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Shill-Shocked: The Dark Side of Community Discussion

Shill-Shocked: The Dark Side of Community Discussion

When does free speech become a club that actually stifles the free flow of ideas? That's just one potential ramification of the question posed to the FOSS community this week: What makes someone a "shill"? This negative label can come with a pretty sharp sting. Does concern over negative criticism and even ostracism cause some people to keep their good ideas to themselves?

By Katherine Noyes
07/30/09 9:11 AM PT

Name-calling and accusations are nothing new on the Linux blogs, but lately the mud-slinging has become so intense that it seems fair to say a good cleaning is in order, for the walls and floors are covered.

Much of the recent ferocity has sprung up over the seemingly never-ending Mono debate, which we here at LinuxInsider have been covering for weeks now.

Indeed, such was the fever pitch the debate had already reached on that topic by late last month -- particularly after RMS weighed in and Microsoft issued its now-famous promises regarding the technology -- that at least one blogger had already raised the question of whether debates like this one might derail FOSS.

'Faux FLOSS Fundamentalists'

Yet the finger-pointing has only continued to escalate.

Boycott Novell, for example, has incited no end of argument in recent weeks by launching a series of particularly bitter attacks (one, two and three, for example) on individuals, organizations, Web sites and publications over what it claims are Microsoft-funded attempts to make GNU/Linux look bad.

Yes, even our own, beloved Linux Blog Safari came under fire! (Linux Girl's Tux cape got scorched, but otherwise she's still in good spirits, we're happy to report.)

Such was the intensity of some of the accusations, in fact, that David ("Lefty") Schlesinger recently asserted -- after writing his own account of some of the tactics he witnessed -- that there is now a split between the "real FLOSS community" and "Faux FLOSS Fundamentalists."

The 'EMACS Virgins' Joke

Not even RMS has been spared, it appears, following the unfortunate "EMACS Virgins" joke -- considered sexist by some -- that he reportedly made at the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit earlier this month.

No small flurry of shots on both sides followed *that* one, you can believe. A most excellent summary is available on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

Following Microsoft's release of 20,000 lines of code to the Linux kernel, meanwhile, Linus himself spoke out to assert his belief in "technology over politics," going so far even as to tell Linux Magazine, "I think the Microsoft hatred is a disease."

'Faux-pen Source Fundamentalists'

Blogger Jeffrey Stedfast then came up with the term "Faux-pen source fundamentalists" to describe "zealots" who "go around attacking the real FLOSS community members

"These people claim that they are protecting our Freedoms, but they are only trying to become dictators," Stedfast wrote. "They have no interest in Freedom unless it is their own version of Freedom, where they reign as supreme dictator and where anyone who disagrees with them is labeled as a 'shill' or otherwise demonized."

Now, shills, astroturfers and trolls are all topics we here at LinuxInsider have written about before, as faithful readers may recall. But with this recent spate of verbal violence, we thought the topic warranted a closer examination.

Specifically, since the "shill" label seems to be the most common insult flung about during battle, we wanted to hear bloggers' thoughts on what, exactly, makes a "shill"? One would hope it's not simply disagreement with one's own point of view, as sometimes seems to be the case. Conversely, an equally worthwhile question could be, what does it take to be considered truly neutral?

Linux Girl took to the streets of the blogosphere for some answers.

'No Way to Avoid It'

"Regarding being called a shill, or other uncomplimentary names, there is no way to avoid it," asserted Carla Schroder, managing editor for Linux Today and LinuxPlanet and author of books including the Linux Cookbook. "You've probably been criticized and called names by readers even when they agreed with you.

"That one always leaves me scratching my head," Schroder told LinuxInsider. "It's like they want to be mad, no matter what."

All one can do is "deliver your best and make sure you can substantiate whatever you say," Schroder suggested. "It won't matter to the folks who are going to find fault no matter what, but it will matter to the far greater numbers of thoughtful, sensible readers.

"Don't let trolls and hyper-critical people derail you," she added.

'I Have Been Accused'

"I have been accused of being a Microsoft shill occasionally too, mostly because I wrote some papers that Microsoft published on Port 25," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider.

One such paper, for example, focuses on how to use Linux to recover data when Windows crashes.

"The fact, though, is that 90 percent of my efforts are geared towards expanding open source, and most folks accept those efforts for what they are," Travers said.

'Either a Shill or a Moron'

"Very honestly, I don't think it's possible to be neutral AND discuss Microsoft," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean asserted. "I say this as someone who's gone from 'average (Windows) user' to 'newbie Linux user' to 'rabid Free Software zealot' to 'power user of all things computery'.

"I was once a zealot, and I would accuse someone of being either a shill or a moron," Dean told LinuxInsider. "No other possibilities existed."

Within this zealotry, it is still possible to be critical of Linux, Dean noted.

'Suddenly You're a Shill'

"A post such as 'OpenBSD is more secure by default than Linux' is seen by most of them as 'healthy criticism of Linux'," he explained. "But say something like, 'Windows 7 has a better set of default wallpapers than any distro I've seen' and suddenly you're a shill, even though the comment was about *art* and not the operating system itself."

For "rabid" zealots, bolstering Linux is a hobby, Dean added.

