Nine Attitude Problems in Free and Open Source Software

Before it grows any bigger, the FOSS community needs to examine its attitudes. Otherwise it risks collapsing under it contradictions or handicapping itself unnecessarily.


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I love free and open source software (FOSS). The cause -- essentially, an extension of free speech -- is one that I can get behind as a writer, and community members are not only brilliant but both passionate and practical at the same time. It's an exciting field, and the one in which I've chosen to make a career.

At times, though, the community can be its own worst enemy. Certain attitudes, often long-ingrained, make the community less united than it should be, and work against common goals, such as providing an alternative to proprietary software or spreading the FOSS gospel. Practically everyone in the community has been guilty of one or more of these attitudes at some time or other -- including me -- but we rarely talk about them. And, for this reason, the attitudes continue, hobbling community efforts.

Admitting these attitude problems seems the first step to overcoming them, so here are nine of the most common ones I've observed both in myself and in the community around me:

1) Not knowing allies from enemies

Any time that communities are based on idealism or belief, infighting seems the norm. That's true for religious and political groups, so it's not surprising that infighting should be the norm for FOSS, where so many people hold strong opinions.

But, too often, the infighting seems more important than common goals. Several professional or semi-professional pundits make a career out of attacking other community members (never mind their names; if you've been around, you know who they are, and I refuse to encourage them by giving them free publicity).

At times, these pundits say things that nobody else will, as Jeremy Allison points out. But, more often, their motivation seems to be solely to make a name for themselves, regardless of the divisions they make in the community, and, by reading such pundits, we encourage the continuation of those divisions.

Even worse is the division between free software and open source advocates. Admittedly, the philosophies are different: free software is about user freedom, while open source is about quality software. Yet, despite these ultimate differences, members of the two camps work on the same projects with the same licenses, and are seen by both themselves and outsiders as having far more in common than not.

So why dwell on the differences? The obvious truth is that free software and open source advocates will never find anyone with whom they have more in common than each other.

2) Talking software to outsiders

Software is a major interest to the FOSS community, so naturally community members spend a lot of time talking about it. However, if you're trying to interest other people in FOSS, talking about software only works if the audience is developers. For the rest, even the fact that FOSS costs nothing is not very interesting -- if it were, then more people would use shareware.

For most people, software is simply not a large interest, even if they use their computers ten or twelve hours a day.

As Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, pointed out a couple of years ago, FOSS needs to learn from the example of the recycling movement. Recyclers don't pitch their cause by explaining where recycled goods are taken for reclamation, or explaining the process by which glass is melted down for reuse; instead, they talk about the benefits that recycling has on the average person's life.

In the same way, instead of talking about software or its licenses, the FOSS community needs to talk more about issues such as consumers' rights and privacy and free speech -- matters that extend far beyond the keyboard and terminal.

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Tags: open source, Linux, software, privacy, FOSS

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