Free Software Rage

Posted 23 Aug 2002 at 16:07 UTC by jdub Share This

Just about everyone involved in Free Software are passionate about what they do. Whether you're employed to work on Free Software, or do it in your spare time, there's a huge personal commitment and connection involved. So when someone takes your work for granted, flames your co-contributors, or expects you jump to their every need, it hurts. Sometimes, you snap. That's Free Software Rage.

The worst thing about Free Software Rage is that it presents the absolute opposite of what most Free Software or Open Source hackers and contributors want to achieve.

We find our way into cool projects, work with great people, and have a lot of fun hacking and contributing. The recent FLOSS report on developer behaviour showed that far and away, contributors were interested in sharing and learning. (I'm a bit surprised that there wasn't an entry for "having fun".)

Free Software Rage, and the kinds of things that lead to it are not fun. Often enough, they're so frustrating that good contributors leave projects for safer havens, where they're less vulnerable.

Do the users of Free Software who criticise or goad contributors so harshly understand the personal commitment and connection we have with our work? Should we expect them to? How can we welcome suggestions and contributions, but at the same time discourage this kind of behaviour?

How do you deal with Free Software Rage? Does it affect your project?


strategies for handling it, posted 23 Aug 2002 at 20:17 UTC by jbuck » (Master)

If you do almost anything in public, sometimes you'll attract jerks. Some of the jerks are just jerks, some are people who actually have something to say that you want to hear but are either having a bad day or who have problems being polite. For the first kind, it's best not to descend to your level: if you argue with an idiot, bystanders may have trouble telling which of you is the idiot after a while.

First approach when you feel yourself getting really pissed off: write the nastiest flame imaginable. Enjoy yourself thoroughly. And then don't send it.

Now, for your complaints: people take you for granted. Well, hmm. I work on GCC. I helped start the egcs project (though my role in GCC is mainly about quality control). People take GCC for granted, and to a certain extent, they should (I suspect that most advogato members take it for granted). By volunteering to work on a piece of vital infrastructure, one is taking on a public trust. This, of course, doesn't mean that anyone has the right to bug fixes and the like, but it's reasonable for people to expect that GCC is of decent quality and to complain if it isn't. The key is to channel those complaints so that they are useful and to expect and insist that people treat each other on development lists with some level of respect, without descending to the level of people that don't.

When someone is being a jerk, you can either let the jerky parts roll off your back (maybe after using the "private flame approach" above), or mildly object to the tone but try to move the discussion to content. If someone says "YourProg sucks!" you can ask them to be more specific. The goal is to get a reproduceable bug report, and to explain to users how to provide them. Someone who provides really good bug reports is your friend.

If someone complains about why some bug hasn't been addressed, you can put it back in their lap: ask them to do some work on their own to find out how the bug occurs, or to come up with a fix, or at least to explain why it is so damn vital (if it affects security you will want to know). In the end, though, if they are desparate for a fix, you'll have to let them know that they'll need to fix it themselves or hire someone as a consultant to do so.

Finally, there's no rule that says you have to respond to all mail in any given period of time. You can always take a break from reading it for a while, especially while you're in the middle of designing or coding something big.

Still, there's another problem..., posted 24 Aug 2002 at 03:11 UTC by tk » (Observer)

Are there any strategies for dealing with situations where a jerk goes around spreading negative vibes about a project?

Re: Still, there's another problem..., posted 24 Aug 2002 at 22:20 UTC by chipx86 » (Journeyer)

There's not a whole lot that works against a person who is dedicated to hurting the reputation of a person or a project. Often you can try to talk to them, find out what problems they're having. Unfortunately, this seems to only work with people who are mature enough to listen and change their opinion. This hasn't been the case with some people I have dealt with lately.

I think the only thing you can do is ignore them, and make it clear that the person is just spreading misinformation. Some people make it very clear what their intentions are and it's not hard to determine whether or not they should be listened to about certain things. The problem often goes away after awhile (but sometimes not, sadly).

