Fanboys in Free Software

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 [1], you get compared to Hitler [2], 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

110 thoughts on “Fanboys in Free Software

  1. I think restricting this examination to free software users is not accurate. This is not about a certain sub-group of interest, this is a story about humanity in general. I have seen many times this sort of “brand loyalty” happen across many areas of interest. Many fights have broken out over Ford vs. Chevy, arguments over PC vs. Amiga, and profanity laced snarl-fests over Dokken vs. Megadeath. (or Megadeath vs. Clint Black). The online disagreements have less bounds on distastefulness because of the anonymity associated with those discussions; there are a lot fewer people that would stand up to a guy in a bar and tell him is Ford pickup is a piece of trash.

  2. Thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts freely with everyone.

    Please consider this: who gets to say whether comments are harmful or useful? My stand is that everyone gets to choose for themselves what the meaning is. All interpretations are made-up. So make up one that serves you. If you take that position in every part of your life, what is possible?

  3. As many a mother has said “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all”. This seems very relevant to your change of opinion. And although people may have the right to say whatever they like, you are under no obligation to pay them any attention, or even accept them into your experience. That is a choice well all have the right to exercise :)

  4. For the record I have read none of the comments, but I do agree with your commentary. Intelligent and thought out arguments are different than personal attacks on volunteers. Some of us are motivated to add to the world to create and follow passions and some are destine to be critics relegated to trying to illicit a reaction. One is additive the other doesn’t matter because without thought out and valid concern they have no value.

  5. I don’t think it’s free software only. I contributed to a lot of FOSS, and after a few nasty interactions I ended up going to work for Microsoft. But that doesn’t translate to an instant love-fest, and as an engineer, I get to read the same emotional and misguided insults that open source developers do. The only change is being much more selective about when to respond.

    What I don’t understand in this process is the choice of desktop environment is largely personal, meaning that if two users disagree it is not harmful or detrimental to one another. The fanatical comments and criticism seem rooted in the idea that one user’s choice is necessarily correct for others, and that if others fail to embrace the same choice the world must be a worse place.

    We see this in other fields too, with different levels of passion. Sport attracts a lot of passion for something inherently pointless. We see occasional passion about brands of cars. But I can’t remember the last time somebody insulted me for not flying with the same airline that they do. So if you have any thoughts on what casuses fanaticism, and why it gravitates to the spaces it does, I’d be very curious to hear them.

  6. I find it completely acceptable to censor certain comments and encourage others to censor, too.

    The use of the word “censor” is a red herring used by the haters in a feeble attempt to justify their stupidity. It’s no censorship when you tell trolls to bugger off from your blog because you’re sick and tired of their vitriol. Why should you have to put up with these jackasses?

  7. Do you just hate it when arbitrary first-world problems change how you think about fundamental human rights?
    But seriously, these are just first-world problems which you can imply ignore or, on you blogs and sites, delete and block. This concept isn’t new and it also doesn’t have to radically impact your views on freedom of speech.
    In fact, the fact that it somehow did suggest to me that this believe in this right wasn’t to strong to begin with. Believing that by running an open comment section makes you the champion and guardian for freedom of speech does not make that so. Subsequently thinking that your new moderation rules and altered thoughts on human rights have any impact on the freedom of speech itself look like a mild delusion of grandeur.
    What it simply boils down to in reality, is your right to keep clean your personal driveway any way you wish. Personally I would ignore and not contribute to a moderated “community” because moderation rules are rarely used strictly and impartially, but note ignoring these blogs and sites have nothing to do with my views on freedom of speech, nor does it harm the right itself.
    In the end I think it’s only necessary to keep track of the fact that these still are, only, first world problems.

  8. I completely agree or, better, completely agreed until I read your first note: I hope that you mean that dictatorship in real life is always bad, not that Linus is a bad person and that one shouldn’t call him a “benevolent dictator”.

    About free speech: I came to the same conclusion, free speech can’t be unbound from every rule of decency and respect for others.

    About the “haters gonna hate”: I’m one of the many users disappointed by the choices made by the developers wrt GNOME 3 and GNOME Shell, this meme was actually used to discard criticism and ignore users’ remarks, in the end I gave up trying to argue about it and moved elsewhere; so beware that the other way round is possible too, developers can disrespect their users as well, and that when you’re sent away all the rational voices you’re mostly left with fanboys and haters writing “GNOME suxxx bi9g time!!1!!” at every chance. Don’t complain then.

    Finally, I guess I’ll have to give KDE another chance at some point ;)


    1. No I of course do not think that Linus is a bad person (to be fair: I have never meat him so I cannot judge it), but I wouldn’t call him a dictator and I think it’s a very bad title.

  9. Fanaticism (do you see the “fan” in there?) is connected to defining your identity. While one may consider it sad to define yourself based on the choice of software products, we see it happen. Those cases you describe are connected to proving that the fanboys’ identity is valid. And it sure is right to exclude such posts from a discussion that serve not the topic but only the person posting. They do this on expense of the ones who really want to discuss the topic.

    As mentioned in other comments seeing this as religious is in my opinion correct. We all see that the fanboys’ belief is that there is only one right choice. I wonder, if they have such a limited view of their whole world and not only of their software choices. Such a world view most definitely is problematic in a modern, open and free society. We can’t tell if in real life they are cowards or worse, but in the electronic world they are (verbally) rather violent. This needs not to be tolerated since we also do not want to tolerate violence in the real world.

    You can expect of people to be civilized and behave, even on the internet. Reality, however, often proves different.

