‘Personality Cults’ and the Open Source Channel
How important are “cults of personality” in the open source channel? According to one contributor to the open source KDE desktop, they matter a lot — and maybe too much. But do loudly voiced demagogues really dictate the decisions of open source users and developers? I think not. Here’s why.
In a well-written and thoughtful blog post, Aaron Seigo, a Canadian contributor to the KDE project now based in Switzerland, makes the case that “Free software has a history of creating and supporting cults of personality.” He takes as a recent example the attention that Linux kernel founder and developer Linus Torvalds garnered through recent posts on his personal Google+ account about open source desktop interfaces.
Seigo rightly notes that Torvalds, as one of the world’s best known and most respected open source developers, makes a big splash even when he comments on topics that are outside his area of expertise. He may be able to offer expert opinions on kernel development, but when it comes to desktop environments, Torvalds is no more or less qualified to make evaluations than any other ordinary user. Yet a lot of people listened when Torvalds spoke publicly about desktop interfaces.
That, according to Seigo, is a reflection of the tendency of the open source community to respond perhaps more than it should to large personalities.
Measuring Cults of Personality
Without a doubt, the open source world has seen its share of seemingly larger than life figures. Besides Torvalds, Richard Stallman or Mark Shuttleworth are other key examples that come to mind. All of these individuals have exerted huge amounts of influence within a community that for the most part lacks centralized leadership — which is, perhaps, why open source users listen to people such as Torvalds so intently in the first place: They are eager for any kind of authority.
But I would argue that the opinions of people like Stallman, Shuttleworth and Torvalds don’t unilaterally dictate the decisions of open source users and developers as much as Seigo suggests. Torvalds’s thoughts on desktop interfaces might have generated a lot of debate, but there’s no evidence that they inspired masses of users to switch to a different environment, or caused developers to tailor their code according to Torvalds’s critiques. In other words, Torvalds generated a lot of discussion, but no one bowed down to worship his opinions.
And sometimes, association with a major figure in the open source world can even be negative. While Stallman has plenty of committed followers, a lot of more sober members of the open source community tend to write him off as a radical ideologue pursuing goals that will never be practical. Meanwhile, Shuttleworth’s history of offending women and making bold promises about Ubuntu that haven’t always held up to reality have made him something less than a messianic figure, even if people do often listen intently to what he has to say.
It’s consequently hard to make the case that any individual in the open source channel sits at the center of a “cult of personality.” Sure, there are some well-known figures, and community members may pay close attention to what they have to say even when they have no technical expertise on the topic in question — just as a statement by Barack Obama on baking pumpkin muffins might spawn a lot of discussion. But that doesn’t mean open source users or developers are especially susceptible to following advice blindly.