Misconceptions, posted 24 Aug 2002 at 23:18 UTC by dobey » (Master)

Sometimes it's not always rage, but it turns into rage, because people attack others personally. Often, there are such personal attacks on mailing lists that the person being attacked, is not subscribed to, and can not even defend themselves properly. Also, it is often the case where the attacker misunderstands the goals of the victim, and bases their attack on a personal opinion that is completely wrong, and says something inappropriate anyway.Hopefully these occurances will decrease soon and people will start cooperating more.

Maybe the negative vibes are deserved, posted 26 Aug 2002 at 18:34 UTC by jbuck » (Master)

If people who formerly worked with you are unhappy, flame you publicly, and spread "negative vibes" about your project, it's possible that there is a real problem not with them but with the project. Alternatively, it's possible that a project has the potential to go in two incompatible directions and maybe either forking it, or having one of the two interest groups go somewhere else and start a new effort.

I agree that the big problem occurs when these things become personal, and it's best to get things back to substance. But sometimes there's no way to avoid being personal: the release manager for a large project may not be competent to handle it any more, when he did perfectly fine when it was smaller. When this happens then the guy has to go, one way or the other, and there's no way to do this without hurt feelings.

Personal?, posted 27 Aug 2002 at 00:08 UTC by jdub » (Master)

Interesting that the idea of 'getting personal' has come up - I've found that the kinds of attacks or flames that are most likely to result in Free Software Rage are not very personal. They're just attacks on the work you've done, or that of the people you work with. Sometimes there's name-calling involved, but it's the criticisms from the person you don't know that often hurt the most.

Someone mailed me privately with the age-old playground advice: "Ignore them, and they will go away." Easier said than done, but it does seem to work most of the time. :-)

Consciousness, posted 27 Aug 2002 at 03:26 UTC by tromey » (Master)

I get a fair amount of flame mail about automake. It is irritating. Occasionally I'll respond in a less-than-graceful way; I'm sure you can search the archives for some specific cases.

I've tried jbuck's suggestion of writing a full-bore response and then deleting it. This sometimes satisfies for a while, but sometimes does not. Also, for me the danger is in responding too quickly: I can write a short, rude response and send it before I'm aware that I'm too angry to be sending email.

The solution for the latter problem, as with so many other things, is inserting one's consciousness into the process. For me that means being aware of my emotional state while reading and writing email. Then I'm able to make a more reasoned choice about whether and what to send.

The other thing that has worked well for me has been to learn to differentiate between my work and my self. Just because someone thinks automake (or whatever) sucks doesn't mean I suck. This is really just another exercise in consciousness...

It also isn't enough to think "I'm happy with this program, I'm writing it for myself, who cares what the flamers think". This doesn't work for me simply because it isn't true; I'm interested in writing programs that people use, in contributing to the community. Working in a bubble isn't very interesting to me.

There's also a part of "automake sucks" email that is not my problem. Sometimes people write flames without understanding the history, rationale, or design of the program. In short, they are writing about what they think "should" happen, but from a position of ignorance. There's no real reason to tolerate this, though of course it generally pays to try to educate people in a friendly way.

Unfortunately, sometimes a flame can be useful, too. Occasionally it provides the kick that makes me look at something I had been putting off.

Oh Please, posted 27 Aug 2002 at 17:40 UTC by mglazer » (Journeyer)

Get over yourself.

This sounds ridiculous.

Re: consciousness, posted 27 Aug 2002 at 18:02 UTC by jbuck » (Master)

Tom Tromey has some good points. Actually, my "full bore" response often isn't just deleted; it goes through several edits and after a day or so, often turns into something useful or gives me a new insight. This is especially the case when responding to flames or attacks coming from people that I will want or need to work with in the future, and I can't always tell in advance who these people are.

Anyway, if someone tells you that your program sucks, just remember that all software sucks. The most you can hope for is to suck less.

Handy Koan , posted 28 Aug 2002 at 22:47 UTC by bbense » (Journeyer)

I don't remember where I heard it, but one thing that I've found useful in keeping perspective is

"If you're not pissing somebody off, then you're probably not doing anything useful."

In many ways the "Foo sucks" comments are actually backhanded compliments, you actually have to use something to figure out if it sucks. Somebody cares enough to complain.

Noone's being hurt..., posted 29 Aug 2002 at 10:27 UTC by jennv » (Journeyer)

I run Linuxchix, which is an advocacy project. It's also a feminist project in the sense of 'let's give women an equal chance', not any of the zillions of other meanings of the word 'feminist'.

