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A Funny Thing Happened in the Shuttleworth Forum

A Funny Thing Happened in the Shuttleworth Forum

What was especially interesting about a recent conversation Mark Shuttleworth started with musings about tribalism and treating people with respect was the turn it took when blogger Mairin Duffy steered it in the direction of the "Great Sexism Debate," in which Shuttleworth's unfortunate remarks about women at LinuxCon played an incendiary role. "Did you ever end up apologizing?" Duffy asked.

By Katherine Noyes
08/09/10 5:00 AM PT

Sometimes, what starts out as a simple conversation on the Linux blogs can lead to a momentous event.

To wit: Mark Shuttleworth's recent treatise on "tribalism," which appeared on his blog late last month.

"Tribalism is when one group of people start to think people from another group are 'wrong by default,'" Shuttleworth wrote. "It's the great-granddaddy of racism and sexism."

'No Need to Get Into a Squabble'

The most dangerous kind of tribalism, Shuttleworth added, "is completely invisible: it has nothing to do with someone's 'birth tribe' and everything to do with their affiliations: where they work, which sports team they support, which linux distribution they love."

Focusing specifically on Canonical's own distro, "do not be drawn into a tribal argument on Ubuntu's behalf," Shuttleworth urged. "There is no need to get into a playground squabble about your values, your ethics, your capabilities or your contribution."

The topic clearly hit home for many FOSS fans: Nearly 170 comments had greeted Shuttleworth's musings on his blog by Friday, followed by more than 650 on Slashdot.

'Did You Ever End Up Apologizing?'

What was especially interesting about the conversation, however, was not so much the run-of-the mill comments agreeing or disagreeing with Shuttleworth's points. Rather, it was the turn it took when blogger Mairin Duffy steered the conversation in the direction of the "Great Sexism Debate," in which Shuttleworth's unfortunate remarks about women at LinuxCon last fall played an incendiary role.

Responding to Shuttleworth's assertion that "one of the key values we hold in the Ubuntu project is that we expect everyone associated with Ubuntu to treat people with respect," Duffy wrote, "That's cool. Did you ever end up apologizing?"

(Hint for those who don't remember: Shuttleworth never did.)

'I Apologize Unreservedly'

"It's certainly easier to preach the advantages of mutual respect when you yourself have been slighted -- a little more difficult when you discover you've delivered a slight," Duffy added. "The medium is the message, and the message would be more inspiring if its author exemplified it in both directions."

The result? Drumroll please... Shuttleworth apologized.

"True," he wrote. "I apologize unreservedly to all offended by my poor choice of language on that or other occasions."

A 'Shallow' Argument

There may be a lot to keep track of here on the Linux blogs, but if you stop paying attention for even an instant, you might miss something big!

That, of course, is why Linux Girl is always on duty. Jubilant at what she had just witnessed, she headed down to the Punchy Penguin for some more insight.

"You know an argument is shallow when the person making it compares his opponents to racists and sexists," began Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site. "Is Shuttleworth getting his strategy from Glenn Beck?"

'Worse Than Apple Fanbois'

The simple fact is that "Ubuntu wouldn't even be where it is today if its supporters hadn't been so 'tribal,'" Hudson asserted. "Ubuntu supporters are worse than Apple fanbois in that respect."

RedHat, Novell and IBM "all have other products that add value," Hudson pointed out. "What does Ubuntu have? One day, it's netbooks; the next day it's cloud computing; the next it's servers. Is it tribalism to ask if Shuttleworth and Co. are trying to channel Steve Ballmer?"

In the end, however, "it doesn't matter," she concluded. "It's just the Chief of the Ubuntu Tribe being an old scold :-)"

'A Waste of Time'

Indeed, "I don't believe that it is possible to get all the techies on board this way," Slashdot blogger Daengbo told Linux Girl.

"Tribalism has been a hallmark of the community since Apple I folks were dissing my Tandy Model I," he explained. "From this standpoint, Mark's blog post was a waste of time."

In general, "tribalism is rampant wherever you put a large group of smart people around each other," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined. "I suspect it's mostly unavoidable, and in the end, each side gets to prove their point by making a better product than the other."

On the upside, "this is very motivating for techs, and I think in some ways it's a good thing if it doesn't get out of hand," Mack said.

Of course, "if you think it's bad now, you should have seen the old Amiga vs Apple vs PC days," he added.

'Tribalism Is Mostly Noise'

"I don't know if it exists any more or less than around any $computerOS, or $cpuCHIP or $digitalCamera, etc.," Slashdot blogger yagu offered. "That said, it is counterproductive and contrary to Linux's health and public perception."

Linux's disadvantage is that "there are so many choices and distros, while Microsoft and Apple front one and only one offering," yagu explained. "Unfortunately, fanboy and tribal mentality pits Linux against Linux, when a more measured and sane world view should direct their angst Microsoft and Apple's way."

In the end, though, "tribalism is mostly noise," yagu concluded. "My experience is that real Linux connoisseurs ignore that noise."

'Part of Being Human'

Tribalism is "part of being human: me, my family, my friends, my community, my tribe," blogger Robert Pogson opined. "That kind of thing is part of what we are. It's a good thing when it helps us improve the tribe; it's a bad thing when it involves attacking another tribe over them being who they are."

People often work harder and for longer if what they're doing affects more than just themselves, Pogson pointed out. "Tribalism is one mechanism to build that spirit."

Those in the FOSS community "are in a long struggle with those who would take over our computers like malware and who would force us to work for another tribe -- Wintel -- against our conscious choice," he noted. "We need every support to continue and to win that struggle. A lot has been done, but we are only halfway there."

In short, Pogson concluded, "if we can use tribalism for the good things it involves, we are more sure of surviving and thriving."


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