arduino communities – to mention a few I personally follow. These are part of the Open Source movement, too.

On the other hand, I was ejected a couple of weeks ago from an online cooking forum for getting too vocal once too often about how to make a proper paella. I have read threats of physical violence between users of a music-in-film bulletin board, and what to say about Gamergate, huh? People get riled, trolls have a field day, nerves get frayed, and otherwise perfectly normal humans, who love their families and pets, say things that they don't really mean or that come out wrong… or let the nasty from within out when online. My point being that insults and threats are not the exclusive domain of "the Open Source community" by any stretch of the mind.

Then came the Open Source developer who disparaged community managers, accusing them of being corporate lapdogs and manipulators. The irony is the criticizer himself has acted as a community manager, in everything but name, several times over the years: He has started projects and established roadmaps for others to follow; he whipped up interest for products within a community, even managing a crowdfunding effort; and he has also coordinated people who have worked for free. What he really meant were "corporate-designated community managers." This became clear when he pointed out that a community manager paid by a company would always take the side of the guy who cuts the cheque over the side of the users when there's a conflict between the two.

As for that, there is always going to be a rift at some point between a company and its users, and a community manager is going to get caught in the crossfire. However, a community manager – at least a competent and honest one – is a useful person to have around precisely when that happens. A community manager can help clarify a company's decisions to users and then give users a voice within the boardroom. An honest manager doesn't have to be a shill, even if she is paid by the man.

Next, there was the incident at the talk I attended. A community manager was frustrated with how tech journalists had preferred to write about a dramatic aspect of technology that affected her personally in a life-threatening way, than about the news coming out from the project she was managing.

As always, generalizations hurt the argument. It depends on the tech journalist. Some are less clueless than others. But, more importantly, the real issue is how clueless the people who interact with the press are … which tends to a lot. Of course, journalists zero in on the human interest slant of your story. I mean, come on! So your app is now faster, has a prettier palette, and exports to HTML. Please tell me again how a journalist is going to spin a story out of that. "Puppy's life saved thanks to decreased boot time," headlined no one ever.

Telling stories with a dramatic edge is the way humans have passed knowledge to one another since time immemorial. If you want your name in the papers, that's how you do it, not with a boring press release.

Why does this happen? Not to generalize myself, but EVERYBODY seems to think their own line of work and their "guild" is the cornerstone that stops the Open Source community, nay, civilization itself, from crumbling to the ground. That's logical: You understand your job, hence you can empathize better with people who do similar stuff. You can understand their problems and when and why they have to compromise. Not so much so when you consider individuals coming from other collectives. So, when a member of a guild that is not your own misbehaves, it's easy to dismiss the whole lot with "Tech journalists! Ugh!"

Maybe we should agree to remember that the adage "we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions" is doubly true when we don't understand the actions of individuals who work outside our area of expertise. Maybe if we did that, many of the misguided rants that lead to flames and alienation in what is otherwise a forward-thinking community would never get posted.

Paul C. Brown,

Editor in Chief

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