Because it's a feminist project, and because of all the layers and levels of meaning that the word has accrued, we get flames and I'm certain there are people out there spreading disinformation and vitriol. Hopefully not many - hopefully we're just not big enough for important enough for them - but there are some.

I handle it by ignoring it. I look at the hundreds of women and men who use LinuxChix, who share knowledge on techtalk, discuss ways of reaching other women on issues, and rant about their problems on grrltalk and grrls-only. THEY are being helped, noone is being hurt, so what are the flamers mad at?

If anyone has a real issue with LinuxChix, I hope they'll bring it to my attention.

But if their issue is just 'girls shouldn't need a forum of their own' - well, I agree. We shouldn't. But it has made a big difference that we have one, so right now we obviously do. And if their issue is 'girls don't do Linux', nothing the flamer can say will change my paired X chromosomes or my operating system.

Jenn V.

Noone's being hurt..., posted 29 Aug 2002 at 10:40 UTC by jennv » (Journeyer)

I run Linuxchix, which is an advocacy project. It's also a feminist project in the sense of 'let's give women an equal chance', not any of the zillions of other meanings of the word 'feminist'.

Because it's a feminist project, and because of all the layers and levels of meaning that the word has accrued, we get flames and I'm certain there are people out there spreading disinformation and vitriol. Hopefully not many - hopefully we're just not big enough for important enough for them - but there are some.

I handle it by ignoring it. I look at the hundreds of women and men who use LinuxChix, who share knowledge on techtalk, discuss ways of reaching other women on issues, and rant about their problems on grrltalk and grrls-only. THEY are being helped, noone is being hurt, so what are the flamers mad at?

If anyone has a real issue with LinuxChix, I hope they'll bring it to my attention.

But if their issue is just 'girls shouldn't need a forum of their own' - well, I agree. We shouldn't. But it has made a big difference that we have one, so right now we obviously do. And if their issue is 'girls don't do Linux', nothing the flamer can say will change my paired X chromosomes or my operating system.

Jenn V.

Web sites vs software projects?, posted 29 Aug 2002 at 13:33 UTC by abraham » (Master)

I talked to the administrator of a rather innocent web site, it is a database of cultural events (excibitions, theatre, etc.) in our local town.

I mentioned that I get a small number of insulting messages for my software project, but far more messages from people who are happy with it, or polite messages from people reporting bugs or request enhancements.

He said that it was the opposite for his web site, he had to wade through several flames and insulting messages to get to the messages from grateful or polite people.

On web-sites with public forums I see something similar, lots of messages from idiots who think they can make demends from something they get for free, and have the right to act hurt when they don't get what they expect. Read /. even on high level of moderation for a bad example. It happens with free software too, but not nearly as often.

My guess is that people somehow delute themselves that they have payed for "the web" when they payed their ISP, and thus have the rights of a paying customer to be a total jerk (the customer is always right).

Not all projects are the same, posted 4 Sep 2002 at 00:55 UTC by exa » (Master)

This tends to happen in the larger projects I guess. Flamewars and noise sometimees shadow the real signal.

It depends on the nature of the project and the overall profile of participants. For instance in KDE project I find the environment to be very friendly. People care much more about the code than pointless arguments.

it seems to me, posted 5 Sep 2002 at 16:13 UTC by Liedra » (Journeyer)

that for every idiot flamer you tend to get a bunch of people who pat you on the back for a well-deserved job well done :-)

I don't think it's limited to software development either - dealing with some freshmeat contributors, or, as jennv was noting, flamers to mailing lists or hosts thereof etc., can be like that too :-)

So yeah, I'd subscribe to the "concentrate on the positive" school of thought, and ignore those people who have nothing better to do.

- liedra

hmmm, posted 6 Sep 2002 at 04:20 UTC by bytesplit » (Journeyer)

I enjoy reading controversial subjects, and this is one. After reading all of these messages, and staring in amazement at the linuxchix.org site (that women really do use Linux!), my initial reaction is this:

Some Linux and Unix (heck, this applies to ALL computer gurus) folks get really defensive when someone points out a flaw in a piece of software. The first reaction that is often seen in these folks is "why don't you go read the documentation or download something else?", when it might be better to say "how can I help to rectify the situation?".

