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Promoting Enthusiasm

Rusty wrote an insightful post titled “What Can I Do To Help?” about reactions to new ideas [1]. He suggests that people make an effort to have a positive approach when someone talks about a new idea, it’s quite common for people to point out reasons why the new idea might not work out which is discouraging for the person who had the idea. I think that is a really good point. I probably haven’t done too well in that regard in the past and will try to do better in future.

Code Written by Assholes

Rusty previously wrote a post titled “If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot” which implies that we should just let assholes be assholes [2]. That doesn’t go well with his “What Can I Do To Help?” post. Note that I’m not accusing Rusty of hypocrisy here, giving advice to help people who want to get along well with others is not in contradiction with refraining from giving unsolicited advice and encouragement to difficult people who have expressed no interest in improving their behavior. A comment on the latter post by “Doctor Whom” says “If I had seen this kind of talk when I was a teenager, I would have thought twice about picking up coding“, presumably given the number of people who read Rusty’s blog there are some teenagers who experienced some discouragement towards a career in computers (or a hobby in FOSS) from Rusty’s post.

I’ve already written a response to the “If you didn’t run code written by assholes” post, among other things I suggested that people who are minor assholes should be assisted to be less difficult and major assholes should be excluded [3]. In that post I was working on the assumption that for every significant task that needs to be completed (such as making a popular OS bootable) someone will do it, if the person working on it disappears then someone else will take over – there is a community of programmers who will work on whatever needs to be done.

The Importance of Individuals

But in terms of new ideas it really comes down to individuals. Most projects which are significant and important now probably started out as one person or a small group who had an idea that seemed unlikely to succeed at the time. So while any big and successful project can have people replaced (which is among other things a requirement of long-term success) there are situations in which individuals with ideas matter.

Another important factor is that even ideas which turn out to be impractical are still useful. Someone who has an impractical idea about a technical issue and investigates it fully will learn a lot and may end up working on the less radical ways of solving similar problems – this is good for the individual and the community.

Another Way of Promoting Enthusiasm

In terms of promoting enthusiasm it seems that one thing that can be done by high profile people is to avoid writing posts like “If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot”. When people in positions of power and influence appear to have no interest in promoting good behavior it really discourages people who are vulnerable to the assholes – which among other things means most members of minority groups. Obviously Rusty could’t stamp out all asshole behavior, but if he announced a plan to try and make things better in that regard then it would help. It’s difficult to be enthusiastic when faced with discrimination from a minority and disinterest from the majority.

Of course with the way the Internet works I’m sure someone will say “what about the assholes who have great ideas, shouldn’t we nurture their enthusiasm by letting them keep doing asshole things?”. I think that for the major assholes this won’t be a problem, for example anyone who’s racist will be well aware that many people disagree strongly with them and thus won’t be particularly discouraged when they meet more people who disagree. For the minor assholes (people who don’t want to be assholes) it will be somewhat discouraging to be corrected, but that could be a learning experience for them that’s worth more than support in implementing their latest technical idea.

Update: Why Rusty is Important

In response to a comment by private mail I’ve added this section after publication.

Firstly I think that the opinions of all members of the community matter as they all affect the social environment which determines what types of behavior are encouraged and discouraged. But Rusty is more important than most people.

Firstly Rusty has a Wikipedia page [4], that alone is an objective criteria indicating his importance.

But in terms of influencing people in the FOSS community the most important things are that he’s a high profile Linux kernel programmer (which alone gives significant status and influence) and that he’s the founder of the first Linux conference in Australia (which is now known as Linux.conf.au AKA LCA). When issues such as the anti-harassment policy for LCA are being discussed any opinion that Rusty offered would be taken very seriously. But so far he doesn’t seem to be involved in any of the public discussions.

6 comments to Promoting Enthusiasm

  • Anyone can be an asshole.
    I even see the point in posts like “If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot”.
    It’s even easier not being an asshole than being one.
    It is also very easy to stop using certain file systems because of asshole-ry.
    In the end, a-holes will be ostracized. Been there, done that, and cheered.

  • etbe

    Almost everyone is an asshole in some times and places, unless you give such a strict definition to the word “asshole” that no-one can meet the criteria without deserving serious jail time.

    I don’t think that it’s easier to not be an asshole. I think you should assume that even if you try to be nice there will be times when people will regard you as an asshole and have a point. It seems to me that a large part of not being an asshole is about trying not to be an asshole.

    There are different ways of considering Rusty’s “If you didn’t run code written by assholes” post, but I’m struggling to find a way of interpreting it that doesn’t give the conclusion that Rusty has no great interest in discouraging asshole behavior. Having known Rusty for a long time I don’t think he’s as bad as most interpretations of that post might imply, so I think that he didn’t explain his opinions well in that post. I am disappointed that he hasn’t either explained how he was misunderstood or changed his opinions on that topic since he first published it.

    One of the issues I have with Rusty’s “If you didn’t run code” post is that it both discourages ostracizing assholes and gives people who deal with assholes the impression that nothing will happen.

    I have the impression that when someone alienates a minority group within the community they may be shunned by members of that minority group, but usually when someone offends such a minority group in an extreme way it’s because they don’t care about them. If the majority of the FOSS community doesn’t react in such situations then it doesn’t meet the “expel from a community or group” definition of ostracize.

    It could be that I’m not seeing some things that are happening. Possibly there are examples of successful ostracism. I would appreciate examples of it working well if you have something you can publish.

  • I agree with your point of view, Russell. One thing we have seem empathized in many recent TV series is how someone, being very good at doing something, considers themselves with the right to be hostile, disrespectful and rude towards everyone else, or towards some certain group in particular. We also have examples of this in many different projects.

    Of course, in my opinion this is totally unacceptable in any community that intends to motivate and encourage people to participate. The strength of any community-based movement is the community itself, not just a few of really smart assholes, no matter how good they are. As you say, we’re all replaceable, and even if anyone important is missing, with a live community, the community itself will be reorganized to cover that.

    I’d like to believe that having a healthy and enthusiastic community is still an important focus of Free Software projects. A community in which collaboration is appreciated and encouraged, and in which most of the participants are able to have fun working on it. Not only the assholes.

    Thanks for this article.

  • I guess what I was tryng to say is that nice people will “win” in the end, no matter how much “better” the a-hole’s code is “supposed to be”. And no, I don’t like a-holes, and no, I will not tolerate them, and sure, we all try to support the brave ones that point them out, as doing this does not come without a price, and I have paid it in the past.

  • OLTOCAT

    Do you know pigmalion effect ? it works.

  • etbe

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_effect

    OLTOCAT: Thanks for that pointer, the Wikipedia page explains it well. It seems to me that the most relevant application of the Pygmalion effect to such software development projects is when you have some programmers dominating a project and expecting that no-one else can write code that’s good enough.