Dealing With Zealots in Open Source Communities

Some people who I respect have recently been surprised and frustrated by the extreme responses they’ve encountered in the wild outer badlands of various free software forums. They thought it would be a good idea to provide an introduction for others, so this doesn’t come as a shock. This is my first draft. It’s still too wordy, it should be phrased more diplomatically, and it should emphasize the positive. You may also find the GNOME Code of Conduct interesting, which I also created.

By its nature it will be flamed in the comments section. Maybe that can serve as an appendix.

Update: The improved version is here.

Dealing with Zealots in Open Source Communities

The world of Open Source and Free Software is like the Internet. It is big and full of variety. It has what you need, but sometimes it has so much that things become confusing. People on the Internet sometimes organize themselves into opposing tribes.

This should not detract from the great opportunities and advantages of open source software and its development methods.

You will certainly encounter people with strong opinions. Sometimes their opinions will seem unusual, and sometimes they will speak with such conviction that you’d be forgiven for thinking they are the law. But most people represent only themselves. As with any information on the Internet, you must assess the accuracy and authority of the information that you find.

Specifically, you are likely to encounter the following points of view in public forums, among the more positive responses:

  • All commercial software is wrong, meaning that it is immoral to earn money by writing software or even providing services.
  • All proprietary software is wrong, meaning that it is immoral to provide executables without all of their source code.
  • All open source software or free software is wrong, often based on simplistic economic reasoning.
  • All use of proprietary software is wrong. Thus, you may be attacked as immoral for using third-party hardware requiring closed-source drivers while otherwise open sourcing your entire development platform. It is immoral to use your company’s proprietary email system, even if you have no control over it.
  • All use of proprietary formats is wrong, meaning it is immoral to even support interoperability with proprietary or patented systems such as FAT32, NTFS, Samba, MP3, WMV, etc.
  • All compliance with software patent law is wrong, meaning that it is immoral to allow people to use software that would be illegal in their country if not paid for under a proprietary license. Likewise, it is correct and moral to allow people to unknowingly break the laws of their governments, regardless of the legal or financial consequences for individuals and the companies that make this possible.
  • Use of certain words is wrong. For instance, Linux-based systems must be called GNU/Linux systems, or vice-versa. Open Source must be called Free Software, or vice-versa.
  • Acceptance of alternative opinions is wrong. Thus, it is immoral to mention projects or opinions which do not fully agree with certain aims, because condemnation must be total.
  • Various user interfaces are wrong. For instance, it is immoral to choose a simple default environment for a user, or it is immoral to deemphasize the details of how a system works, even if those details are not interesting to your target users and are in fact available to those who are interested.
  • All demands must be met simultaneously, regardless of your priorities or resources.
  • Change is wrong.
  • Change must happen.

These are opinions, though the people expressing them may be convinced that their logic makes them absolute facts. It’s best to let them have the last word, unless you wish to continue until you accept their indisputable logic.

You can safely ignore most of these conversations unless an actual copyright holder is telling you what they would like you to do. You are free to have your own opinions and free to take part in these conversations only if they interest you personally. You do not need to tolerate offensive or aggressive behavior. If you do not choose to take part, these people will happily argue amongst themselves. Because the majority have learned to ignore these conversations, you should not assume that these conversations represent the majority.

You are not at the command of every random person who expresses an opinion regardless of whether you find that opinion personally convincing. You are free to decide what is best for you, your business, and your customers.

You’ll find that most actual project maintainers and developers speak more clearly and recognize that people with slightly differing priorities can work together. They may try to convince you of their opinions, but they will do so with understanding. Where a copyright holder has a very strong opinion about exactly what you should do with his/her software, he/she will choose a license that makes that clear. Of course, you need to have good relations with your fellow developers, so do try to comply with the spirit of licenses rather than just the exact legal interpretation. In general, open source licenses provide mutual advantages.

This article is also an opinion. You are free to ignore it.

19 thoughts on “Dealing With Zealots in Open Source Communities

  1. Bravo! Really amazing work Murray. Seriously long overdue.

    You don’t need the “indisputable logic” sarcasm to prove your point. Perhaps break out the “You are/can/do…” sentences into bullets, since each one is so valuable.