I realize that there is a very special thing going on in Open Source, and I am beginning to realize through my own trials and tribulations in using this software, that a price must still be paid by someone when you use free software. That price could be the user of the software spending hours upon hours to troubleshoot an issue, it could be a developer taking care in uploading a new version (or however you update your software) of a software, or a document writer wading through sense drivel that was used as an excuse for documentation the first time around.

The bottom line is that using free software/open source software comes at a price for everyone. Therefore, NO ONE has a right to lash out at someone else when something goes wrong in the software. I am hoping the author of this article doesn't take it personally when someone complains to him about software, because he has no right to take it personally. If it weren't for people using your software in the first place, you wouldn't have the privilege of even listening to someone complain to it. We're all in this together, and without all parties putting forth genuine effort in helping the other person, open source won't have an audience for long. That's my opinion.

Re: hmmm, posted 6 Sep 2002 at 07:51 UTC by tk » (Observer)

Cool, a comment from the other side of the fence.

Indeed there seems to be some sort of controversy over the subject of documentation and feedback (which constitutes a large part of Free Software Rage). On one side we have people who believe that software documentation should cater for people with the IQ of a marshmallow. On the other side, we have developers who think that, since everything is out in the open, all users should be required to solve all problems by themselves. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Last year I had the opportunity (or responsibility...) of mentoring a bunch of freshmen. Many a time, a freshman will complain about having problems with such and such a subject. "So exactly what about this subject can't you grasp?" The answer: "I don't understand any bit of it." When I heard this, I'd think, "Jeez, is he expecting me to repeat all the course material back at him?" (Though what I actually say is, "Please be more specific.") You get the drift.

It's the same with open source. Some users like to ask questions of the form

Can anyone give me instructions for installing program Foo that I can understand? [...followed by more drivel on the same theme...]

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that such a query is absolutely devoid of content.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The `cost' of using open-source software doesn't have to be as expensive as you mentioned. All it takes is a wee bit of extra effort in phrasing your query; instead of writing the above, you can say e.g.

I'm trying to install Foo on a Frobozz Linux 1.1.1 system. Unfortunately the installation documentation says that I need to first frob the Bar, and I've searched the FAQ but can't find any precise instructions for doing so. Where can I find more information on frobbing the Bar?

This may not be very precise either, but at least we're on to something, and developers will be more willing to help the user who asks such a question.

(And I find it quite ironic that those users who keep asking content-free questions keep asking documentation writers to improve their communication skills, when they themselves can't even communicate properly when asking for help!)

I've also heard stories about developers refusing to lend a ear to their users, though in my experience the opposite seems more common.

I'm not too worried about open source not having an "audience". As long as there are reasonable users who make an attempt to voice their concerns clearly and precisely to other people, there'll be an audience for open source. Besides, if I envisage that my audience is going to be a bunch of marshmallows, then there's not much point in working on open source anyway.

tk: you should rethink, posted 7 Sep 2002 at 05:18 UTC by bytesplit » (Journeyer)

your opinions of end-users. Firstly, I found your comments to be insulting, even though I hope you spoke out of ignorance. When you can genuinely show me that you actually care about the end-user, and can express yourself as being so WIHOUT insulting anyone, then I'll be happy to give your writing the time of the day. At this point, as much as it pains me to do so, I feel you don't do the Open Source movement any favors with the suttle attacks on others' intelligence. Maybe you could explain to the rest of us, how you came with up with that ingenious comment toward llan and I. Thanks.

The words of the prophets are written on the subway wall, posted 7 Sep 2002 at 07:02 UTC by Ilan » (Master)

bytesplit, I don't agree with some of the ways that you have behaved on Advogato, nor in IRC channels assuming that the reports from others are true. I'm not attacking you or saying you're a bad person, but the reasons why you're at odds with the people on Advogato are widely different from mine and I don't want to get us lumped together.

