Press "Enter" to skip to content

Four Simple Words to Remember on FOSS Forums

[Editor’s note: This commentary originally ran as an item in the Larry the Free Software Guy blog earlier this year.]

I wrote a blog item back in October 2011 that garnered the highest amount of hits (well into five figures), and the highest amount of comments (around 200), that this blog has ever achieved. Even the follow-up blog item garnered an abnormally high number of eyeballs. No, I’m not linking to either because I’d prefer not to go another round in the ring, so to speak, putting aside the fact that both blogs still get a considerable number of daily hits.

exploding computerBut if you Google “larry fsf” (no quotes), it comes up first — at least it did for me just now (sorry, “Larry Lessig”).

The back-and-forth in the comments is sometimes civil, sometimes not, and since this outpouring of vitriol — mine included — is abnormally high, I have given a lot of thought about the range of civility in the FOSS world.

I’ve been sitting on the following commentary for a long time. I even wrote an unpublished draft months ago that sits in the Larry the CrunchBang Guy draft queue because, well, I didn’t pull the trigger on writing about the incident in that forum which pushed over the first proverbial domino.

Personally speaking, I have no problem with the fact that I’m not going to agree with everyone, nor is everyone going to agree with me. My opinions, here and elsewhere, on the purposes and goals of free/open source software (or just about everything else) are going to clash with the opinions of others, and I’m at peace with that. In fact, I welcome the exchange of ideas with those with whom I may not agree to see if, perhaps, my mind can be changed, and conversely I would hope that others would take the same attitude. More often than not, I am disappointed here, but never mind. That’s another topic for another time.

So to those who “get it” — those who understand we’re not all of the same mind and there is room for debate and discussion, to say nothing of the fact that one does not have to be disagreeable in order to disagree — a deeply grateful “thank you” goes out to each one who deserves it. This item is not for you, though you’re welcome to continue reading.

It took me awhile to understand this, and as I’ve written in the past, there are times when the “current me” would take the “past me” and slap him in the back of the head, multiple times, and show him the best way, or at least the more civil way, to do things.

But I’m a little tired of appealing to some people — an annoying, yet tirelessly vocal, few — to be more understanding when they seemingly can’t hear me because they need their own individual proctologist to help each of them find their heads.

Nevertheless, this blog is a call out to those who don’t get it: The ones for whom dissent or disagreement is a good excuse to start playing “Call of Duty” verbally, escalating what started as a disagreement or a misunderstanding into a holy war with massive collateral damage.

The problem here is that this lack of civility, this absence of open-mindedness, and this departure from decent behavior scales in an enormous way in FOSS: from the new user warmed in the glow of their new-found FOSS enlightenment thinking their first distro is “the Holy Grail,” to some of those who got the ball rolling back in the day and are responsible for the world-altering digital movement in which we now find ourselves.

Most of the time we wrongfully give a pass to $FOSS_ICON because he or she is just “being $FOSS_ICON” when in reality we should be saying, “Seriously?”

“My way or the highway” is not a FOSS tenet. If you think it is, then the four simple words below are for you.

“Populating forums or IRC channels with troll-worthy posts and abusive behavior is clearly OK, and rules don’t apply to me especially when I have made it my sole purpose in life to shut people up who disagree on this insignificant issue.” If you think this way, then the four simple words below are for you.

“My desktop environment/FOSS program/Linux distro is the digital equivalent of perfection, we should all unite behind one (the one I’m using, of course), and if you disagree, you’re a moron.” If you think this way, then the four simple words below are for you.

“Not being mature enough to handle one’s behavior (or, in some cases, urges) in a large group of people, thereby forcing gatherings to enforce elaborate codes of conduct, is normal and acceptable.” If you think this way, then the four simple words below are for you.

There are more examples, but you get the point.

The Fedora Project, in a motto that embraces that distro’s workings and is oft-quoted in discussions, has boiled this concept down to five simple words: “Be excellent to each other.”

I’ve narrowed it down to four simple words: “Don’t be a douche.”

I’ll let you in on a secret, too: Adhering to these words, whether they’re Fedora’s or mine, also works in real life outside the FOSS realm. Don’t take my word for it — try it for yourself.

See you here next week. Agree or disagree, I’ll still be here, and you’re clearly welcome to return.


  1. Eddie G. Eddie G. October 22, 2014

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one! I remember when i first entered the world of Linux…(Fedora….I know…not a “newbie-friendly” distro, but its the first one I saw!) And after walking into the forums asking questions, and being treated like a 2 year old, an alien, a police officer, and a homeless person I can say I’ve learned my lesson. And as much as someone else might not agree with my choices for OS…..desktop environment, preferred browser…office suite etc. I don’t feel it gives them the right to speak in a vulgar and ignorant kind of way! Too many people can “hide” behind anonymity, and feek that just because thee’s no face attached to their comments they can say whaever they choose without having to be civil and polite. THOSE are truly the ignorant “slaves” to their past and their pre-installed prejudices!

