In open source, no one cares if you're a dog

Some want Linus Torvalds to be nicer. They may be missing the point

closeup of soulful eyes on dog 126471459
Thinkstock (Thinkstock)

On the Internet, no one cares if you're a dog, the saying goes. In open source, no one cares if you're a jerk.

That seems to be the lesson emerging from Linux founder Linus Torvalds' latest run-in with the sensitivity police. In the open source world, code is king (or queen). The people who write it don't necessarily matter.

Except, of course, when they do. But while some Torvalds critics want to pretend that his abrasive tone on mailing lists is a blow to diversity, the ultimate target of all his attacks is bad code, without regard to who writes it.

I'm new around here

As I've covered here before, contributing to an open source community can be harrowing. No one wants to have their suggested code contributions greeted with "YOU are full of bull----!" Yet this is how Torvalds has been known to respond to newbies who disagree with him.

As he told Ars Technica,

This 'you have to be nice' seems to be very popular in the U.S. … I'd rather be really confrontational, and bad ideas should be [taken] down aggressively. Even good ideas need to be vigorously defended.

He has a point. Some, however, would prefer it not be so, well, pointed.

Writing code is hard. Writing code and having it rejected by one's peers is even harder. Having it rejected in somewhat brutal fashion? You guessed it: hardest of all.

Undoubtedly this puts off some would-be contributors. Equally without doubt, some of these contributors may be women or others underrepresented in technology, making it even harder for women and others to crack the mostly white, mostly male open source club. As bad as diversity is in tech, generally, it's actually much worse in open source.

The flame wars don't help.

For the love of great code

On the other hand, there's something to be said for color-blind, gender-blind rudeness. Yes, I personally would vote for kindness every time. But if that's not an option, I'd vastly prefer an equal-opportunity offender to someone who was biased in her or his approval or disapproval.

With regard to Torvalds, there definitely appears to be a biased interpretation of his comments.

The original comment that sparked all the hand-wringing was a reply to the suggestion that he can be abrasive:

Some people think I'm nice and are shocked when they find out different. I'm not a nice person, and I don't care about you. I care about the technology and the kernel -- that's what's important to me.

While some may latch onto his "I don't care about you" statement, the real crux of his comment is "I care about ... the kernel." Torvalds is fiercely protective of code, as Amazon software developer Joe Buck argues: "In the context of his management of the Linux kernel, [Torvalds has] made it clear that quality and merit comes first and everything else comes second, and he doesn't care if he offends people in this regard."

Which is, of course, Torvalds' point.

Despite posturing by his critics, Torvalds' record is clear: He's an equal-opportunity offender, and his abrasiveness isn't directed at people of any particular race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Instead, he saves his vitriol for one thing: bad code and the people who would try to bring it into Linux.

Enterprises that use Linux or Git, two of Torvalds' creations, shouldn't let a day go by without thanking him for that. Yes, he could probably accomplish it without the vitriol -- nastiness that may keep even your company from contributing to these or other open source projects.

But at least you'll know he's dismissing your contributions because he thinks they're trash, not because he thinks you're trash. That's something.