Incidently, I was going to respond to Tk's assisine remark about end users, but then decided against it because I have a new policy of saying nothing and taking a tire iron to people's heads (that's why I haven't posted here for 2 months). This is my way of dealing with "Usability Rage", which is sort of like "Free Software Rage", but comes from the opposite direction. The AUHDL (see my last several diary entries) is a rough definition of what a tire iron looks like. Another example is the upcoming ClaruxPL (like the AUHDL but 50 pounds heavier and deals with the people/projects/companies who have kept linux so unusable). But since I will no doubt be mentioned in some sort of retaliatory post to your post, I will speak my mind.

Leave Tk alone and let him say what he wants to. Let the world see the folly of a man who with one breath calls end-users stupid marshmellows and with the next wonders why everyone around him is migrating from linux back to windows.

some end users are idiots., posted 7 Sep 2002 at 07:41 UTC by LSchiere » (Apprentice)

I can't count the number of times the only reason people have a question is because they don't see a menu option labled "Join Chat" after claiming to have looked "all through the faq, the menus, and preferences". Most of the time, stupid questions like this, I can prove the person hasn't read the faq, because having written it, I can point them to the exact question they should have read. there is only so much you can do to baby end-users.

And tk is right about the reports, it is a VERY rare bug report that I don't have to ask simple things like "what version are you using" (bug reports about bugs in old versions that have been fixed abound), or "please tell me exactly what the problem is" after I'm asked to fix a bug without being given any details.

On the other hand, you see projects like automake which deliberately make it harder to use, requiring a read in from the device instead of stdin, so I do think that tk has over generalized.

the focus is on the end-user, not any one person, posted 9 Sep 2002 at 02:17 UTC by bytesplit » (Journeyer)

llan, I am afraid you are mistaken my disagreement with how tk approaches end-users, with how I feel about some folks on advogato. The two are different. In my last response, there was no reference to how Tk does things on this site. Just because I include your name in my reply doesn't mean that I am comparing the two of us. Really, you shouldn't worry about how others will think of you in comparison to say, for example, me. The bottom line is that we all put our pants on the same way (I hope so), and so on. As contributors, regardless of the extent to which one contributes, to open source, we are all in this together.

Ignoring, posted 9 Sep 2002 at 15:26 UTC by tk » (Observer)

From the replies, it seems there's a consensus that the best way to deal with absolute jerks is to ignore them. In that case, should we be looking for more effective ways of ignoring jerks (as well as encouraging other people to ignore jerks)? For example, we now have spam filters; should we have flame filters too?

RE:, posted 9 Sep 2002 at 23:00 UTC by bytesplit » (Journeyer)

The article started out talking, from jdub's perspective, about how some end-users are jerks. Idiots. Morons. Whatever you want to call them. And, I believe they do exist. I've seen it for myself on IRC. My behavior on IRC hasn't always been stellar, but I am willing to place a bet that not one person reading this article (who has participated in IRC) can say that he or she hasn't acted out of character at some point or another.

Just the other day I ran into a character on IRC, who as a way of showing his appreciation for all the time that a couple of folks spent to help him solve his linux related problem, left by saying "anyone who programs for linux is programming for communism". How's that for a token of appreciation of all the effort that linux/unix programmers put into their work?

I am not saying that I am a unix/linux programmer, because by trade I am not. Still, I am learning. Even though I don't have anything to show for my efforts, I - CAN - understand and appreciate the efforts of those who do have something to show for their efforts.

On to the last part of my response. While I think that some users are so-called jerks, in the way that they spew forth their frustrations with open source, unix, linux or even windows technology, I think that not one of them is TRUELY a jerk. I can understand their frustrations. I also see why they might lash out at those who potentially could be of help. You know what the troubling thing is? It's that word "potential". Too many folks that I see in IRC (the basis of my argument) could help, but elect not to. And, it happens a lot. It pains me to see that happen, because I know that if I - DID - know the answer, I would without hesitation leap forward and be the first to help.

So, all I am saying is that before the developers of software ignore their better judgement and start handing out "dummy" tags to everyone asking questions about technology that they are frustrated with, do this first. Think about what is going on in the end-user's mind. Reminisce about YOUR days of frustration with some of the same things the end user is complaining. Likely you still have them. Please don't pretend that you don't. We need to collaborate, not alienate.

Any positive comments or suggestions are greatly welcomed by me. I have a lot to learn about open source, I guess you could call me a life- long newbie. A jerk, I am not.

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