Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 17, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"The first thing is, we're not fanboys," senior editor Robin Miller told me when I first started writing for in 2004. He meant that, although that incarnation of the site was obviously about free and open source software (FOSS), its purpose was not to uncritically support it. He wanted the site to have some journalistic standards -- a difficult and frequently unpopular goal, considering how many parts of FOSS seem given over to fans. I found the comment reassuring, because I have always been of two minds about fan-like behavior wherever I've found it.

Take, for example, the local Ubuntu meetup group. Closing in on five hundred members, it's probably the largest FOSS group in my area, and I plan to attend some of its events this year. But I'm mildly put off -- no doubt unfairly -- by the limitless, unbounded enthusiasm of the organizers, who apparently have time to send two or three messages a day to the meetup's members.

It's not that I have any great grievances against Ubuntu. At any given time, I have at least one copy of it on a virtual machine, and another on a test machine. You can hardly be a FOSS journalist these days without working with Ubuntu frequently.

Nor am I unmindful that enthusiasm is what creates and runs volunteer groups. If the enthusiasm is singleminded, so much the better for the cause or interest. It gets things done, and certainly is preferable to the negativism whose first response to any suggested action is to explain why it can't or shouldn't be done.

Yet, faced with that enthusiasm in FOSS, I have the same reaction as when I encountered it in among Doctor Who fans, or in The Society for Creative Anachronism: Just because I enjoy something, or support a cause, that doesn't mean I want to dedicate my life to it. I mean, I appreciate that Ubuntu's popularity has helped FOSS, and, in a general sort of way, wish the distro continued success, but I am not about to use it exclusively.

My curiosity lures me in too many different directions, and always has. My caution isn't just creeping middle-age, either; I felt much the same when I was twenty.

Two-edged enthusiasm

More importantly, the singlemindedness of fans is often frightening in its misdirection. The first mental capacities that seem to disappear when you become a fan (and never forget that the word is short for "fanatic") is a sense of proportion and critical judgment.

To a fan, as I have often found to my cost, nothing but unquestioned loyalty is acceptable. If you express a reservation or criticize an action, the fannish reply is not an agreement to disagree, or a polite counter-argument, but -- nine times out of ten -- an all-out attack.

For instance, if I suggest that I do not care for the Ubuntu desktop, or explore the idea that Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, seems more interested these days in controlling its own software stack than in working with existing FOSS projects, the mildest reaction I am likely to get is a suggestion that I have no right to denigrate a project that has done so much for FOSS.

The idea that you could be friendly or well-disposed to a cause yet see it as less than perfect is one that doesn't seem to occur to the average fan. One criticism, however mildly worded, and suddenly I am a communist, anti-American, gay -- whatever the fans think is enough of a pejorative to match my alleged betrayal.

There is now enough of this kind of abuse on the Internet that a minority believes that I have made a career out of attacking FOSS, and that I am one with Dan Lyons and Maureen O'Gara.

This idea, of course shows a lack of unfamiliarity with both my work and common sense -- nobody would earn their living for seven years writing about something they opposed. I mention the reaction, not to complain or evoke pity, but as an example of the extreme positions that fannish enthusiasm sometimes ends up in.

When enthusiasm becomes anti-FOSS

What bothers me most is not that such attacks are personal so much as the lack of tolerance behind them. To my way of thinking, the refusal to tolerate criticism is crippling in any discussion. The right to question is basic, not just to civilized discourse, but to any improvement -- as well, as Robin Miller impressed on me, to journalism, which can be an essential part of that process of improvement if it tries to describe fairly and raises inconvenient truths.

In fact, you could say that questioning is central to FOSS. After all, what is the patch system of software development, except a series of criticisms and counter-criticisms? Sometimes, the criticism are wrong, or create more problems than they solve, but FOSS could not evolve without a constant critique of what is. In other words, I would argue that, by finding enemies in anyone who doesn't show unwavering support, FOSS fans are acting against the basic tenets of the cause they claim to support.

I'm sure that they don't see things that way. More likely, they see themselves as defending what matters to them. Unconsciously, they may be more eager to prove themselves members of a group than anything else. But, so long as some fans demonstrate this attitude, they need to be regarded with mixed feelings. At times, their enthusiasm may do as much harm as good.


  • You can head off the dangers of fanboys

    Nice article. It doesn't matter how great something is, it worries me when people completely disable their critical faculty about it.

    Commenter's LUG people might be best off saying something like, "There is no best distribution. As a beginner you might want to start with Ubuntu because it's fairly simple to use, has many good features, and you will find lots of people ready to support Ubuntu. Other distros have different strengths or specialties."
  • The Dangers of Fanboys

    At my local LUG we are all aware of the dangers of a new person asking "So which is the best distro?" Warning signs flash, alarm bells ring and a deafening silence descends for a second while people try to compose an answer.

    The best/easiest answer is "Ubuntu, it's designed to be easy to use, popular and has a lot of community support, documentation and blog posts to help you along". The next question is where things get sticky "Why do people use other distributions if this one is so good?"

    This becomes difficult because opinion raises its head and all of a sudden trying to simplify the differences between distributions becomes difficult when fanatics try to express that "Doing X with distro Y is easy" and "Distro B did feature X before distro A". That's when it gets dangerous as the fanatic can't bear to think that their chosen distro could be deficient or not the best for (almost) everything.
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