"Because they love it, they will ALWAYS come out of the woodwork when you defile their holy kernel," he explained. "Yet for the vast majority of people -- Windows and Mac and non-zealot Linux users -- the article might have been interesting, informative and fun but DOESN'T elicit any kind of response or feedback.

"When you begin to get critical of the number of people calling you a shill, check your traffic and realize that everyone else DIDN'T have that opinion strongly enough to say it," he suggested.

'Technological Evangelism'

In a free community, one is entitled to express one's opinions, blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider.

"One cannot really be considered a member of the FLOSS community while criticizing FLOSS in general as some do, but it may have nothing to do with M$," he explained. "For example, many in the *BSD fold have issues with the GPL but they may have more issues with M$ on the quality of code/bloat/DRM/malware/security."

There's probably no way to know who is paid by Microsoft to push any viewpoint, Pogson added, but "I do know 'technological evangelism' is a cost of doing business for M$, and they manage to spend a good bit of every dollar of revenue on something not related to production of CDs or code."

Nevertheless, "without criticism of specific FLOSS packages, we would have no development of improved packages, a good thing," he noted. "One can file bug reports, suggest wishlist items and contribute code all without being a shill for M$."

'Naivety and Preaching'

Linux users bring much of the trouble upon themselves "with their naivety and preaching," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. "For example: Linux is NOT ready for most home users. Please accept it and move on. But of course that will instantly brand me as a shill, when most will accept the truth in what I wrote."

A real shill, however, "is easy to spot," hairyfeet added.

"With someone being honest, they are simply stating their beliefs," he explained. "You may not agree with them, but often they are trying to point out things they think will make Linux better."

A shill, on the other hand, "will often tout things that are obvious FUD, even if said FUD flies in the face of reality," he asserted. Shills will say things like "'WinME was great!' or 'Vista doesn't have any problems, it is all FUD'," he added, "when the thousands of complaints filling the web prove otherwise."

'Grow Thicker Skin or Back Off'

In the FOSS world, it's "the ability for anyone to join in and help out" that binds programmers and users into a community," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack asserted.

"The result is that when FOSS users feel they are being attacked, they aren't seeing it just as an attack on their choice of software platform," he told LinuxInsider. Rather, "it's an attack on the rewarding feeling they get when they contribute, and they worry that if an attack succeeds they will lose the friends they have made in the community."

Many columnists and bloggers have made the problem worse "either by ignorance or the desire to use controversy to attract readers," Mack added. "If the reporter is trying to just generate page views then that person will simply need to grow thicker skin or back off."

Where to Go from Here?

Of course, it's one thing to protect one's own feelings, but that's by no means all that's at stake here, this columnist would venture to suggest. After all, if even just some small proportion of the FOSS community feels afraid to speak up with even the best-intended criticisms, doesn't everyone lose in the end?

Given the state of affairs of late, in other words, it seems worth asking what can be done to improve the conditions for discourse moving ahead.

Being careful with accuracy and sources are particularly important, Mack suggested. "Quoting people who have a record of being off the mark is not helpful," he noted. "Keep track of how often they are right and wrong and drop them if they are wrong more often."

Of course, if one does come across a true shill, "one can take action by denouncing the shill, reporting fraud if any to authorities, ignoring the shill or exposing the shill if violating a trust," Pogson offered.

'Keeping It Positive'

It's also essential to make sure that any criticism is directed where it should be, Mack added. "Complaining about Linux kernel developers not writing enough drivers isn't fair to the kernel developers," for example. "The blame is most often with the hardware manufacturers who refuse to release specs for their hardware," he said.

Admitting any mistakes is important too, as is "keeping it positive," he added: "'Linux sucks because ...' is not nearly as helpful as 'Linux would be better if' ..."

'Gnats and Mosquitoes'

To avoid being sidetracked, it's important to focus on the right audience, Schroder cautioned.

"A wise woman -- Valerie Aurora -- once answered the question, 'how do I handle an unpleasant person who gives me a hard time in meetings and during presentations?'" Schroder explained. "Her advice -- paraphrased here -- was to address the people who are listening and thinking, rather than trying to change the mind of someone who is determined to be a pissant, or getting sucked into an unproductive, pointless argument.

"The same tactic applies online," Schroder suggested. "Don't worry about the gnats and mosquitoes --just apply repellant and focus your attention on the much greater numbers of readers who are listening and taking you seriously."

'A Little Kindness Never Killed Anyone'

Ultimately, the best thing Linux users on forums can do is "be gentlemen and gentlewomen about differing opinions," hairyfeet opined. "If someone is explaining why they are having trouble or what went wrong, don't scream 'FUD' or 'shill!' -- just listen. If you don't agree, fine -- point out why, in a clear but courteous manner."

It's also important to be "just as quick to condemn the Linux trolls as the Windows ones," hairyfeet added. "There is nothing more irritating than trying to get help for a Linux problem and then getting 'that' guy. You know the one -- the guy that writes M$ all over everything or uses phrases like 'LOL Lexbark! LOL Windblowz!'."

Nothing will "turn off someone trying to switch like running into 'that' guy on your forum," he explained. "He makes the entire Linux community look like 14-year-olds in their basements, just like the 'Lunix Suxorz!' clown makes Windows users sound like beer-swilling morons.

"Civility is not a bad word, and nobody likes trolls except 4Chan," hairyfeet concluded. "A little kindness never killed anyone, as my grandmother always said."


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