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How Not to Treat Your Readership

Oct 26, 2007, 22:30 (28 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Originally, I planned to spend this week's column to begin a constructive discussion on what constitutes the kind of fair and objective criticism of Linux people would prefer to read on Linux Today. I have gotten a lot of (mostly positive, yet concerned) comments about negative articles lately, enough that I began to wonder if there was a need for a slight redefinition in editorial policies.

That discussion will be held soon, I promise. But today I read an article that so completely blew my mind in its audacity that I felt it necessary to hold off the discussion for a while.

The article in question is actually the final part of a five-part series of blog entries on InfoWorld, entitled "Why Ubuntu (Still) Sucks." On Tuesday of this week, I linked to Parts 1 and 2 of the series, and was immediately bombarded with queries as to why LT was linking to these articles.

At first, I will admit, I was not concerned, because invariably any article that criticizes Linux or open source will be questioned like this.

But it soon became clear that there was more to it than just the usual grousing. I went back and read both articles (having originally only skimmed through Part 1) and realized that, plain and simply, I goofed. It has always been the policy of Linux Today to post any article about Linux, positive or negative. I firmly believe in this policy, because no one should go through live wearing rose-colored glasses, and sometimes negative articles do expose a truth about Linux or open source software that, painful as it may be, needs fixing.

However, that should not include LT linking to stories that are essentially outright trolls, looking for hits. After re-reading these two articles, I concluded that the author, Russell Kennedy, could likely be trolling. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and not accuse him of this, but I felt it was no longer necessary to continue to link to the rest of the series of articles, either. To that end, I offer my apologies for dropping the ball and not doing a better job.

Today, however, I read Kennedy's final piece in the series, and realized that some of us, myself included, were suckers in a game designed to make Linux advocates look foolish.

Apparently motivated by reader responses to an article he wrote in September about the need to fork the Linux kernel into separate desktop and server versions, Kennedy took it upon himself to prove to the rest of the world that the Linux community was indeed comprised of a bunch of raving lunatics. To do that, he decided to run another series of blog entries on InfoWorld to be more critical of Linux and see what happened.

Except, he freely admits, that these articles weren't to be just criticalâ€â€they were deliberately over the top diatribes designed to get exactly the kind of reaction he wanted: crazed, frothing-at-the-mouth geeks hurtling insults and threats.

"But how to proceed? Clearly, engaging this community on an intellectual level was pointless. No, to really 'bring out the Linux beast' I would need to show the temerity, the audacity, the outright stupidity to actually criticize one of their sacred cow distributions. And not in the nice, 'fair and balanced' way of a professional journalist, but rather in the over-the-top, zealous, 'in your face' way that so many Linux 'fan bois' had demonstrated to me."

In other words, he wanted give the Linux community a taste of their own medicine.

Except Kennedy failed to mention the numerous reasoned comments he received on that original kernel forking article, nor did he mention that at least one member of the press inquired about the various racial epithets used against him with the express intent of beating the Linux community over its collective head for stooping to racism. (That member of the press was me, but when Kennedy could not produce the messages, citing their deletion from the InfoWorld talkback system, I decided I could not take anyone to task over messages I had not personally seen.)

By writing this series of entries, Kennedy essentially hit a beehive with a stick, got the expected reaction, and then declared how clever he was to prove that all bees were mean and evil. Never mind the fact that bees are essential to nature's pollination plans and are beneficial to human beings in a variety of ways.

To continue the metaphor, Kennedy failed to mention that not all bees attacked him (most either ignoring him or seeing through his tactic), and not every negative response to his articles consisted of the rabid responses (stings) he was looking for.

Switching metaphors: if I were to walk into any bar in Boston and declare that I am a Yankees fan and that the Red Sox are a bunch of <insert colorful metaphor here>, it's no mystery what the response would be. Depending on the clientèle and the amount of alcohol already consumed, I would be lucky to escape uninjured. Certainly I would be the on the receiving end of some colorful metaphors, and--frankly--with good reason: I came onto their turf and talked trash. (For the record, I am a die-hard Cubs fan; pity me as you will.)

It's basic human nature: you kick someone in the crotch, they tend to get angry. Very.

What's particularly upsetting here is Kennedy's claim that he's doing it to "expose the lie"--the lie being the world of peace and harmony Canonical, Novell, and Red Hat supposedly promote about the Linux community.

First off, anyone with half a brain can see how contentious the Linux community can be; there's nothing to expose. Second, to lay the "contentious" claim solely on the Linux community is ridiculous: I have seen poor behavior on the part of the Windows and Mac crowds many times, too. Third, the very idea that Novell would ever envision the open source community as calm and idyllic is such a colossal joke, it pretty much kills any claim Kennedy might have for taking the high road.

In my opinion, Kennedy and his editors saw this as another chance to garner more traffic for InfoWorld, pure and simple. That they undertook this with content deliberately intended to incite a certain set of their readership under the banner of a professional publication is even more unconscionable. While one could argue that the medium of blogs may not be held to the same ethical standards as "pure" journalism, the fact is Kennedy did post these entries on an electronic publication that claims to hold its writers to a journalistic ethical standard.

That's how it works at most publications with journalists-as-bloggers. On my own "Hoosier Penguin" blog, my style and content can be a little looser than my news or editorial articles, but I still have to adhere to Jupitermedia's standards of publication.

If, at the end of the day, you want to maintain the claim that the Linux community is a bunch of malcontents bent on insulting everyone that disagrees with them, I leave you with this thought.

Given how the technology and methods the Linux community uses are constantly villified, ridiculed, and held in contempt by competitors; by ill-informed IT professionals and hobbyists; and now by journalists who use lies and outrageous comments to hold the community's response up for ridicule--is it any wonder why the community is so defensive in their responses?

That's not a justification of bad behavior, but it certainly puts such responses in another light.