Without getting into a semantics war over it, Linus Torvalds is the guy who invented Linux. I painted a portrait of him for an art project in college once.1 He’s also, as it turns out, a bit of a flame-warring jackass.
Except this is 2015, not 1995, and Linux is one of the world’s major commercial operating systems, used around the world to run billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and systems. As such, people are starting to really question whether having the OS’s most visible developer routinely calling people “monkeys” and “paste eaters” and so on is really, yanno. Where the product wants to go.
At the point I should point out that “Linux” is not actually one OS, nor does it refer to one single group of developers or imply the guidance of one corporate entity like, say, “Windows” and “OS X” do. Torvalds’ direct power in the Linux community isn’t, in theory, any more than any other random patch contributor. His indirect power, however, as the “father” of the OS, is huge. And the point is that his invective style of language–where even minor flaws or disagreements or lacks in knowledge result in excoriating, hyper-emotional tirades–has permeated through the community to the point where it’s, well. Kinda stopping things from getting done. Like, yanno. People are afraid to start contributing to the project because what’s the point? When the learning curve is either “instant genius” or “paste-eating monkey”? And so Linux starts to stagnate. Or, more specifically, its development is now almost wholly taken over by commercial interests. The model is different, but it’s moved from its homebrew hacker roots and become yet another soulless corporate OS. And why? Because people are insecure pissbabies who can’t be bothered to act like professionals and collaborate for the good of the group, that’s why.
Thing is, Torvald’s attitude–and the problems it spreads–aren’t limited to the Linux dev community, which is why I’m posting this link. You have to remember that “internet culture” comes out of hacker culture. That is, the same style of discourse that became normalised on tech newsgroups in the 90s is the same style of discourse that bled over to become normalised everywhere else on the internet, too. Cultural norms don’t emerge in a vacuum.
And it’s poisonous. I know, because I used to think it was cool, too. (And the “used to” in that sentence isn’t… as long ago as I’d perhaps like it to be.) A lot of people still do, it seems, think it’s a cool way to communicate a point, all that name-calling and mouth-frothing. Nowadays, you’ll hear it get called “performative rage”, and it’s endemic everywhere from the bowels of 4chan to the vast and sprawling oceans of Tumblr social justice blogs.
And it can go wrong. Badly.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; anger is a valid rhetorical tool. In the hands of someone adept at wielding it, it’s a very powerful force.
But it’s not the only rhetorical tool available, and its inexpert use does have consequences.
- My theme for the semester was “geeks and hackers”, and the portrait was done in that faux-Communist propaganda poster style. It was pretty terrible, but also hilarious in its own awful, teenaged oh-ho-ho-I’m-so-clever way. [↩]