    Oh! Change the “All…” bullets into an ordered list, so they can be referenced in conversation :-)

  2. Erm – not to sound like it is law or anything, but change is inevitable.


    The rest – yes, yes and yes. More seasoned folks will actually say ‘My opinion is’ or ‘and that is my opinion’. It shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but some hear what they want and some think what they want regardless of what is said or written.

    Life goes on, change is inevitable yet the sun comes up every morning. Maybe. That is my opinion. :-)

  3. Interesting, but you make it look like anybody who believes any of these things has no reasoning behind them by using this vague ‘immoral’ thing.

  4. So, which country’s patent laws should the open source community abide by? In my country, software and algorithms cannot be patented – so this discussion should be moot – yet you “open source” compromisers try to make us live by American patent laws (probably because you’re more concerned with business integration than freedom).

  5. Robert, the idea is to talk about extremists who see these things as black-and-white right-or-wrong issues, with no exceptions and no compromise. I’ll try to make that clearer in future drafts.

  6. Murray, thanks for publishing this. Everywhere in life there’s always one zealot to tell a person how one’s choices and opinions are flat-out wrong, and this extends into the free software/open source world all too much. It seems like lately, things have really heated up so much that it has turned more people away from F/OSS – even people I thought were die hard about all this that we do.

    If I could give the F/OSS world any advice – it wouldn’t be on what license to use, what distribution to run, or what language is best. I would advise tolerance, understanding, and encouragement of those around you – even those who have different ideas.

  7. Probably best to ignore it… since you’ve demonstrated over and over again that you don’t actually read other people’s messages before you reply to them. Instead, you just reply to what you imagine they said.

    So one wonders what qualifies you to give anyone advice on how to approach conversations with anyone.

  8. So, you are talking about “code of conduct” and “dealing with zealots”? I’m sorry, but I find that pretty amusing and hypocritical. I mean, you are the guy who wrote this:

    So since they are going to use KDE, they are going to grow up hating free software? And “apart from choosing KDE as their desktop, the project-managers seemed like smart and pragmatic people” (almost direct quote). So, anyone choosing to use KDE for any reason at all is “dumb” and “unpragmatic”?

    “This article is also an opinion. You are free to ignore it.”

    Thanks, ever since I read that KDE-drivel of yours, I have pretty much ignored anything you have to say about anything. Note: Whereas I have used KDE in the past, I currently use GNOME (and love it). How can you lecture anyone about “dealing with zealots”, since you are a zealot yourself? How can you lecture anyone about “code of conduct”, since your own conduct leaves a lot to be desired?

  9. “Janne, you may have misunderstood. Expressing opinions is good. This is about not accepting alternative opinions. Can you accept mine?”

    Can you accept Munichs decision? Apparently not. And you did say that you wrote the “GNOME code of conduct”. Does that “code of conduct” include whining about other desktops, and how anyone using “the other desktop” is dumb?

    What else did you say just now? “You’ll find that most actual project maintainers and developers speak more clearly and recognize that people with slightly differing priorities can work together. They may try to convince you of their opinions, but they will do so with understanding.”. I didn’t see any of that in your whining about Munich and KDE. All I saw was “KDE is bad, GNOME is good, anyone choosing KDE is dumb, mmmkay?”. Or how about that “working together”? Nope, didn’t see that either. You did say that you should be happy when Munich is moving to free software, but you are not, since they chose KDE over GNOME, and KDE is crap. Oh yes, that’s a really good showing of solidarity and cooperation on your part! Bravo Sir!

    So people with “differing priorities can work together”. Well, KDE-developers have different priorities than you do. And still, you just started to whine how “I don’t want to spend the next ten years hearing from people here about how much they hate it, and having to explain that that’s not what I do, and that’s not how it has to be.”. Another piece of constructive dialogue right there.

    I really fail to see what you were aiming at with that blog-post of yours. Is it really constructive to whine how people choosing KDE are “dumb” and “unpragmatic”? How people introduced to KDE will come to assume that all free software is crap? really: what were you thinking? Like it or not, GNOME is not the “one true way”, and neither is KDE. Choosing one over the other does not mean that the person making that choice is “dumb” or “unpragmatic”, they just have different priorities. And, like you said: “people with differing priorities can work together”. Well, why don’t you set an example here, instead of complaining about the choice of desktop someone has made? Instead of whining about choices of others, why not try “accepting alternative opinions”? In other words: live as you preach.

