Linux Desktop Flamewars: Is the News Media Too Negative?

Posted by tuxchick on Aug 22, 2011 4:57 PM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Carla Schroder
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LXer Feature: 22-Aug-2011

Is the tech press too focused on negativity, to the detriment of the FOSS community? I don't know how he does it, but Bruce Byfield writes calm, thoughtful, lengthy articles that somehow ignite mad passions and flamefests. In his latest piece he discusses some of KDE4 developer Aaron Seigo's thoughts that the tech press presents an unbalanced, negative perspective, and sparks yet another round of heated discussions. So what's going on here?

Mr. Byfield wrote The GNOME 3 Meltdown (he is not responsible for the sensationalistic headline) and then followed it up with I've got some good news and some bad news. The GNOME piece discusses the reactions to GNOME 3, including Linus' famous snark, and the growing gap between users and developers. The second article reviews a discussion between Bruce and Aaron Seigo, in which Mr. Seigo claims that the tech press is too focused on the negative, and overlooks positive events. I invite you to read both articles as they are quite good. In the second article Mr. Byfield writes:

Quoting:"Seigo begins by asking, "Is it useful to spend time concentrating on the negatives in FOSS when we have not only a tremendous number of positive events occurring but many detractors who are willing to do the negativity thing for us? Why do we reward failure and negative reactions with press coverage when thriving and positive efforts struggle for valuable attention?...

"Seigo continues, "This lack of balance is frustrating and demoralizing to our community. I spent a lot of time at the Desktop Summit listening to and talking with people who were struggling with this.""


These are two broad, sweeping generalizations. I mistrust broad, sweeping generalizations. Is the tech press too unbalanced towards the negative? One quick way to check is to do Web searches on "KDE4" and "Gnome 3." I found very few negative stories for either one in the first five pages of results. Most of them were positive, including this gem by Sam Varghese, who thinks the criticisms of GNOME 3 are over-the-top:

Quoting:"After having finally taken a look at it yesterday - I looked at the Fedora and openSUSE live CDs - I'm beginning to wonder whether there is something seriously wrong with the FOSS community."


It seems to me that Mr. Seigo is lumping news and reviews together with reader and user comments. They are not the same. He also appears to suggest that tech journalists should be careful and constructive with criticisms:

Quoting:"It's not that Seigo wants FOSS media to avoid criticism. But he does suggest that criticism should be offered in "ways in which one can acknowledge a situation that gives various people a doorway through which to step" (that is, a way that doesn't make people defensive and maybe suggests constructive solutions)."


Um. No. That is not the job of tech reporters. Journalists are neither cheerleaders nor advocates. The job of a tech reporter is to be as informed, honest and fair as possible. Our first obligation is to our readers. FOSS users are smart and can spot nonsense and hypocrisy a mile away, and once a journalist compromises his or her credibility it's a long haul to get it back.

Unearned Sense of Entitlement

Mr. Byfield, in The GNOME 3 Meltdown, has some useful insights on where user unhappiness and complaints come from:

Quoting:"Today, free software is more popular than ever, but that does not mean that most users have a clear sense of the purposes and traditions behind the software they are using...Overlooking the fact that they have not paid for their software, they continue to act as though they have, becoming indignant and impatient over every problem and every delay in fixing it..."

"This sense of entitlement, unsurprisingly, runs directly contrary to the developers' belief in meritocracy. When users assume they have the right to complain simply because they are using the software, developers see them as bike-shedders, wasting developers' time and assuming privileges that they have not earned through contributions and experience..."


I've encountered the users-are-nuisances attitude many times, and it is true that some people are just plain obnoxious. Most projects have formal channels for bug reports, wish lists, and feedback, so users who really want to help know to use these. But this is not the core of the problem-- the reality is we're going to continue to experience a large and steady flow of users new to Linux and FOSS for years to come, so wise project leaders understand that they are going to have to continually educate new users for years to come.

