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Sleeping with the Enemy

Looking at the Big Picture

  • January 26, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

I was talking to a colleague recently who wanted to know what it's like to write about Linux. He'd read discussions on a few Linux sites and come across one where a writer had gotten himself fairly mauled for drawing the wrong conclusion and getting linked by the wrong site for his troubles.

"I don't know," my colleague said, "but you guys are sorta out there. No one else cares about stuff like this and you guys are all like 'GPL this' and 'Microsoft sucks that' and you all just rip on anybody who doesn't see it that way. No one takes you guys seriously."

My colleague caught me on a bad day. I'd just read the public fileting of another writer who hadn't taken the proper tone of advocacy while addressing an issue in the Linux world, and I was coming to the conclusion, on that day, that if writing involves taking a few knocks from the occasional churl over violent disagreements, writing about Linux involves taking a few knives in the back from people you agree with because you didn't agree hard enough.

And let's face it, there are certain mixes of issues and personalities that guarantee an explosive reponse, and it's because of the occasional outburst over a hot topic (like whether Richard Stallman is in the pay of COMINTERN or the notion that Linux might actually not ever rule the desktop because the desktop as we know it is teetering on obsolescence) that there's a perception, right or wrong, of a "Linux Orthodoxy," and a cottage industry in the occasional kvetching article about how ill-tempered and hostile "hard core Linux people" are and how we'll never get anywhere if we don't be more nice to each other.

Since I'm on the pulpit at a Linux web site, it should be obvious that I've gotten over whatever qualms I may have about running afoul of the Inquisition. But that doesn't mean I embrace as a brother every vitriol-spewing Linux fundamentalist with a congregation of six, either. In fact, I roll my eyes a lot.

So, hot off the heels of this chat with my colleague, and deep in the midst of the annual winter depression, I was listlessly space-barring my way through the mailing list for Evolution, the GNOME mail client/PIM.

Reading lists like that is as much an exercise in getting to know the developers involved in a given project as anything. Some projects, by virtue of their mailing list traffic alone, are quite simply toxic if high-handedness and disdain for end users are any kind of metric. Others are fairly happy places where there's a respect between the people providing (the developers) and the people taking (the users).

Developers working on projects designed to make life easier for users shoulder more of a responsibility than those who decided their particular itch-scratcher might be of interest to others but make no promises to the audience, and they incur a responsibility to at least attempt responsiveness. Users of these bits of encoded altruism have a responsibility to be constructive in their feedback. The opposite number of a developer who despises his audience is a user who floods the developer with trivial complaints and a "gimme" attitude, always happy to complain.

Another thing you pick up from list traffic is how open developers are to "outsiders" who appear well into a project's development cycle and offer to help. Some developers are protective of their children and turn a cold shoulder, others are more open.

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