Open source 'community' doesn't exist

Graham Morrison
Graham Morrison is reviews editor on Linux Format

Many users, forums and magazines like to speak of the open source community.

It's the glue that holds free software together. Without it, we're told, there would be no open source, no Linux and therefore no future.

Books have been written about nurturing it. Websites thrive on serving it, and its chambers are the first port of call for many a lost Linux user. But community is a double-edged sword.

For each of the hundreds of individuals who have made contributions to the Linux kernel, there are endless posts, comments and rebuttals. For every person who writes a message of help and encouragement, there are more who prefer to berate and belittle users who don't fit their expectations of what a community should be.

Unfortunately, this is a sub-culture that won't go away. The result is that there's no real community, and this is because 'community' is too loose a term to describe the many different kinds of people who use open source software.

It's a word that may help the open source propaganda machine, but it doesn't help the sustainability and growth of free software. There is no such thing as a single, homogeneous Linux group.

It's a term that implies a shared goal and some kind of kinship, when there is none. It's a term that implies cooperation and cohesion, when there's just too much conflict and disagreement for this to happen.

Instead, there are disparate groups of individuals, businesses and enterprises, as with any other operating system.

Each group may contain those noble elements of kindness that have helped to make Linux such a success, but to describe the entire collection as a community is wrong.

Flock of starlings

There's a certain group of users, for example, that behaves like an immense flock of starlings at dusk. Its members fly with seemingly random abandon, casting their malevolent shadow over social networks, online forums, advocacy sites and blogs as they move together.

There's no obvious leader or motivation in their movement. Their language is filled with RTFM, STFW and LART, and it has much in common with the partisan chatter of the 1980s computing era.

It feels more like 'C64 versus Spectrum' and 'Atari ST versus Amiga' than the furtherance of an open source operating system.

This might be news to Windows, OS X and general PC users, who thought his kind of thing disappeared years ago. To see an example, just ask a simple question on almost any Linux forum or, even worse, dare to state your opinion.

What's interesting is that there seems to be a parallel between new research into how birds flock together and how this demographic of Linux users behaves. This might sound crazy, but a paper published by researchers in the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis at York University suggested that birds react only to the seven others closest to them and limit their processing to a very limited set of information, such as the position and heading of those birds.

No real community

The flock is a community in appearance only, which would help to explain the occasional headless, and heedless, behaviour of open source commentators when they descend upon a subject, post or point of view.

Linux seems to have more than its fair share of zealots, and I think this is for two reasons. Firstly, many of its original users chose Linux because they were anti-something.

Early on, Linux was an island for the disenfranchised. Whether this was against competition, the price of software or the uniformity in the industry, starting on such a negative footing was never going to be productive.

Secondly, as an underdog, Linux needs vocal supporters, and those who shout the loudest are going to get heard. This has left us with the fragmented group of users we have now.

To become more cohesive, this non-community needs to tolerate different opinions. It needs to be able to take criticism without resorting to fanaticism. And it needs to change its attitude towards new users and the direction Linux is going in. If someone can't respond positively, maybe they shouldn't respond at all.

New users, alongside potential users, are the most vital group if we want Linux to grow, and its stagnation over the last few years is evidence that the current strategy isn't working. Open source needs to return to the concept of nurturing inclusion and passionate users.

Only then will it become a viable alternative to the increasingly locked-down world of its rivals. And only then will the various flocks of migratory communities settle on some rock and finally make a difference.