As for this "sense of entitlement", which is a favorite dismissal of user complaints, of course we have a sense of entitlement-- who the heck are developers writing software for? The KDE4 and GNOME teams in particular are famous for dismissing users who they like to brand as not contributors. This is a deadly attitude that does a project no good. Every bit of user feedback is a contribution. It's information, it's data that should be collected and analyzed. But it seems that KDE4 and GNOME are not interested in the experiences of their actual users, except perhaps the ones who offer unquestioning praise. Both GNOME 3 and KDE4 are top-down projects, and users are not part of the design and planning. It's self-defeating to not invite users to participate from the beginning, to not craft a roadmap based on actual user needs and experiences. It's even more self-defeating to treat users as nuisances, and then somehow expect them to magically become contributors. How many times must you kick a dog before it loves you?

If users must pass some sort of contributor test in order to have a say, then what level of contributor is acceptable? Many experienced Linux users contribute to multiple projects-- money, bug reports, documentation, helping new users, artwork, code-- should they be considered as contributors only to projects they directly support? How should they be identified, should we have worthiness tests and badges?

It is asking for big trouble to force radical changes on users. (Duh!) The migration from GNOME 1.4 to 2.0 was needlessly painful, with 1.4 unceremoniously abandoned long before 2.x was usable. It never did achieve the wonderful flexibility and power of 1.4. This lesson was also lost on the KDE4 team, who dropped KDE3 just as carelessly. It's hard to believe that anyone would be surprised that taking away something that users love and rely on would create great unhappiness and criticism. Forced change doesn't work any better in FOSS than it does in the proprietary software world. Generally speaking FOSS development follows two tracks: a stable release for reliable production use, and alpha and beta releases for user testing. It's rather naively self-centered to act like your own project is the only one users should care about, and to try to force your entire user base to be alpha and beta testers.

Ingo Molnar posted a wonderful comment on this that should be required reading for everyone in FOSS:

Quoting:"I think what the KDE4 and Gnome3 folks are doing is that they have picked Apple (and to a lesser degree, Google) UI products as their role model.

"That in itself is not a problem (at all) - the problem as I see it is that they tried to achieve this by mimicking Apple products, instead of implementing a high quality UI development process.

"We should realize that our future OSS developers are sitting in front of the device they are using, most of them are at most 100-200 msecs away from a server that the developers are using - they only have to be engaged intelligently ..."


Civility

We should mind our manners. Insults and name-calling don't win people over and don't solve problems. KDE and Gnome developers are targeted the most because of their popularity, and because user interfaces affect everything we do on a computer. And yet what is worse-- criticizing a problem rudely, or treating users with careless disregard? That doesn't win people over either. LXer regular Skelband notes that:

Quoting:...if you contribute work for a software eco-system like KDE or GNOME, you also take on a mantle of social responsibility. What you do affects thousands, maybe millions of people. That is not something you do lightly.


Mr. Molnar notes that when the Gnome team migrated to Git it was handled differently:

Quoting:"When they migrated to Git two years ago they took elaborate steps to ensure the quality of the end result to those hundreds of top contributors...

"...they first raised the issue, then they voted, then they migrated very, very carefully, in parallel, ensuring that the "switch" is as painless as possible to everyone effected....

"So, considering that example, should the migration of literally millions of people's Gnome UI workflows not be done equally carefully, with sensibilities to what affected people's opinion is?"


So when it came to coddling developers no effort was spared, which reinforces the idea that users don't matter.

Blame the Messenger

For the most part the coverage of Unity, Gnome 3, and KDE4 has been positive, focusing on features and howtos. Negative stories are mainly of the "some users hate it" variety, which is not the same as a negative review. The great majority of negative commentary is in reader and user feedback. In my occasionally-humble opinion, if there is a problem here it's not in the media coverage.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Good analysis montezuma 0 621 Nov 17, 2011 6:20 PM
harmful criticism mbaehrlxer 16 820 Sep 27, 2011 12:44 PM
For some yes. usacomputertec 3 681 Sep 26, 2011 7:46 PM
Disconnect skelband 2 961 Aug 25, 2011 6:59 AM
Proper Assignment of the Blame Warranted? vainrveenr 5 1,268 Aug 24, 2011 9:50 PM
Blame stefragre 0 835 Aug 23, 2011 4:05 PM

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