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How Not to Treat Your Readership

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.