In our on-going GNU/Linux review series, we have received much criticism from loyal users of the various distributions we have covered. Timothy R. Butler notes that many of the issued raised by those who commented on the series were cases of knee-jerk reaction and ponders how such reactions impact the community at large and its appearance to outsiders.
Over the last year and a half that Open for Business has been “on the air” covering GNU/Linux news, we have found that there is one type of article that will generate more flame mail than any other: distribution news and reviews. I guess that is to be expected, but its a shame that people take news so personally that anytime it doesn't suit them they see that as a reason to unleash vicious attacks.
For example, a few days ago I released a review of Red Hat Linux 8. It was by no means a flattering review, but it wasn't all one sided either. The piece started by noting my high expectations for Red Hat's newest package and it ended by suggesting that by improving a few issues Red Hat could have a winner on its hands. However, those who wished to see it as such saw it was an attempt to purposely harm the Linux distributor. One fellow on OSNews, apparently unwilling to assume there might be a reason anyone could possibly not absolutely love Red Hat Linux 8 expressed himself by calling me a “wacko” (though, I suspect that this particular person has a vendetta against OfB, as he had previously posted other choice comments accusing us, last summer, of starting a “jihad” with Red Hat).
While I've fortunately not encountered this much, friends of mine have also reported numerous cases where they have almost been of the mind to just leave the GNU/Linux after receiving nasty responses to their postings to mailing lists and forums for different software programs. It is usually other users who give these useless flames as responses, although occasionally, it is the maintainer who decides a question or a problem must really be an attack on their skills.
The unfortunate thing is, while these people are certainly a minority, they are very vocal. What they consider (I suspect) a noble attempt to protect their distribution's or application's name is really damaging GNU/Linux as a whole. Often one of the things that scares those considering this operating system more than anything else is the community's attitude. They don't want to be associated with a bunch of people that simply exist to attack anything they happen to disagree with. I don't blame people for wondering what kind of operating system might come out of such a community. Obviously, those that look deeper will find this attitude mostly comes from simple users, and not developers, but the damage can and still is done quite often.
Even if we don't consider such an abstract concept as “damage to the community,” this knee-jerk attacking also does a disservice to those who commit it. Another person, who seemed well meaning, but still was blinded somewhat to seeing what we were saying commented on how we shouldn't have complained about Red Hat's lack of support for MP3's since Red Hat is corporate focused. The interesting thing is, I never mentioned anything about MP3's in the entire article, moreover, only one article at OfB has ever mentioned the term “MP3.” So, unfortunately, that person missed out on the opportunity to understand, or at least disagree with, our viewpoint, because they missed what I had actually said.
Others clearly got the message we were saying, but completely took it the wrong way. For example, numerous people complained that the article was unfair in that Red Hat had the right to do whatever it pleased to KDE so long as KDE was licensed under the GPL. I most certainly agree. However, having the right doesn't always make it right. Red Hat is, in our opinion, doing its users and the KDE project a disservice by adding bugs and incompatibilities into its variant of the KDE.org code. Yes they have the right to do that, but in the process, since they claim they are including “KDE,” they cause people to think that this project is buggier than it is. That is why we recommended that the best thing would be for Red Hat simply to stop supporting KDE, in reality, they almost already have by making Gnome/GTK apps the defaults for most things even while in the KDE environment. In any case, people again missed our point, and instead decided to take our stance as implying Red Hat was not allowed to modify GPL licensed software.
Another frequent response that demonstrates an attitude throughout the community that turns people off comes from the “recompilers.” These people wrote in, as usual, and argued that if we did not like something in a distribution (Red Hat's KDE, for instance) we should simply download a version we like and compile our own copy. This kind of thinking scares many people away from using GNU/Linux, and misses the point that the review is about what you get out of the box, not what you can do to the distribution afterwards. Arguably, if we took the suggested approach, we wouldn't have a need to review different distributions as, thanks to GNU/Linux's available source code, one can make any distribution like any other distribution. However, isn't it better just to figure out which distribution is best suited out the box instead? Moreover, would a new user really want to do recompiling immediately to get proper functionality? I hardly think so.
I should add that I don't want to give the indication that this is purely a Red Hat phenomenon. Two weeks earlier, when my colleague Eduardo Sanchez published a review of Mandrake 9 here (it too noted numerous problems), we received some very similar responses. While the Red Hat incident provided more knee-jerk reactions, that review produced numerous comments that questioned whether we should have published the review and/or whether we were extremely biased against Mandrake. Hopefully, as one can see when we examine both reviews at once, we were not biased against either, but instead, both produced numerous problems that prevented us from giving those distributions the review they otherwise deserved. The fact that both Sanchez and myself use Mandrake compounded the absurdity of the charges made concerning that distribution's review.
But back to the community at large. For us to grow larger and more popular, we need to grow a thicker skin. We can no longer lash out simply because we disagree with something, that just gives those who disagree with Free Software ammunition that, while completely incorrect, can be used against us. I would imagine this is not what those who stir up flamewars really want.
Indeed, it would be unfortunate for the community to be judged because of a vocal few, because so much of the community is very reasonable. For example, in the beginning of this article I mentioned the gentleman who had attacked yours truly and Open for Business for starting a “jihad” against Red Hat (and Gnome). At the same time that this person issued that attack, another person, who went under the alias of “Anon Man,” and who also disagreed with me, posted a message at the same news venue expressing his disagreements. The big difference between him and the other fellow, however, was that he was open to the fact that I wasn't out to get Red Hat. In the end, we had a productive discussion of what was good and bad about Gnome, and we both went away better for it. It is unfortunate that this wasn't the case with the other poster.
I write all of this with two motives. First, I hope that those who realize that they may have committed such thoughtless flaming will think more before repeating this behavior in the future, and instead try providing useful feedback or (in the case of those seeking assistance with software) assistance. Secondly, I write this so that those who are considering adopting GNU/Linux either for their personal system or for an enterprise deployment will realize that these folks who flame are truly the exception and not the rule. While this is an operating system built by the community, that most certainly doesn't mean that everyone in that community speaks for it.