Fellow travelers: The FOSS media and FOSS developers

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 04, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Recently, Carla Schroder published an editorial in which she used the current version of KDE Gwenview image viewer as an example of how interfaces are dumbed down. A couple of days later, Aaron Seigo replied in detail, refuting many of Schroder's points and talking about the design philosophy behind Gwenview. Both Schroder and Seigo tried hard to keep the discussion friendly, but, overall, the discussion was typical of many exchanges between journalists who cover free and open source software (FOSS) and the developers who build it.

I admit I cringed when I first saw the exchange. I am a friendly acquaintance of both Schroder and Seigo, so naturally I would prefer that they get along. Just as importantly, I can all too easily put myself in Schroder's place, having been there often myself. But it seems to me that both FOSS journalists and developers seem to have misapprehensions about each other. As a result, scenarios similar to this one are replayed over and over.

Members of the community

At the root of the problem seems to be the mixture of roles that FOSS journalists play. On the one hand, professional FOSS journalists can generally be assumed to have close ties to the community. If they weren't generally sympathetic, there are more lucrative areas of computer journalism they could be in. But, in fact, if they report accurately and editorialize responsibly, FOSS journalists can be seen as contributors to the community.

That is why, I think, Seigo asks, "I wonder [what would happen] if Carla sent an email to Gwenview's author, to one of KDE's 'front line communicators' such as myself . . . or one of the press contacts on kde.org?" He apparently expects a journalist to act like any other member of the community. Just as an ordinary community member might file a bug report, so a journalist might check technical issues with developers before publishing. In much the same way, I frequently have FOSS contributors ask me if I wanted to have them check an article about them for accuracy before I submit it.

At first, this idea may seem reasonable. At best, journalists are a jack-of-all-trades, often working to deadline. When they talk about any given piece of software, they will almost certainly know less than the developers who tinker daily with it. Probably, too, with the best will in the world, they will overlook a feature or have to omit a point because they have less than 2000 words -- or even half that -- to make their point. So why not ask for help?

Professional demands

The problem is that journalists are not only community members. On the other hand, they are also professionals in a field with a well-defined set of ethics that they are expected to follow. These ethics are probably obscured by the fact that bloggers, the best of whom sometimes sound like journalists, are not expected to keep to the same behavioral code. But, besides knowing the community, FOSS journalists (by which I mean people who are regularly paid to write about the community and the software it produces, and earns a significant part of their income in doing so) are also expected to tell the truth as they see it. Moreover, they are expected to do so without any undue influence.

These expectations mean that journalists cannot check their accuracy with their sources or with the developers of the software that is their subject. To do so would create the appearance that the integrity of their opinions was compromised. Whether their integrity actually was compromised is besides the point, because the appearance of compromise is every bit as important as the reality. Nor can they simply get feedback on technical matters, because, as some of the comments made about both Schroder's and Seigo's pieces clearly show, the technical can easily slide into the personal.

In other words, what may seem a perfectly reasonable request to Seigo and other developers is, to a journalist, a request to violate their integrity. The most journalists can do is to invite comments after publication, and correct mistakes if they published online.

To complicate matters even more, while following their ethics, journalists are also expected to entertain. For some journalists, including Schroder, one of the ways to entertain is by using exaggerated language. That is why she characterizes the KDE and GNOME design philosophy as "either too simple or too hard, suck it up buttercup" and refers to "glitz" and "Joe and Jane Sixpack." She is doing a serious analysis, but mugging to the crowd as she does so to help keep them focused.

Implicit in the use of this language is the assumption that readers will discount its tone as part of what journalists do to entertain. However, if readers fail to discount the tone, the article appears to be an attack that demands a reply. If you view journalists solely as community members, then the tone can easily be heard as a betrayal, especially if you can pick out mistakes or omissions.

Conflicting Expectations

What I am talking about is not whose view is right or whose is wrong. For the record, I think that, although Seigo proves that Schroder overlooked a lot, if an expert like Schroder can overlook things, then the interface likely has problems -- but that is beside the point.

Instead, I see the dual role of FOSS journalists as muddying expectations on both sides. Expecting a journalist to act like any other member of the FOSS community, Seigo -- for all his efforts to be respectful -- cannot help sounding hurt now and then, or wishing that Schroder would act more like a community member. The sheer detail of his reply reinforces these impressions.

