Years ago I had a clear political opinion. I was a civil-rights activist. I appreciated freedom and anything limiting freedom was a problem to me. Freedom of speech was one of the most important rights for me. I thought that democracy has to be able to survive radical or insulting opinions. In a democracy any opinion should have a right even if it’s against democracy. I had been a member of the lawsuit against data preservation in Germany. I supported the German Pirate Party during the last election campaign because of a new censorship law. That I became a KDE developer is clearly linked to the fact that it is a free software community.
But over the last years my opinion changed. Nowadays I think that not every opinion needs to be tolerated. I find it completely acceptable to censor certain comments and encourage others to censor, too. What was able to change my opinion in such a radical way? After all I still consider civil rights as extremely important. The answer is simple: Fanboys and trolls.
When one starts to have a blog in free software one learns the hard way that being a relatively good developer means that you get hated. If you achieve something you get attacked, you get insulted, you get called a dictator , you get compared to Hitler , etc. etc. People say that you need a thick skin if you want to work in free software. I disagree. There shouldn’t be a need to have a thick skin. We are improving the world, we donated lots of our spare time to work on free software, we donate the source code we write for the public good and we are thanked by insults. This is not acceptable! Even if people dislike some specific software or are a great supporter of another software there is no reason to insult the people or the products. It never is! Not even if it is Microsoft or Apple or Google. There is no reason to attack them.
One of the first experiences I made in this regards was blogging about performance improvements. We can see that most users are thankful for the improvements but that there are also direct attacks. These are irrational, why would one attack the person who improved the situation? Why kill the messenger? People tend to discard it as “haters gonna hate”, but is that the answer to the problem? Do we have to tolerate such comments? Do we need to be hated just because we improve software and blog about it? Nowadays I would just delete such comments, that’s the change in my reaction to handle such situations. My skin became thicker over the years, but overall I prefer to have a thin skin as I used to have – it fits my overall character better.
Over the years I started to observe the behavior of the “haters”. For example I noticed that in the time after the release of GNOME Shell and Unity the hate against KDE increased. This was irrational, especially the reasons for the hate. KDE’s software had matured at the time when GNOME Shell and Unity did their release, so why attack KDE then. Yes after 4.0 that was kind of rational, but the attacks had mostly stopped. So why did they start again? I’m nowadays quite sure that if we would go back we would find an increase of attacks against GNOME at the time of 4.0/4.1.
Free software users are very enthusiastic about their used software. One could even say that they are religious about it. Not only that they also create a kind of split between mostly GNOME and KDE community. The decisions to use either KDE Plasma or GNOME Shell are hardly rational. There are emotions involved and used at the rational for why one uses KDE Plasma or GNOME. The software of the other projects is evil and one cannot use it. We tend to call users with such opinions as “fanboys”, but I find this word unsuited, I call them “religious fanatics”. I will explain in more detail why I compare to religion later on.
Now we all know the irrational reasons on why to not use GNOME software. GNOME is removing features, they are “interface Nazis” and don’t care about their users. KDE software on the other hand is ugly, too complex, slow and unstable.
When basing your decisions on irrational reasons it is inevitable that you will face cognitive dissonance. The introduction of GNOME Shell and Unity at the same time are good examples for triggering cognitive dissonance. The fanboys are convinced that GNOME is the best software in the world, but now they are transited to at that time incomplete software breaking their existing workflows and requiring to relearn. Many things are no longer possible. The belief that GNOME is better than KDE software is seriously challenged by the new experience.
One of the solution to solve this cognitive dissonance is to make KDE software worse in comparison to GNOME Shell or Unity. Being convinced that KDE software is still worse than the other software the dissonance is resolved. That is a blog post about performance improvements is a wonderful way to be confirmed that KDE software is slow, a news about fixed bugs is a wonderful way to show that KDE software is unstable. This explains the strong hate against KDE starting with the releases of GNOME Shell and Unity. Fanboys are trying to resolve their cognitive dissonance.
Obviously GNOME Shell and Unity are only an example. We can observe the same kind of cognitive dissonance with KDE fanboys. An example I can observe in regular intervals is that “the next version is much better and solves all problems” whenever a user is reporting about instabilities or other problems. The fact that another user is experiencing problems is challenging the beliefs of the fanboys which can be resolved by stating that the next version resolves it. We can see these comments for each version since 4.1.
Quite recently we could observe the same kind of cognitive dissonance with the Ubuntu fanboys. Mir was a real challenge to anybody who deeply believes that Canonical is doing the right thing all the time. Given that I wrote a few blog posts on that topic I was able to observe how fanboys tried to resolve their cognitive dissonance. My favorites were that I am the reason why free software is failing because I don’t support Mir. Canonical made it quite difficult for their fanboys to resolve the created cognitive dissonance. Of course reasons were provided but those had been shown as wrong very fast. Fanboys tried to resolve the dissonance by coming up with reasons like “development was too slow, someone had to do something”, which didn’t really resolve it as it’s obvious that the development power would have also helped Wayland. Just yesterday I was able to observe a fanboy in my blog comments. “Please re-read it and make it logically sane and spelling error free.” A wonderful example of adjusting the reality by making my arguments invalid because I had a typo in a reply. My argument that we cannot support distro-only solutions got discarded because there is also YaST which is also distro-specific. On a rational view this argument doesn’t make any sense but under the light of resolving cognitive dissonance it makes all the sense in the world. The fact that distro-specific software is a problem is diminished by pointing out other distro-specific software even if doesn’t matter for the argument (we do not depend on YaST).
I consider these fanboys as a threat to free software. By being irrational they harm everyone. They use emotions for something which should not have emotions. They make it difficult to work in free software. In fact it’s not a problem specific to free software, but can be observed overall in IT. Apple is also a good example for such fanboys. But only in free software fanboys can interact directly with developers and spread their harmful behavior. In the proprietary world they are blocked at the marketing department which is trained to work with such situations.
We need to find solutions to the fanboys and one of the solutions I came up with is to block them on my blog posts. I can tolerate trolls as it’s much easier to handle them. But fanboys are only there to harm you to diminish your work so that their world view doesn’t break. And that’s why I call them religious fanatics. They behave exactly the same. Just compare that to Intelligent Design to resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by evolution. I dislike any religious fanaticism whether it’s a crusade, jihad, IRA or free software. Any religious motivated fanaticism is harmful and needs to be fought, even if it is free software. Yes one can grow a thick skin to handle the fanboys, but that just shouldn’t be needed. Being compared to Hitler hurts no matter how thick your skin is. And if a GNOME developer stops work because of KDE fanboys it’s not GNOME who lost a developer, it’s free software who lost a developer. It’s one of us. We are also GNOME!
Final remark: please don’t come and tell me that I’m the same by criticizing Mir. It’s not the same. Criticizing decisions and having discussions is important, but of course critic has to be constructive. I have never attacked any of the Mir developers or have attacked the software in any way. I criticized the decision and the reasoning and pointed out the problems it causes for us, but I have in no way attacked Canonical, Ubuntu or Mir.
 Yes there are free software developers who are called a “benevolent” dictator. I disagree. There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator. Every dictator is bad and one shouldn’t define dictatorship down by calling someone a benevolent dictator.
 Yes all of that happened to me. Someone even compared me to one of the worst mass-murderers in human history because I do free software and have an own opinion.