When support becomes sabotage

Enthusiasm for a cause is all very well. Taking it too far can do more harm than good.
Written by Leader , Contributor

As any technology journalist knows, the best way to attract attention is to write something critical about Linux. The operating system — as well as free and open source software in general — has an enormous body of adherents; it wouldn't have survived, let alone prospered, otherwise. Most of these are sensible people who behave in a civilised and professional manner, but some let their enthusiasm fire a crusading manner that wouldn't shame an axe-wielding maniac driven by imaginary voices. Others find themselves in positions of authority due to the success of something they've produced, and take the opportunity to be insufferably rude to anyone they consider too stupid to properly understand their wonderfulness — that is, most of us. When a question provokes a reply of 'Just how stupid is that?', you don't come back.

The damage that zealotry and arrogance causes is significant. It lends considerable ammunition to the other side, who can point to examples of foaming invective or snotty support forums and ask 'do you really want these people writing your software?'. Some examples of rabid intolerance are so unnerving one is tempted to suspect agents provocateurs at work, were it not for the sheer inadvisability of accusing vocal Linux supporters of being paid shills.

Of course, religious devotion to the cause can be found in all walks of IT. Anyone who has worked in technical support for a commercial product will know how virulent opinions can be about users, software, managers and even harmless journalists. But that's behind the scenes: when the salary depends on behaving with respect towards others then that's what happens, at least in public.

Some situations require a passionate response; there are times when a clear-minded, coherent yell of outrage is needed to counteract shameless nonsense. But these are uncommon; it's certainly not a good idea to respond to errors of fact or unwelcome opinion with bluster and invective. That unwelcome opinion may in fact be well-founded, and batting it away denies an opportunity for improvement. And if it's just idiotic, then it never hurts to behave better than an idiot.

Free and open source software deserves respect from everyone, and that includes those involved in creating and supporting it. That respect involves taking criticism soberly, moderating emotions and considering whether actions are worse than their provocation. Anything less runs the risk of doing more damage than the competition can manage unaided. In the words of one of our more ardent Linuxophile readers: just how stupid is that?

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