For her part, Schroder, functioning as a journalist, seems to have expected the editorial to be treated as a piece of journalism. The fact that is wasn't shows just how little understood the dual roles of a FOSS journalist really are.

Essentially, FOSS journalists are fellow-travelers, allies of FOSS developers but with concerns and constraints that often differ. Without exception, every one of them I have encountered has a lively interest and sympathy in their subject.

But they are also journalists, which means that they are not always going to act like other FOSS supporters. Sometimes, in the name of journalistic integrity, they are going to mention inconvenient truths and voice unpopular sentiments.

Their audience has every right to respond to those truths and sentiments, and even to blast them and call them names. But nobody should expect this duality to cease to exist. If it ever did, then FOSS journalists would no longer write anything of interest. They would be too compromised and too interested in popularity to tell their version of the truth when people would prefer that they stay quiet.

When I first started writing for the SourceForge incarnation of Linux.com, senior editor Robin Miller told me, "We're not fanboys." He meant, of course, that, for all their connection to the community, FOSS journalists had to be more than a cheerleading section if they were going to be effective.

The sooner everyone accepts that, the better for all concerned.


  • Criticism within a community

    I found the exchange between Aaron and Carla, as well as your post on it, fascinating. I understand your points about the role of journalists in the FOSS community and their relationship to developers, but to me this does not seem an isolated controversy. I see it as one aspect of the wider problematic about how to handle criticism within a community. We tend to use the term 'community' for groups that are not hegemonic or majoritary in society. That implies that there is a need for solidarity in order to overcome the difficulties of that minoritary position. Precisely because of that, there are innumerable examples of communities of all kinds having an extremely hard time dealing with criticism when it comes from within. They usually close ranks and are very defensive when confronted to external attacks, but criticism from within is often taken as a betrayal that generates even more virulent responses. Two camps are usually formed. The first one sustains that cohesiveness and mutual support are essential to survive in a hostile environment, and that consequently public criticism from within the community should be minimized. The second camp argues that the only way the community will progress and overcome its problems is by being honest and open about them and by trying to address them through a civil discussion.

    I believe that we can see this type of conflict in the FOSS community on a daily basis, and that we do not talk enough about what the best way to channel and address criticism from within is. Are the two views of the community irreconcilable? Is it possible to be critical in a way that is not perceived as a weakening of the community? What is the optimum balance between cohesion and criticism? Should we find new ways of channeling criticism? Should we, as you suggested on the issue of discussions not too long ago, agree on codes of conduct or communication that will facilitate such a sensitive exchange?
  • Playing to the crowd


    Maybe I better explain: when I say "playing to the crowd," I don't see that as being in opposition to being genuine. Your opinion can be genuine, but you can still find a variety of ways to express it.

    I found that out when I was a university instructor marking first year papers. If something was wrong, I could say the equivalent of "This stinks on ice!" and be sure that the student took offense and stopped listening to me. But if I said, "This doesn't work," the student might actually take the time to listen to me.

    In the same way, you could easily decide to use less colorful language and say much the same thing. But your editorials would be less memorable if you did. There's nothing ungenuine in the choice of language -- it's more a choice of what's effective and of putting your best foot forward.
  • on second thought...

    I take it back, Bruce, this issue of the role of journalists who are also community members and contributors is something that needs to be understood better. Nice work.
  • nice analysis

    Nice piece, Bruce, though I wish my real and way more important worries ("Editor's Note: What is User-friendly, Really?" http://www.linuxtoday.com/infrastructure/2010012300335OP) about the direction Linux is heading is were not being overshadowed by the soap opera of Carla vs. Aaron. Thank you for saying that FOSS journalists are not supposed to be cheerleaders.

    I have never believed in the 'take or leave it' interpretation of the 'scratch your own itch' FOSS philosophy. I do not believe that FOSS devs are special beings who do not have to listen to their dumb old users, or who are the only contributors who matter.

    BTW, my colorful turns of phrase are entirely genuine, not playing to the crowd. Those are my real feelings as well as I can express them!

  • well said

    These are the things that keep me up at night...

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