    I have grown accustomed of hearing dumb comments from users (of either desktop). And I have been constantly reminded how “users argue, developers do not”. So it’s pretty dismaying to hear someone from within the project to make such a dumb comments (no, that disclaimer at the end of the comment doesn’t really help).

  10. Janne, still you are objecting to someone voicing an opinion even when that was done with many caveats, with some flattery, and with the explicit acknowledgement that it was merely a personal opinion. It doesn’t help either to pretend that I used different, more offensive, words. This is not constructive. Opinions are OK.

  11. “Janne, still you are objecting to someone voicing an opinion even when that was done with many caveats”

    Such as?

    “with some flattery”

    Such as? All I saw was comments like “As someone interested in showing how Linux can finally make life better for users (link to, and thus make the world a better place, this is a bit depressing to me. If Munich’s employees get a standard KDE desktop then they will be overwhelmed with its complexity, technical orientation, and inconsistency.” and “I know I should be glad that it’s a Linux and Free Software project, but I’d like it to be a success, and I don’t want to spend the next ten years hearing from people here about how much they hate it, and having to explain that that’s not what I do, and that’s not how it has to be.”. Those are your own words. Yeah, I can see KDE-devels jumping for joy for those flattering words you uttered. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

    “and with the explicit acknowledgement that it was merely a personal opinion”

    Uh-huh. It doesn’t change the fact that it was whining, it was unconctructive and it was something one might expect from some rabid zealot-user. And it was still said by the guy who wrote the “GNOME code of conduct”. You can’t brush everything off with a mere disclaimer.

    “It doesn’t help either to pretend that I used different, more offensive, words.”

    You said (and I quote): “However, the project’s managers have _otherwise_ seemed to be very smart and pragmatic” (emphasis mine): In other words: “Apart from this issue here, they have been very smart and pragmatic”. So choosing/using KDE is not smart nor pragmatic? I do understand that GNOME is your pet-project, but meybe they just have “different set of priorities”? But instead of respecting that (like you are instructing others to do), you started to whine.

    “This is not constructive.”

    Your comments about KDE were not constructive. Many KDE-developers took a very dim view on them. Instead of being happy about a win for free software, you instead whined, complained and took potshots at the “other desktop”.

    “Opinions are OK”

    You did a bit more than that. You basically said that “anyone using KDE will end up hating free software, and I will then have to spend my time explaining that things don’t have to be like that”. That’s basically same as calling someone an a**hole, and then saying “it was just an opinion, opinions are OK”.

    Again: What were you thinking? Seriously?

  12. “Janne, thanks for demonstrating to us why such a manifest is needed.”

    I don’t consider myself to be a zealot. Some time ago I used KDE, but I have since switched to GNOME. I have no “allegiance” to either desktop, apart from liking and appreciating both of them. If you read my comments, they are not “zealot” by nature. There are no comments like “GNOME sucks, KDE rules!” or some other crap like that. That would be zealotry. Murray’s comment I linked to _is_ basically such comment.

    The point of my rant was that we are now given guidelines on how to deal with “zealots” by a person who himself does not follow those guidelines. He started whining because some organisation chose not to use his pet project, but decided to use other project instead. He then proceeded to take potshots at the other project and basically proclaim the other project to be utter junk and proclaim that his pet project is the only true way forward. using any different software is stupid, and the users of “the other desktop” will end up hating free software, because “the other desktop” is utter crap.

    Now, is that kind of behavior ideal for cooperating with other projects? Is that kind of behavior constructive? Is that kind of behavior _smart_? No, on every point. Then what is that behavior then? It’s whining, bitching, moaning and rabid zealotry. And this is coming from a person who wrote the “GNOME code of conduct”??? It just boggles the mind!

  13. Wow. I found myself rolling… that was absolutely hilarious (the comments, not the article).
    The comments need to be included as an example listing for this “Code of Conduct.”

    I, for one, don’t care what other statements have been made by murrayc. Evaluate facts and content, not personalities. The article, in my experience, is extremely good advice. It is not only pertinent for the F/OSS community but for any online community. Parallels of these idea extremes are to be found everywhere. And conduct such as Janne’s is very prevalent. Conduct such as murrayc’s (as demonstrated in the above comments only) needs to be more prevalent.

    Always remember, your opinion is ok. And I have the freedom to ignore you and think you are an idiot. And that’s ok too – it’s only my opinion. Any shortcomings developed by such an outlook only need to be borne by myself.

    Also remember to be polite.

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