  10. This is a general problem with dealing with the public. It exists in every sector. As you say, you are probably more exposed to it, being a free software developer, but the problem isn’t limited to that world.

    I agree that we should focus on finding ways of limiting the detremental effects of fanaticism/fanboyism of free software developers, though. Perhaps the first step is to stigmatise it and get more people to speak up against it. In which case, good post. :o )

  11. I think Martin is confusing two things here. This is nothing to do with Free software developers, who AFAICT generally don’t get trolls, fanboys or hatemail, no matter how good they are.
    It’s *bloggers* that are the ones on the receiving end, since by blogging you are putting yourself out there; seeking publicity. If you seek publicity, you’ve got to accept that some of the public aren’t going to like you for one reason or another.

    Of course, however you handle comments on your own property/website is entirely your business.

    1. But that’s part of the point. If I would stop blogging to inform my users I would start to censor myself. It’s like the scissor in the head.

  12. I’m saddened that you have been the target of irrational, rude and unacceptable behaviour. The Internet gives some the courage to let rip saying things they would be too cowardly to say to your face. But there are millions upon millions of these people, any time spent worrying about them and what they say is futile.

    As difficult as it is the best response is no response at all. Like a scientist who specialises in the study of evolution not engaging with an irrational creationist, you are only adding publicity and credence by attempting to reason with them. It is ok to refuse to stoop to someone else’s level.

    Also remember, for every rude idiot there are 3 or 4 nice people getting on with their lives quietly.

    “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference”

  13. Dear Martin,

    I think you made an excellent analysis of fanboys in this post. Those people are a sad matter of fact. Please don’t let yourself discourage by such people. You do great work. Thank you very much for that!

    However, I cannot completely aggree with you about limiting the civil rights when dealing with those fanboys. Readers could get the impression that it is okay sometimes to limit civil rights. But they hold universally, no matter of the circumstances.

    But: People are allowed to say whatever they want, but you don’t have to let them speak on your private ground. So, IMO, it is indeed your right to delete comments which attack you in a personal way. We should clearly distinguish between the freedom of speech in public and the right of a person to choose who stands on their private ground. If someone smears something on the wall of your house, most probably you would also remove it.

    By the way: I also saw discussions the other way round, where project contributers were not able to deal with serious arguments and always felt attacked although the comments were only factual. So who decides if a comment is factual or not? I think both, comment writer and blog owner can be biased.

    Martin, please keep up the great work!


  14. We used to enslave people, burn witches alive, destroyed entire families. All justfied to the psyches of the purpotrators because of the small differences they could find or make up about them. All because of gossip, skewed comparisons and the mob mindset. This is who we are, add in the cloak of assumed anonymity on the Internet and you’ll get to see it at its ugliest.

  15. When you mentioned the Pirate Party of Germany in your post, you reminded me of a very similar thought that came to my mind when I read Annett Meiritz’ post on her treatment as a reporter by “some” Pirate Party members.

    And it reminds me of a wounderful example on the difference between “democracy” and “republic”: In a democracy, you have 40 people and if 39 people vote to hang the last one, the poor bastard will dangle from the gallows. In a republic, you cannot do that. The will of the majority cannot revoke the rights of the individual.

    Or can it? If you look at most successful free software projects, they have some kind of formal governance. Let it be a BDFL (like Linux or Guido van Rossum) or let it be an elected council (like (Free|Net)BSD). But they have governance, they have someone to make up the rules.

    Why? Because total freedom does not work. There is always someone who will abuse his freedom. Not necessarily, because he/she want to do damage or hurt someone, but just because he/she is –as simply said as it is– an idiot. You may want to argue, that they resolve their inferiority complex by association with a proxy but that is probably too much psychology.

    It is quite interesting to see that –after a while confronted with the ‘mob’– it all turns into politics: Who decides, who is to be heard and who is not? Who can be shut up, because his opinion does not matter and when does all that turn into a dictatorship, where the real big mistakes are made at the top and just sift down (imo many promiment open source projects have arrived at that point a while ago) where the fanboys take care of declaring darkness the new standard.

  16. I disagree but I respect your opinion.

    I don’t feel culling of personal attacks is mutually exclusive with a censorship-free community — *semantically* it is (inarguably), but not in the spirit of the word in this context. Were you to start removing comments of rational criticism however, that’d be opening an entirely different can of worms. Compare to cherry-picking positive movie reviews, silently deleting comments that show benchmarks where kwin perform badly, etc. Please don’t do that.

    Also refer to:

  17. What you’re talking about isn’t censorship at all, as far as I can see. If you were proposing that the government should pass laws to suppress certain opinions or expressions of opinions, then you’d be talking about censorship, but on your own blog you’re under no obligation to permit any comment; it’s your personal property, not a commons. It’s not censorship if the newspaper doesn’t want to print my letter to the editor and it’s not censorship if you delete comments that you don’t like on your blog, and you are entirely free to do so as you see fit for any reason or none at all!

  18. I stopped reading halfway through because of the abundance of confused thinking, starting with conflating political and civil rights issues with personality issues and choice and management of venue for opinion.

    Apparently your political activism in youth hasn’t gained you much wisdom, but you still have a strong desire to have other people dance to your tune. You certainly aren’t the only one with that desire, but nonetheless, I think you have some homework left to do.

    As you may have noticed from your developer background, if it seems no matter what you do you spend a lot of effort but aren’t going forward, you’re probably framing the whole thing wrong. As you may have surmised, I think that’s the case here, to the point that you’ll have to go back and think this one through again.

    1. So on a blog post about the impacts on attacking persons you decide it’s a good idea to attack a person? Great idea.

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