What the Linux CoC tells us about FOSS in 2018

It turns out that the rumours about impending doom are false. I have left my bunker today and it appears that the sky has not yet fallen, and that the world as we know it still exists. And yet, the unthinkable has happened: Linus Torvalds apologized for his behaviour, and has even decided to take time off in order to improve it. And a controversial (?) Code of Conduct has been adopted.

I do not want to defend or attack this decision in this post (although, for the record, I would certainly defend it). What I want to talk about is how the FOSS world has changed in the last fifteen years or so, and why I think this happened.

FOSS: The Way We Were

My earliest memories about FOSS date from around 2000-2001 or so. I was using Windows at the time. I was a kid with a lot of free time and future-minded parents who did their best to appease my hunger for everything computer-related by sponsoring my daily incursions in cyberspace at the local Internet Cafe.

Many FOSS communities were very different back then. And many tech communities, regardless of their favourite license, were very different.

Now, I want to clear one thing up from the very beginning: there is no single “FOSS community”. The culture and behaviour of, say, the FreeBSD community were quite different from those of the Debian Linux community, despite the two being contemporary, and more or less the same type of project.

But many of these communities had one thing in common: people passionate about programming and computers, and to some degree, we were all misfits.

Not the way a trans person is a misfit in 2018, but many of us shared some of the same plights. Loneliness, estrangement, derogatory comments from our peers and parents.

You have to understand that this was at a time when computers were not cool yet. The Big Bang Theory would have been a flop back then because everyone already laughed at nerdy youths. A comedy involving such people seemed to miss the point a little; one that portrayed them as human and kind would not have met much success among teenagers.

This made some communities more tolerant of some misfits; when you already welcomed so many misfits, why not welcome another one?

In my case – I was frequenting the forums, mailing lists and IRC channels of  people interested in security, programming and Unices – it was not too hard to think along these lines. Almost everyone I knew and whose code I envied held people like Kirk McKusick in very high regard. It seemed pretty obvious to us that being mean to someone just because they were gay (or trans, or black, or a woman, or in any way different from you) was stupid – there was this openly gay guy who could outprogram any of us while hungover.

When I joined my first FOSS project, a completely abortive attempt to write a first-person shooter whose storyline was such an obvious ripoff after The Matrix that it wasn’t even funny, there was no “clash” of cultures, even though we were all very different people.

This extended, to a fair degree, to communities outside the FOSS world. I particularly remember a small Amiga community from whose members I learned all I wanted to know about sex reassignment surgery and more than I ever needed to know about 68K assembly.

Now, there is a particularly hypocritical camp in this debate about codes of conduct, which I will refer to as the BUT-BUT-BUT-FREE-SPEECH community, for lack of a better term. These people will look at memories like mine above and point out that “the FOSS community” is already extremely tolerant and inclusive, so it does not need codes of conduct, and CoCs do nothing but stifle free speech, which is what SJW types are really after. This is stupid and hypocritical in many ways, but it fails to account for two important things: one, it’s not 2001 anymore, and two, the Internet “in general” wasn’t more welcoming back then, either.

FOSS:  How it Changed

It ain’t 2001 anymore. Back then, drunk frat bros would generally make fun of people wearing glasses. Today, they try to persuade them to join their startups (this is highly stereotypical and not completely accurate, but I think the point does get across).

This field became cool to a lot of people who are way more in touch with what’s cool and what’s not. It attracted way more money, and the kind of people who value money above all else along with it. The nerdy look became the casual chic of the 2010s.

Where FOSS is concerned, it also brought something new to the table: large companies, with HR departments and expectations of professionalism. Contributing to FOSS in your spare time carried no expectations, and you weren’t forced to deal with assholes and take abuse from them. Contributing to FOSS on your employer’s time is a different story.

And even if it weren’t, the “romantic age” of the Internet wasn’t some tolerant utopia. This was also a time when openly racist people didn’t need to subtly play the alt-right card on Facebook because openly racist forums or USENET groups were in plain sight.

Now, because programming and tech weren’t that cool yet, most horrendously backwards people weren’t on the Internet yet, and if they went online, they rarely cared about nerd congregations like freebsd-hackers. But don’t think that the people who were interested in these topics were all super-tolerant folks who lived next door to an openly gay couple and were on best terms with them.

And it wasn’t diverse. If the level of tolerance is debatable, diversity is really easy to figure out: it was a lot less diverse than today. Computers were expensive things to have. Taking them online was even more expensive. Many of my friends didn’t have computers; quite a few of them couldn’t afford one. For those who lived in poor, fringe communities, the Internet came much later.

Many communities had “community guidelines” then, too, but they largely amounted to “be nice” (which the BUT-BUT-BUT-FREE-SPEECH camp always points out). They didn’t need to spell out things like “don’t insult people based on their gender”. That worked partly because so many of us were well aware of how painful it was to be bullied, mocked and insulted and we didn’t want to inflict it upon others.

But it mostly worked because, in most communities, people rarely had to get out of their comfort zones and talk and be nice to people of other races or sexual orientations.

What These Days Say About Us

So where are we today? What changed so radically?

More people than ever want to be part of these communities. When communities failed to be inclusive fifteen, twenty years ago, very few people noticed, because very few people cared in the first place. Contributing to a FOSS project was good to have on a CV, but you had to explain what that was to everyone, even the programmers at times. Today, there are HR departments that won’t even look at your CV if you don’t have a Github page on it.

More people than ever need to be part of these communities, and not necessarily of their own accord. Fifteen years ago, in many projects, there was no expectation of “professionalism”. It was stuff we wrote in our spare time, it was unprofessional in the very basic sense of the word. For example, QEMU, a critical piece of infrastructure today, was a hobby project back then. A “professional” tone was usually associated with the stuff you do at work. Many of us spent our evenings engulfed in the computer world precisely in order to forget about work.

Obviously, there were exceptions. FreeBSD, for example, had many commercial deployments, and many of the people involved in it were respected professionals who had a thoroughly professional attitude and used FreeBSD as part of their jobs. But other projects, especially in the desktop space, were entirely non-professional and non-commercial in nature.

That’s not how it works today. Many people interact with FOSS communities as part of their jobs. Many FOSS communities consist of people who work on those projects (and their users). Many interactions in the FOSS communities are therefore entirely under the ever-watchful eye of HR and Legal departments.

FOSS is no longer a fringe movement, and no longer at odds with the proprietary world.

This is, perhaps, the most radical difference, the biggest thing that changed.

Around 2001 or so, free software was a fringe phenomenon. You could walk into the IT department of a Fortune 500 company, gather all the people with fancy titles in a room, and what most of them knew about Linux amounted to “it’s like Solaris but for communists and companies that I could buy with my lunch money”. You could walk into the marketing department of any computer company, gather all the people with fancy titles in a room, and have them stare quizzically at you after asking if they knew what Linux was.

This is not the case today. FOSS is not a fringe movement, it’s a viable business model.

It’s no longer at odds with the proprietary world, it’s a component of its infrastructure.

In short, FOSS is part of the mainstream. And it is about as tolerant as the mainstream is, with the same amount and the same kind of politics, and we have the same responsibility regarding the status quo.

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