Saturday, June 13, 2009

When Zeal Becomes Zealotry: A Tawdry Tale

I love zeal. Zeal is enthusiasm, it's zest, it's drive, it's initiative. Zeal builds communities. Unfortunately, in some individuals, zeal turns to zealotry, and zealotry does just the opposite. This a long posting, but it provides an excellent example of what I'm talking about, and I hope you'll take the time to read it.

I've been on sabbatical in Japan for the past two weeks, with one of them spent wandering the countryside of Shikoku, in Western Japan across the Inland Sea from Osaka and Kyoto, visiting Buddhist temples, wandering through bamboo forests, documenting things on-the-fly from my cellphone, when service was available.

Sadly, my Buddhistic mellow was harshed by my inbox filling with a lot of nonsense thanks to a moronic flamewar which broke out on the ubuntu-devel list, instigated by one Mark Fink, who has a serious hate on for Mono and anything associated with it.

We've seen Mark before, more than a year ago, similarly stirring up the GNOME desktop-devel list. At that point, he was planning to write "a replacement for Tomboy" because "because Tomboy is poisoning GNOME distributions like Red Hat and Ubuntu with it's Microsoft patented MONO dependency crap". In support of his position, he pointed to articles on Roy Schestowitz's site, Roy seems to have a similar dislike for Mono, although I have to say he's a lot more careful in his phrasing of things.

This time, Mark took things up several notches, with a posting to ubuntu-devel titled, "shameful censoring of mono opposition"; in it, he essentially complains that the moderators of the Ubuntu Forums and the maintainers of Ubuntu are all corrupt for not simply agreeing to pull Mono out, as a few people have demanded. He went further and expressed outrage than Canaonical would hire Dave Siegel. None of which really has anything to do with the list.

It was a pretty pointless message, again referencing, and it got the expected reaction. Mark continued to escalate things even further, claiming that "the MONO camp has infiltrated canonical", and that people were "slandering roy schestowitz", Mark roundlt abused Miguel de Icaza, accusing him of "worship[ing] M$", of only starting GNOME because "because he couldn't get hired by M$" and of "splitting the Linux community", before going on to suggest that someone who expressed rational disagreement with this nonsense was a "typical M$ appologist [sic]", that "only stupid people who can't think for themselves fawn over MONO and follow it like a religion", that the forum moderators were "novell employees (or people who drink they're [sic] koolaid)", and so on.

None of this is unusual, we've all seen the September Effect, we've all seen dopey flame wars over silly points; what is a little unusual is what happened next.

As I said, I've been on sabbatical, and accordingly, I had an autorespond message up advising people that if they had a matter that required an immediate response, they should contact my manager, with his email address. After I expressed some unhappiness with Mark's attempts to stir up things, mostly in terms of having to plow through pointless emails on my phone from Japan at rather high international data roaming rates, my manager received some exceedingly odd email.

Most people have enough good sense not to resort to this sort of transparent attempt at intimidation, and my manager is smart enough not to take that sort of thing with much seriousness. I mentioned on the list that this was happening and that I thought it, while laughable, entirely out of line. There was general agreement, some of it in much stronger terms, but Mark's response was "no wonder you got reported to your boss, david. you are not very resptful [sic] of your users and customers." Some folks expressed (reasonable) outrage at this, but the reaction which really disturbed me was that a number of people began to post under pseudonyms for fear of finding themselves on the receiving end this kind of cheap attack at them and their livelihoods.

This sort of "chilling effect", in my view, can be a community killer. The open source model thrives on disagreement, and it lives on reputation. If people are afraid to disagree, and if they can't maintain reputation out of fear of off-list attacks, where are we?

But wait. It gets worse.

As I noted, Mark consistently points back to, trumpeting the cause espoused there by Roy Schestowitz, and in fact demanding at one point that Roy be made a moderator of ubuntu-devel to ensure "fairness". Mark gives every impression of being closely associated with Roy's cause and site.

I expressed some dismay over these shenanigans in comments over on Roy was contrite, but equivocally so, I felt. He claimed he'd never heard of Mark Fink before that very day. He apologized, but refused to post a specific disclaimer about the site not being associated with Mr. Fink or his actions.

Then things got really weird. I got a private message from Mark Fink, claiming that he was scared that he'd gotten in over his head, and that Roy had in fact put him up to the whole thing. He included as evidence a digitally signed message from Roy--and I've verified the signature as being authentic--in which Roy tells Mark the following:

Hash: SHA1
Hi Roy,

I'm sorry. it just makes me so mad when people are pro-MONO. also it
was not me who tried to get david fired so its unfair that they are
pinning it on me.

I liked what you do, but try to distance yourself from the site to give
it credibility. Make it look like a personal gripe while the site keeps
it polite.

- --
~~ Best of wishes

Roy S. Schestowitz | GNU/Linux | PGP-Key: 0x74572E8E
Freelance journalist @
Editor @
GPL-licensed 3-D Othello @
Open Source, non-profit search engine proposal @
Version: GnuPG v1.4.9 (GNU/Linux)

The signature checks, this message is definitely authentically from Roy. The tone doesn't strike me as someone who's talking to someone who's done something he thinks is damaging to his cause, just the contrary. Nor does he express displeasure with Mark's actions, but outright approval, only a wish that a "credibly deniable" sort of distance be kept.

Now, I grew up in a family of lawyers, and I learned that there's no such thing as facts, only evidence. And--even though if Mark were to tell me that he had five fingers on his right hand and an ear on each side of his head, I'd want to verify it visually, in person--this seems like pretty clear evidence to me that Roy is at least supportive of, if not the driving force behind, this sort of cheap attack on someone who disagrees with him, but doesn't want to be tarred by the backlash.

This is the kind of zealotry I mentioned at the outset: the kind that places a "cause" above the real lives of real people. Zealots will try to get you fired; if they consider their "cause" important enough (i.e. more important than you are), they'll do even worse if they can. That kind of thing can only destroy community, it can't build it or sustain it.

Now, Roy's claimed privately that he had nothing to do with any of this, and after I asked him to explain this email, he (finally) posted something disassociating Mark Fink from any connection with his site. I frankly find this hard to believe, and for one simple reason.

I'm sure Roy considers to be an "important" web site. Its traffic rank on Alexa is in the neighborhood of 55,000 over the past three months. I've got a site that isn't anywhere near the top 100,000, and I certainly track where traffic comes from pretty assiduously. It beggars my imagination to think that Roy has absolutely no idea where his traffic is coming from; Mark's messages to ubuntu-devel (and his prior messages to desktop-devel), which included regular references to, must have driven some fairly significant amount of traffic there.

So, my conclusion is that Roy is either a complete idiot or is being, shall we say, less than candid with me about not ever having heard of Mark, as the email I received also clearly suggests. The tone of Roy's email doesn't strike me as someone who's talking to someone he a) doesn't know and is b) unhappy with. It sounds like someone working behind the scenes with someone he knows rather well. As I say, no facts, only evidence, and based on the evidence, the good news for Roy is that I don't think he's a complete idiot.

If you don't like Mono, don't use it, and if you don't like the fact that a distribution includes Mono, find another distribution. But don't take the position Mark and Roy and their friends are staking out, that someone who disagrees with you is fair game for victimization: that goes against everything that community means. When you start attempting to disrupt people's lives over a disagreement regarding a piece of software, you've lost all sense of perspective, integrity and rationality. You've set yourself in opposition to actual community.