Free, Open, Eating Its Young

Opinion: The recent Cathy Sierra dustup shocked lots of people, but it was hardly an isolated incident. Are the same sorts of things going on in the Free/Open Source Software community at large?

By Carla Schroder | Posted Apr 27, 2007
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A whole lot of sympathy and outrage was generated in response to Kathy Sierra receiving death threats and threats of sexual violence. Suddenly, people who had been dismissing complaints for years about poor behavior in the tech world were galvanized. Outrage! Awful! Unthinkable!

The whole thing had me all in a whirl.

Why does it take something this extreme to get people's attention? Women have been bombarded with garbage from the same vile sewer that spewed on Kathy Sierra since forever. This makes it look like there is a two-tier system: acceptable levels of abuse, then somewhere, way way waaaay up there is the line that marks unacceptable abuse.

The poison aimed at Kathy Sierra was born in an "experiment" that anyone with more than a few minute's experience in the real world would have known was doomed to failure: BobsYerUncle and MeanKids.org. (Both are gone, so don't waste your time looking for them. Not even the Internet Archive has copies.) The founder of MeanKids says:

"MeanKids was purposeful anarchy. I thought the people at MeanKids would create art and criticism, pointed and insulting satire, but not foster a climate of fear. Misogynistic postings at MeanKids.org led me to try to moderate, but indeed the group there was of the 'You Own Your Own Words' tradition, so moderating or central editorial control wouldn't work. I tore the site down."

I will let the naiveté of that speak for itself. There will always be horrid, hateful people in the world—we aren't obligated to provide forums for their bile.

Meanwhile, Back at the FOSS Ranch

The Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) world is cram-full of interesting, smart, fun people. It's also full of trolls, jerks, and abusive wastes of time, and very confused when it comes to civility. A lot of FOSSers fall into the Five Geek Social Fallacies trap, especially the first two:

Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil

"GSF1 prevents its carrier from participating in-or tolerating-the exclusion of anyone from anything, be it a party, a comic book store, or a web forum, and no matter how obnoxious, offensive, or aromatic the prospective excludee may be. As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate."

Geek Social Fallacy #2: Friends Accept Me As I Am

"Carriers of GSF2 believe that since a friend accepts them as they are, anyone who criticizes them is not their friend. Thus, they can't take criticism from friends-criticism is experienced as a treacherous betrayal of the friendship, no matter how inappropriate the criticized behavior may be. Conversely, most carriers will never criticize a friend under any circumstances; the duty to be supportive trumps any impulse to point out unacceptable behavior."

So we end up trapped in pointless, endless, circular arguments where the people who dare to object to trolling and rudeness get criticized, instead of the trolls and rude people. They trot out all the tired old "free speech" and "you're too sensitive" excuses, instead of dealing with the problem, which is that tolerating toxic people, rudeness, and abusive behavior is a big fat slap in the face to the members of your community that behave with courtesy and professionalism.

Every community has a right to set and enforce its own standards of behavior. I wish that more would, instead of doing helpless hand-wringing and toadying to the bullies. I learned a wonderful thing from the awesome Val Henson: it is OK to expect other people to modify their behavior towards you when they treat you in a manner that you don't like.

Choice Quotes

"Diversity is not about having racists, sexists etc within the community... It's about having more women, more blacks, more LGBT, more ethnic/racial minority groups etc in your community."
towsonu2003
"Be polite. Be helpful."
—Official rules of Linuxchix.org
"I've been in the computer business in some form or another for a tad over 45 years. When I started, there were close to equal numbers of men and women, and we treated each other with respect...What happened? How did the "geek culture" become so male-dominated? How did the Internet turn from a university to a shopping mall, and then to a war zone?"
Ed Borasky
"It seems pretty simple to me: you try to post things which are not offensive, and if somehow you do manage to offend someone, you try to make amends. That surely should be the norm."
Alex Hudson

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