Linux Elitism: Fact or Fiction?

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).

Elitists Abound

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.

Different Rules

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.

The Disconnect

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.”


  • You ignore how much users have to modify the registry in Windows, or use command-line commands in Windows (ever hear of robocopy?) Then there is the matter of starting and stopping services in Windows, as well.

    Yes, you can avoid doing Windows maintenance, but that is why 80% of Windows computers have viruses and worms — people can’t usually get past the GUI.

    A Kubuntu/Ubuntu user can live the same way as a Windows user — never having to leave the GUI.

    You are describing a Linux power user, not the mom and pop or new student who wants the same simple functions as they want in Windows (web browsing, chatting, open office apps). It’s not much idfferent for those users with Kubuntu and Windows, for example.

    But to tweak a system is far easier in Linux than Windows, and the ability to do things in the command line is faster and more transparent than having to sift through registry code.

    You will always hear about longtime users that switch from Windows to Linux — have you ever heard of a longtime user switching from Linux to Windows?

    No. Users that take the time to learn both systems stay with Linux.

  • There are some Linux communities that can be considered elitist but I’m pleased to say that a greater number are obviously both friendly and welcoming.

    The main problem is that most real Linux fans are just that fans, they truly passionate about their operating system and why not?

    They chose to change from the default of Microsoft.

    They have probably tried many distributions before finding the one that is perfect for them.

    Confused beginners who are finding things a bit too different can find this passion a bit daunting and can be left with the feeling that the community is a closed club for the geeky and nerdy.

    Now, I am frequently in two online communities, specifically aimed at Linux both of which happen to be forums. You will find no trace of ego in either of them, just friendly people from all over the world looking to be helped or willing to give their own time to help out.

    If you don’t believe me have a look at these forums (there are others that I lurk on that are just as welcoming)

    I have never found Linux users to particularly elitist – even the really geeky ones but I have the advantage of being a geek and understanding how geeks communicate.

    • Is not the problem. I understand geeks, but I also understand people want to flip a switch and have the light come on without needing to understand AC current and wire resistance.

      It’s fine to be a fan, it’s even better to not jump on people who say anything positive about Microsoft and call them shills. I like and use Linux, but it’s a tool. I’ve been in IT since 1980. I’ve been an instructor, written courseware and been trainer. I think coming into IT without ever taking a computer class or turning one on before taking a job selling them has stayed with me.

      There are many users that are kind and patient and freely give advise and time without being condescending. Being an OS minority, like Linux and OSX, makes you a bit defensive.

      • Would you make a sweeping generalization about any other group?

        Would you say that in general Muslims are…, Jews are…, Homosexuals are… Americans are… The English are…? I certainly wouldn’t and I hope you wouldn’t yet you are quite happy to make a generalization about Linux users based on the actions of the minority and accuse anyone who has the temerity to disagree with you "defensive". A typically trollish action.

        Yet I am happy to slip a starving troll an occasional meal.

        Most of the Linux community are friendly, open and helpful, asking nothing in return but an open mind towards accepting and learning the differences between the operating systems. Who can blame them for getting frustrated at the attitude of those MS Users who seem to want Linux to be both better and exactly the same as Windows, if you can tell me how they are both possible I’ll be happy for the education, and those who seem to think they were born with the knowledge of how Windows works and forget that they actually had to learn, and then learn again in 1995 and then again in XP and then again with Vista. Especially with Vista!

        I use Linux at home exclusively and I use a mix of Linux and Windows at work. I know which operating system I prefer. Is it right for everybody? Unfortunately no. But it some distributions are a lot closer to a completely user friendly experience than the vested commercial interests would like you to think.

        As to being a minority; on the desktop, which I grant you is what most people think of, Linux certainly is a minority with about 2.3% of desktops running it. That’s around about where Firefox was 5 years ago. On servers, which most people don’t think about, Linux, BSD and other Unixes (Unices?? Unixii??) have the majority. It is easy to get a skewed view when dealing almost exclusively with one or the other!

