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Letters "He who feels punctured must have been a bubble - Lao Tsu

A funny thing happened last week.

Author and broadcaster - and veteran OpenOffice user - Andrew Brown wrote a piece in The Guardian a fortnight ago demolishing some of the more absurd myths around open source software projects. Frustrating bugs went unfixed for years, he noted, giving lie to the myth that simply because anyone could, in theory, make improvements, then improvements that users care most about would actually be made. Brown has written two books using OpenOffice, and performed his duty as a diligent user. If this was commercial software, he'd be a MVC, or "Most Valuable Customer", and if OpenOffice was an airline, he'd be bumped up to First Class every time he showed up at the airport.

But what was particularly interesting was the range of responses to this critique, because they mirrored the responses received by The Register from Wikipedians. I have a theory about why these are similar, but first let's see what people said about Brown's piece. He published them on his blog here and here.

Here's the typical response:

"You've obviously got in-depth knowledge of the product so why don't you help out?"

As we observed with Wikipedia, passing off the responsibility onto the user for dealing with the inadequacies of the software, or information, is a trait open projects seem to share.

Then there's the age-old response that a deficiency is a FeatureNotABug.

'spaces typed at the end of a line won't show' How is this a bug? It's just a different way of displaying text. Is a printer in error because it doesn't visually show you there is a space at the end of each line? No. There's no reason why it should have to show a space at the end of the line. That's you being very pernickety, not a bug.

Noel Slevin

Silly Mr. Brown, for not spotting that. More accurately, this response is classified as "Blaming The User For Being Stupid". Again, that's a Wikipedian trait too, and there were plenty more in the same vein.

Note the subtle variations. There's the "Hypothetical Utopia" defense, which ignores the present for an imaginary future in which the FOSS processes work as they ideally should:

So, yes, there is a problem with the open-source model. But I wonder whether things will change if OO is adopted by cities that have skilled IT departments that can be directed to fix THOSE PARTICULAR bugs, or to make THOSE PARTICULAR enhancements, that are of importance to THAT PARTICULAR city? I can imagine city council directing the IT representative to get the bug fixed and to report back at the next meeting. Within a couple of meetings, either the bug will be fixed or the city will drop OO. This is a tight feedback loop that involves skilled workers.

Then there's the "Never Mind the Quality, Feel The Price".

[paraphrased] Any bugs in OpenOffice are counter balanced by the fact that it is free!

And that's one of the commonest defenses of Wikipedia, which imagines a world in which the population is so starved of information (books and libraries don't exist here, for example, nor do wise teachers), that every globbet of information that drips from a computer network must be applauded as an "information revolution". In this world, the speed or price of information trumps all considerations of its quality. But as is so often pointed out, we're hardly living in a world starved of information. We're drowning under vast quantities of ropey information, and none the wiser for the experience.

Back to the onslaught on The Open Office User Who Dared Complain.

There's the parry called "Flood The Area with Improbably Large Numbers", in which downloads (or in Wikipedia's case, the number of articles) are quoted. We shall spare you this.

But a significant proportion of responses take the counterattack, and question the critic's motives, knowledge and quite possibly, moral inadequacies too.

Darryl LeCount's lofty ticking off is typical:

I found Andrew Brown's vitriolic attack on OpenOffice.org to be ill-informed, heavily biased against open source software and extremely inconsistent. He claims to "like" OpenOffice, initially using it out of "a mixture of perversity, stinginess, and vague anti-Microsoft sentiment", before launching into a tirade about how buggy it is and how flawed the open source model is. The author has clearly neither had extensive experience of using Mozilla Firefox, Blender, or Linux, and it is also clear that he has had little involvement with the development of these products despite his vague claims.

So Mr. Brown's critique of one product is invalidated because he hasn't used enough of them. A snobbish variation on "user is stupid".

Finally, there's the kind of response which supposes that the only reason a critique was made was to drive up page traffic.

I think the author of the article has achieved exactly what he intended to do and that is generate traffic to his blog and article. If you were a good objective writer you would not need to resort to this tactic. It's a bit pathetic that you feel the need to be so negative at the expense of something you get for free. Let's face it, this article could just as easily have been positive but that just would not have generated the traffic right :-(

We hate to see a sad face, at this time of year. But we also get the feeling that advocates of this, the Page View Whore counterattack, rarely meet advocates of the Flood The Area With Improbably Large Numbers counterattack, because if the project was as popular as the latter insist, then publishers would write only write nice things about open projects, to drive up their traffic. We'll spare you the rest, but the entire defense is summed up at the end of a tedious "Fisking" delivered by one Dave Lister, who sums up Brown's arguments bafflingly, so:

"I like OpenOffice." translation: I really want Open Source to get better :)

Silly Andrew, for harboring such hopes.

So what are we dealing with, here?

Well, in his Guardian piece, Andrew Brown pointed out that successful open source projects keep their users happy, and if the users share the same background, common goals, and level of technical knowledge as the authors, then the users can indeed contribute to a virtuous circle. bind and Apache spring to mind.

But when the skills and experience are, to steal a Rumsfeld-ism, "asymmetric", there's friction. Many of Andrew Brown's OpenOffice critics have no idea of what a user really wants to do with the software, and can only cognize he's rejecting their gift of free software. Many Wikipedia defenders have no sympathy for readers who complain about unreliable, or badly written information, and can only cognize a world mocking their careful handiwork, what one critic calls a "defective data device" with "-pedia" in the name.

(One Australian doctor wrote to describe how he'd made just one Wikipedia edit in his life, to correct an entry about a medical procedure, which if carried out, would result in death. Heck, this is an information revolution, and every revolution is going to have casualties!)

So perhaps it isn't such a mystery. Open projects are by nature idealistic, a little gift to the world. When this gift is spurned, the rejection must feel terrible.

Why would an ungrateful world reject this gift?

Let's find out.

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