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May 6, 2009
Discussions of Ubuntu with people outside (and sometimes inside) the free-software community often devolve into criticism of Linux advocates as arrogant elitists, endlessly singing the praises of their operating system of choice but frightening away potential new users with their snobbish and intolerant attitudes. This reputation for pretension may be undeserved, but it’s something the Ubuntu community needs to deal with more actively.
The images of proprietary operating systems are carefully molded by corporate PR departments. Apple spends millions of dollars presenting Macs and OS X as the computing platform of fashionable, free-thinking hipsters, while Microsoft has devoted huge sums in the last several years to reconfiguring popular perceptions of Windows as an exciting and customizable operating system. These images may not reflect the reality of Apple and Microsoft’s customer bases very much, but they nonetheless play a vital role in the ability of OS X and Windows to attract (or retain) users.
The free-software community, which lacks a centralized voice and has little money to spend on advertising or market research, does not enjoy the assistance of public-relations professionals to help cultivate a positive image of Linux in the public mind. Perhaps because of this absence of organized self-presentation, more than any actual extant characteristics of Linux users or developers, the world’s most popular free operating system remains plagued by stereotypes that pose a real obstacle to recruitment of new users.
Among the most troubling of these stereotypes is a reputation of Linux users for elitism. Critics of free software complain that an unwillingness to deal with non-expert users is rampant in the free-software community, from support forums to bug trackers to documentation. I’ve known more than one individual who has given up on Linux due to perceptions of hostility towards those trying to make the switch.
There certainly are some elitist Linux users, just as there are elitists in the communities built around Windows, OS X, FreeBSD and every other modern operating system. A lot of documentation is written with the inappropriate assumption that users are comfortable working from the command line, and belittling of new users who pose “stupid questions” occurs from time to time in support forums. But this elitism isn’t representative of a majority of Linux users, especially those of mainstream distributions like Ubuntu.
Most Ubuntu users, in my experience, are decidedly humble and inclusive–which isn’t surprising given that Ubuntu is by far the most popular Linux distribution, making it unelitist by definition. Beyond anecdotal cases, the stereotype of pretension that haunts the Linux community has little basis in fact, beyond perhaps fringe distributions where a high degree of technical expertise is often necessarily expected of users.
To break the stereotype of elitism, the Linux community–or at least the Ubuntu community–needs to work on cultivating an image of friendliness, openness and inclusiveness. The Ubuntu mission is already constructed around these values, but more needs to be done. Documentation should be reviewed to ensure that it’s accessible to all users, regardless of their level of Linux expertise. The Ubuntu forums should be more rigorously policed to prevent belittling of Linux neophytes. And Canonical should invest more resources in developing a coherent and positive public perception of Ubuntu.
A reformed image would go a long way in bringing Linux to the desktops of “normal” computer users. No matter how user-friendly Ubuntu actually is, it will never reach the masses until the masses are convinced that it truly is “Linux for human beings.”
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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