        It has just occurred to me as I was reading through this to wonder what the proportion of Linux desktops would be if you discounted all the pirated copies of Windows which if you believe Microsoft’s figures is most of China, India and the Asian sub continent along with South America…

        I may not be a great fan of MS, but Visual Studio 2003 is still the best development environment I have ever worked in and the open source developers should learn from it, Netbeans and Komodo in particular are getting there though. Possibly I would consider PDM on OS400 to be a superior development environment to VS2003 but it can’t really be counted as it is in a completely different arena. Unfortunately for Microsoft, their OS peaked IMO with Windows 2000, their development tools peaked with VS2003 and their office tools with Office 2003.

        Since Vista’s release, the number of desktops running Linux has nearly doubled with most new adopters saying that they can’t take Vista any more and want to try the alternative. Some find they don’t like it and go back, some like it and stay. I think at that in the good times, Windows 7, which seems to be getting a quite warm reception in the beta, had an excellent chance of slowing that trend. It will be interesting to see how a paid for (I can’t imagine MS giving it away) OS does in a recession.

        Companies won’t be wanting to spend their money to replace things that are working, where I work we are still on XP and in some cases 2000 and that’s in a successful business with over 15,000 employees! Individuals who are worried about their jobs won’t want to spend their money on a new OS, they will either make do or if they actually care they may try a free alternative. There is still the oem market, but I think that will also be hit by the same factors.

        Whether you’re a Microsoft Shill, a Linux Fanboy or a Mac Using Beardie, there can be no doubt that interesting times lie ahead.

  • The problem with Linux is that there is NO problem with Linux. There are countless of users out there that have experimented with the OS but go back to Microsoft because this perfect OS isn’t flexible enough to deal with an imperfect world.

    In *sharp* contrast… Operating Systems going back to DOS had huge numbers of people pointing out flaws. Many of these flaws were accepted and worked on to improve the system. You didn’t like the default environment – switch to 4DOS. Not enough power utils? Get them easily with the ability to easily capture errorlevels, create colorful menu-based interfaces, set up the environment, load device drivers and more. Edlin sucked? Of course it did so up popped a gazillion replacements.

    One look at what’s available today for Windows just in the area of cli-enhancers or GUI scripting languages point to an OS that has accepted its’ flaws and worked to improve on them. It has become a hackers and tweakers OS as a result. This is what you get when you accept criticism.

    I love Linux but dislike the fact that there are virtually no distros that are able to break away from the mold because of this elitist attitude. Mostly, however, it’s because there are few distro developers that truly understand how to put a system together aside from modifying scripts and adding fancy looking icons.

    So you have 300+ distros that are essentially the same. The same perfect FileSystem, the same perfect Editor, same perfect Monolothic Kernel (geared for new hardware and not the old – with a focus on the server market), same perfect method of installing software and alot more.

    For a system that prides itself on flexibility, it is a flexibility that is apparently built on iron.

  • But general Linux forums are full of people who hammer newbies with CLI clubs, often unnecessarily. In other OS forums people would ask what version etc…Not so in many Linux forums. We are our own worst enemies at driving people off. I saw a user tag at a forum I no longer visit that stated proudly "Linux is ready for prime time but users aren’t". When noobs bitch about the CLI instead of a quick search and then cut paste the link, you get a lecture about all the GUI versions and how the CLI removes that issue.

    All that is true, but you send them sprinting back to Windows and they’ll bad mouth Linux to anyone who listens.

    In another forum I followed a thread for two weeks as a noob was getting killed making Fedora 9 do a multimedia setup. After a couple people suggested that might not be a good first Distro for the purpose, the Fedora user started a second thread asking people not to suggest switching Distros because she found it insulting and demeaning.

    I think Ubuntu is doing so well partially because the community is full of people who don’t see using an OS as a aptitude test. Toss in the many folks with Microsoft Derangement Syndrome who claim the company is just a branch of Satan and we have an image problem.

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