Sam Varghese wrote an article about Matthew Garrett’s LCA talk “The Linux community: what is it and how to be a part of it” . In page 2 Sam quotes Martin Krafft as asking about how Matthew’s behavior had changed between 2004 and the present, Sam cites some references for Matthew’s actions in 2005 to demonstrate. I think that this raises the issue of how far back it is reasonable to go in search of evidence of past behavior, something that I think is far more important than the specific details of what Matthew said on mailing lists many years ago and whether he now regrets such email.
If someone did something that you consider to be wrong yesterday and did the same thing five years ago you might consider it to be evidence of a pattern of behavior. If someone’s statements today don’t match their actions yesterday then you should consider it to be evidence of hypocrisy. But if someone did something five years ago which doesn’t match their current statements then in many situations it seems more reasonable to consider it as evidence that they have changed their mind.
Then of course there is the significance of what was done. Flaming some people excessively on some mailing lists is something that can be easily forgiven – and forgotten if Google doesn’t keep bringing it up. But as a counter-example I don’t think that Hans Reiser will be welcome in any part of the Linux community when he gets out of jail.
For the development of the Linux community (and society in general) I think it’s best to not tie people to their past minor mistakes. While it is nice when someone apologises for their past actions, the practical benefits of someone just quietly improving their behavior are almost identical. A particular corner case in this regard is the actions of young people, anyone who was born after about 1980 will have had great access to electronic media for their entire life and will have left a trail. Most people do a variety of silly things when they were young, the older members of the Linux community were fortunate enough not to have electronic records remaining where Google could find them.
Back to Matthew, I think that if he is to be criticised about such things then evidence that is much more recent than 2005 needs to be used.
Sam quotes Matthew as claiming that “the Linux community was largely a Western, English-speaking one, those who participated in it necessarily had to adapt to the norms of this group“.
I don’t believe that there is a single Linux community. There are a number of different communities that are formed around free software, which have significant amounts of overlap. I don’t believe that there’s any reason why a Chinese or Indian Linux mailing list should conform to the same standards as those of an American list. But there will be a trend towards meme propagation through people who are associated with the Linux communities in multiple countries – every time you meet Linux people in another country you are helping to reduce the cultural differences in the Linux community.
Someone from China or India who joins a LUG in Australia will have to adapt to some of the norms of Australian behavior – in the same way as an Australian who migrates to China or India would have to adapt to some local norms.
On page 4 of the discussion Matthew disagrees with Sam’s interpretation , maybe Matthew’s opinions on this matter are closer to mine than the way Sam describes them.
Is Division Inherently Bad?
I believe that the word “divisive” is overused. The only way to avoid division is to have everyone agree with the majority, but sometimes the minority will be right. Note that I am using the word “minority” to refer to any group of people who happen to disagree with the majority, among other things that includes people who vote for a political party that isn’t one of the two biggest ones. An entirely separate issue is that of the treatment of “minority groups“, one of the most divisive events in history was the US civil war – it’s good that slavery is outlawed but unfortunate that a war was required to gain that result.
On page 4 of the discussion Matthew says to Sam “Your writing is influenced by members of the Linux community, and in turn it influences the Linux community. The tone of it is entirely relevant to the behavioural standards of the community” . If a community can be easily divided then the real problem probably isn’t the person who triggered a particular division. Also there is the issue that even if you could get a general agreement that certain issues shouldn’t be discussed in certain ways then with the wide range of cultural attitudes and ages of participants you have to expect someone to raise the issue you don’t want raised. Of course it’s impossible to objectively determine whether a division is productive or not, so it doesn’t seem at all viable to have any expectations regarding outsiders not being divisive. Sometimes you just have to deal with the fact that the Internet contains people who disagree with you.
It seems to me that the most divisive issues we face involve people who mostly agree on contentious issues. If someone entirely disagrees with you then it’s easy to ignore them (if you even have a conversation with them), but if they are someone that you communicate with and they are almost “right” in your opinion then there’s the potential for a big argument.
Probably the best way to minimise division in the community is to have the first people who get involved in a dispute take a Rogerian approach . Failing that a good approach is to respond by writing an essay. When an issue is made popular by services such as Twitter that give little explanation then everyone rushes to the barricades.
It seems to me that the unreliability of some blogging platforms is part of the cause of the problem in this regard. I’ve just given up on writing comments on Blogger, I’m not going to write a good comment only to have it eaten by blogger. There are lots of blogs that have problems which discourage the population from writing anything other than a one-sentence response.
The Good that can come from Disputes
On page 5 of the discussion there is a comment from Anirudh – the Indian student who was criticised by Sam (which ended up inspiring part of Matthew’s talk and leading to more disputes) . Here is the start:
I am the person who wrote the ill thought-out post that drew criticism eight months ago. There has been some discussion about that, so I wish to say something.
I am very grateful to Sam Varghese. I say this with utmost sincerity.
Read the rest, it’s educational. I’m sure that there are others who have had similar learning experiences but who don’t want to write about them. I’m sure that there have been many disputes which would appear to the casual observer to have resulted in no good at all, but which would actually have resulted in people learning things and amending their behavior.
The issue of Age
Car rental companies generally don’t do business with men who are less than 25 years old. Life insurance policies don’t offer reasonable rates to males between the ages of about 16 and 25. This is because the insurance companies have good statistical data on the results of the typical actions of people at various ages and know that young men tend to be at a high risk of earning a Darwin Award. The same combination of hormones and life experience that makes a young man a danger on the road will also tend to make him get involved in flame-wars on the net.
If we could figure out how to influence teenagers into being less anti-social then it would be a great achievement. The current young people will become older and more sensible soon enough but will be replaced by a larger number of young people who will do the same things. As things stand I don’t expect the next cohort of young people to learn from Anirudh.