  2. Uncle Ed Uncle Ed October 22, 2014

    Larry, I’m with you in wishing that Linus wouldn’t treat people so harshly. It’s relevant to me that he doesn’t hide behind anonymity–he’s right out there saying it and for us to tell him that we don’t like it. He’s also there to tell us he isn’t going to change, though he made some comments that might have been conciliatory in an interview several days ago.

    We also agree in wishing that forum users who add heat to the forums, rather than light, would put their efforts to better use. The anonymity noted allows any writer to ignore that the other writers are human beings. In fact, if you behave in a way I don’t like, I can refer to you as a feminine hygiene product and you can’t do anything about it other than take the conversation farther off the topic of the group.

    The problem with responding to the arguments of the people “trolling,” even rationally and logically, is like the old argument against wrestling with pigs–you both get dirty and the pig likes it. If the person is there to stir up controversy and you respond, she/he has won. That’s a hard concept to accept, certainly for me. That person is WRONG and I want to come back with something so perceptive and incisive and powerful the person runs whimpering from the room. But it won’t work and my head is totally aware of it.

    So it looks like self-control and concentrating on staying on the topic of the forum is the order of the day for me. That isn’t easy. As a crutch, I’ve simply filtered the messages from certain people straight into the trash so I don’t see them.

    Everybody: be good to others.

  3. Rev Tim Lovejoy Rev Tim Lovejoy October 22, 2014

    > then the four simple words below are for you.

    “Don’t be a douche.”

    Oh yeah… well F@^&@ You!!
    Wow, that really went bad fast, didnt it?
    I keed, I keed.

    have you thought about making up a FossForce shirt with that emblazoned on it? id wear it at the next conference I attend.

    bottom line, there are a lot of a-holes in the world, not just in tech or even specifically FLOSS. the same problem you speak off is prevalent in a few of the other communities Im part of which arent tech related. and anonimity is great but it makes for courageous keyboard warriors so I dont think there is much tech solution to this.
    i know why not having anonimity would make for a bit better discourse (i do have Facebook and Twitter accounts which dont have my identity so even that system isnt great) but I wouldnt trade it in. and having followed Yahoo sports over the past few years (i used to follow the Basketball Jones podcast guy who had a basketball column there and a soccer blogger who hit the bigtime by being bought by Yahoo ) and trust me the virulence of the comments and vendettas against bloggers was truly sickening. there was this Chase guy who I think covered tennis or something who had scores of people badmouthing him along with whichever blogger they were commenting on. I remember the MMA blogger was a female and the abuse was constant not only about her lack of knowledge in this mold: “You dont know a thing about MMA, you should just die” and almost all were spiced up about her comments about her saggy breasts.
    And this was Yahoo. So the scorn was just US based.
    I can name other types of forums and blogs where its just as bad (and surprisingly the sexy girls with their breasts showing blogs are surprisingly tame) and this is NOT a FLOSS problem but a societal and web problem.

    And to be honest those douches arent as creepy as the guys who stay for long periods of times on sites like Pogson’s and Roy Schestowitz to contradict everything they say. The asshat who comes here to say you suck sort of comes in one ear but to have someone go to your posts every day for months on end and they obviously dont agree (politely of course) seems kind of obsessive crazy.

    i know im gonna sound like an old fart but gawd! there used to be some great USENET flamewars so I cant lie and say that I hvent been amused by douchebaggery.

  4. arjaybe arjaybe October 23, 2014

    “Don’t be a douche” has the advantage of using fewer words, but “Be excellent to each other” wins because it’s positive instead of negative. It suggests what to do rather than just saying “don’t.”

    They are both good, though.


  5. ab ab October 23, 2014

    Maybe FOSS needs a new definition; how about “Friendly – Objective – Smart – Safe.”

  6. GNUguy GNUguy October 23, 2014

    Spot on, Larry.

    As others here have related, when I was starting out with FOSS I also experienced some of that abusive attitude to which you refer. We all probably did. But thankfully, there were more positive, mature people out there to encourage and support us. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

    The people who suffer from interminable attitude problems (typically caused by a cranial-rectal inversion) disappear over time. The ones who truly care remain. We keep getting better.

    And, as evidenced by the ATO, we keep attracting more interest.

  7. es es October 23, 2014

    I completely agree. I love Linux but the community surrounding Linux is extremely hateful. All it takes is a simple top ten Linux Distros article for an all out flame war.

Comments are closed.

Breaking News: