On FOSSBros

Free and OpenSource Software (FOSS) has by now become a bigtent ideology, filled with different perspectives on what it means. Which I think is great, it’s a component of success! However I think some of the more vocal subcommunities are toxic and harmful to our success. They need to be called out!

Ableism

I’ve seen those who argue that you shouldn’t use Linux (or, worse, computers in general) if you don’t understand how they work. There’s an attitude present that people must want to put time into customizing their computers.

Stop it! Most people have other things they want to do with their time! If we want software freedom to be anything more than a dick-measuring contest we should welcome people who care about more than just computers. As Technology Connections says “I want to do work on my computer, not work on my computer”.

Opensource software being available which caters to non-techies does not take any projects away from techies. You can still have your Linux distros which don’t use systemd, or are none of you techie enough to assemble one?

Entitlement

A “fossbro”, as I call them, typically feels entitled to dictate the direction of all free software projects. If you don’t do what they say they’ll tell their audience that you don’t listen to your community, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky they’ll send death threats. Often your supposed sin would be hiding configuration options (their ableism says everyone wants those!), or changing something they don’t think needed changing.

If you as a user don’t like the direction a project’s going some fossbros will often tell “just fork you”, but if you manage to find the skills and time to do so their entitlement will lead other fossbros to villify your fork. To be clear my position regarding forks is that it’s a necessary yet undesirable (for everyone) last resort, and that opposing any fork is contradictory with the values of software freedom.

The problem with this mindset of course is that developers have a say in who they wish to serve, who their community are. Fossbros aren’t the entirety of the community one may wish to serve! GNOME in particular often has issues with fossbro entitlement.

Hubris

Thankfully this is dying down, but there is a dominant narrative associated with OpenSource of “Look at how much we can accomplish when we work together! Millions of lines of code!”, or another associated with Free Software of “Just slap a GPL, or other, license on your code and you’re protecting software freedom!” who frequently suffers a purity spiral.

It is telling that free software activists disillusioned by the issues described here often still fixate on licensing.

There’s several issues with these narratives:

  1. Hardly any free software projects have more than a couple active devs, they’re not benefitting from collaboration.
  2. When a project does reach the size of Linux or Gecko, whether or you not you legally have the Four Freedoms you practically can’t exercise them. While I’m very appreciative of Mozilla ongoing efforts, the fact there’s been no successful fork of Gecko reversing the controversial decisions they’ve had to make to stay in the game is telling.
  3. Following these license terms on a hosted service does not go as far towards guaranteeing software freedom as it does for local-first software.

Where to Go From Here?

The Tolerance Paradox states that defending tolerance requires not tolerating the intolerant. Fossbros characterize our movement to most outside it, and to many inside it. As such their mischaracterizations scare away those who don’t fit their mold, hindering uptake amongst those who could really benefit from software freedom.

We should shun their YouTube channels and blogs, making sure we’re instead supporting those who actually want to grow the movement.

We need to acknowledge it’s not the 1990’s anymore: Proprietary software has moved into the cloud & locked-down devices where they’re even more inextricably withholding our software freedom. There’s a reason why Microsoft’s now glad to say Microsoft <3 Open Source! Licenses don’t help much here, we need to question the projects we’re tackling. Question who’s receiving the software freedom.

Once our projects start getting relied upon or grow beyond a couple of developers, we need to invest in solid governance structures (i.e. not BDFL) to give non-programmers greater say. Give them the control we promised them. And ideally help steer funding where it’s needed (even if I wish we didn’t live in a society where we need money to live).

And most importantly welcome newcomers to software freedom no matter their walks of life, or software freedom “purity”. None of us are entirely pure.