Linux Elitism: Fact or Fiction?
Newcomers to open source software might be intimidated by the insider nature of the communities, but they shouldn't mistake that for elitism, writes LinuxInsider columnist Jeremiah T. Gray. Stick with it, and the benefits will become clear, he advises.
01/16/09 4:00 AM PT
For users reared on GUI-oriented commercial operating systems, switching to open source POSIX-type OSes can be an onerous task. Whereas Linux, and FOSS in general, are built around the ideas of inclusion and sharing, the communities built up around the open source operating systems often face accusations of exclusive techno-elitism. Although there are assuredly a few smug members within the various FOSS communities and although shell fluency is more complex than simple commercial OS GUI administration, the scurrilous accusations of perceived superiority among open source communities and their members amount to little more than sour grapes.
In the tech world, communities are defined by their staunchest advocates. For instance, Apple is well-known for sexy and sleek designs. Apple fanboys will often list physical attributes as key features of the products they vociferously defend (and you can hardly blame them for being turned on by the look and feel; multi-national corporations need defending from consumers like the Yellow River needs more toxic chemicals).
Apple makes flashy gadgets, and it gets a certain amount of cachet from the more fashionable segments of the tech world. Similarly but completely different, Microsoft finds its biggest fans by pandering to the obtuse. After Apple ran an ad campaign making fun of John Hodgman for "[being] a PC," Microsoft based its self-deprecating ad campaign on Apple's and recruited its defenders to make low-resolution videos of themselves declaring themselves PCs.
Both Apple and Microsoft have elitists in their ranks. Some of the elitists are loyal consumers and others are, or have been, top executives. Although these strident supporters will get into debates with each other or even with members of open source communities, they're never accused of being the reason their platform of choice isn't universal.
The rules are different for open source operating systems, however, in part for good reason. First of all, open source POSIX-oriented operating systems tend to bring out a different crowd. For an amusing look at what unites Linux users, for instance, compare the search terms and results here to the search terms and results here.
Rather than being guided by the fashionable elegance of iPhones or the status quo of Windows, many champions of Free and Open Source Software base their usage and support on philosophical reasoning. Considering the history of the GNU Project, it should be no surprise that one can find ideological purists in the ranks of FOSS users (some who would doubtlessly object to my use of the term "FOSS"). The purists who identify with free software and its guiding principles are no more of a threat to the open source movement than Apple fanboys are a threat to Apple's profits. The difference is purely aesthetic.
So why do some newcomers walk away from Linux/BSD decrying open source operating systems and calling the community members highfalutin? Mostly because they failed to work through what Seth Godin identifies as "The Dip" and proceed to misconstrue community values and attitudes. To experience the best things Linux/BSD have to offer, users must reorient themselves and learn to think about computing a little differently. For a user accustomed to GUIs, the command line can seem daunting and trivial, but after becoming more familiar, the user will recognize that the command line interface is an elegant, if not zen-like experience. The same goes for building software from source. So what the wounded newcomers sometimes interpret as condescension is actually more along the lines of teaching someone to ride a bicycle. It's not difficult to do, but it can only be done if the rider pushes through the initial doubt and confusion in order to experience the benefits.
Most open source enthusiasts want more people to embrace Free and Open Source Software solutions, but just like how the style of products is important to Apple aficionados, familiarity with the terminal and an appreciation of the under-the-hood mechanics matter to the FOSS lovers. That said, FOSS has an added element absent from the corporate-backed technologies. Whereas fans of products made by rather large businesses need to appeal in aggregate (or focus groups) to get noticed in the product design process, FOSS is a free-for-all. Anyone is free to bring anything to the table. While a lot of folks may get corporate logo tattoos and/or pontificate about what such-and-such company did right or wrong, few of them will ever have any actual input. On the other hand, if Joe Sixpack wants to make his own Linux- or BSD-based operating system with his own logo and software, he's free to do that. FOSS is based on empowerment and the appreciation of empowerment, and with empowerment comes responsibility.
Perhaps this is what the naysayers find objectionable.
Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, "Hackett and Bankwell."