On Linus Torvalds and communities

This week, the Internet was ablaze with reactions to comments made by Linus Torvalds at Linux.conf.au. Unsurprisingly, Torvalds defended the tone he employs on the Linux kernel mailing list, where he holds no punches. “I’m not a nice person, and I don’t care about you. I care about the technology and the kernel—that’s what’s important to me,” he said (as reported by Ars Technica). He later said “all that [diversity] stuff is just details and not really important.”

The reactions were mixed. Some were upset at the fact that an influential figure like Torvalds didn’t take the opportunity to address what they see as a major issue in the Linux community. Others dismissed those who were upset by pointing to the technical quality of Linux, cultural differences, etc.

I don’t subscribe to the LKML, so most of the posts I’ve seen are generally when someone is trying to point out a specific event (whether a behavior or a technical discussion), and I don’t claim to have a good sense for what that particular mailing list is like. Torvalds and the Linux community have developed a great technical product, but the community needs work.

Speaking to open source communities in general, too many people use the impersonal nature of email to mistake rudeness for directness. Direct and honest technical criticisms are a vital part of any collaborative development. Insults and viciousness are not. Some people thrive in (or at least tolerate) those kinds of environments, but they are incredibly off-putting to everyone else, particularly newcomers.

Open source communities, like any community, need to be welcoming to new members. This allows for the infusion of new ideas and new perspectives: some of which will be obnoxiously naive, some of which will be positively transformative. The naive posts of newcomers can be taxing when you’ve seen the same thing hundreds of times, but everyone has to learn somewhere. The solution is to have a team armed with pre-written responses in order to prevent frustrated emails.

Not being a jerk doesn’t just mean tolerating noobs, though. Communities should have an established code of conduct which addresses both annoying and mean actors. When the code of contact is being repeatedly breached, the violator needs to be nudged in the right direction. When a community is welcoming and actively works to remain that way, it thrives. That’s how it can get the diversity of ideas and grow the technical competency that Linus Torvalds so desires.

6 thoughts on “On Linus Torvalds and communities

  1. “Speaking to open source communities in general, too many people use the impersonal nature of email to mistake rudeness for directness. Direct and honest technical criticisms are a vital part of any collaborative development. Insults and viciousness are not.”

    This is *exactly* the key point, and to be honest I find it incredibly frustrating that Linus flat refuses to engage with it. The point has been made enough times that he cannot plausibly claim not to understand, it yet every time the question is raised, he deflects it with a misleading framing of the question: Nice vs. ‘Real’. He refuses to acknowledge that no-one’s asking him and others like him to be nice, he’s being asked not to be abusive, rude and vicious.

  2. @adam
    I disagree.
    Everytime I see an emotional outburst from torvalds there is always has been someone at fault. If linus commits a mistake , I have seen linus apologize. Linus has a way of expressing things and its fine as long every does their work.
    Its really tedious to be the Mr. nice guy on the internet. Its a lot of effort.

  3. @hadrons123 – it’s amazing, it’s like there’s some kind of cognitive dissonance machine at work, you just did *exactly what I was complaining about* in a direct response to a comment about it! Don’t you see the bit of my post where I explicitly said that *no-one is asking him to be nice*?

    “This code is terrible” <— perfectly fine
    "You are a terrible person and you shouldn't be alive" <— not fine

    the difference should not be hard to understand.

  4. @ adam
    why is it hard for you to understand the way Linus is?
    Just saying your code is terrible is just a slap on the wrist.
    I do know that he insults the person so that it affects them deeply.
    But saying about anyone’s personality is some other level.
    It is ovbviously harsh. He cares about the kernel so much and he expects people to value as much as their personal pride and not do just like a job at a software company.
    He expects more, and I would do the same. But I do realize that you will choose differently. I am not going to go wildly post everywhere that adam is wrong and he should change.

    Moreover Linus has said multiple times that he is not ideal.
    No can really force him to behave different, he knows that.
    I understand you don’t like his methods and I am sure there are many others too.
    Poeple sometimes need the kick in the nuts!
    I am sure you/anyone would take care of your/their job much more seriously when your/their personal pride is at stake.

  5. @hadrons123

    Just saying your code is terrible is just a slap on the wrist.
    I do know that he insults the person so that it affects them deeply.

    Which is exactly the problem. “Your code is terrible and here’s why” should be sufficient to explain why it’s rejected and perhaps offer some guidance on how it could be improved for later inclusion. Insults offer no instruction, so they don’t help improve future contributions. Even if, as I’ve seen argued, Linus only insults those who he knows well, that’s bad because 1) people who are new to the community may not know that and be driven away and 2) it sends the message that such behavior is acceptable within the community.

    Everytime I see an emotional outburst from torvalds there is always has been someone at fault.

    Abusers always make that argument.

    Its really tedious to be the Mr. nice guy on the internet. Its a lot of effort.

    Yes, it is. I get really frustrated with people on the Internet sometimes, too, and I don’t always behave in the way that I want. That’s why I suggested having pre-written responses to address some of the common scenarios, as well as having a team of people to handle the “Mr. Nice Guy” duties. It takes little effort to not send an email and sometimes that’s the best solution.

    No one can force Linus (or Theo de Raadt or anyone else) to behave differently. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used as an example when they display poor community leadership.

  6. Pingback: Ben Cotton: Linus’s awakening | Fedora Colombia

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