Self Exceptionalism in the Free and Open Software Communities

Recently, I have felt myself being pulled in three directions at once. There’s the RHEL ecosystem that I have immersed myself into over the past many months. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS Trusty Tahr released last week and is a very enticing option, especially since I started with Ubuntu many moons ago. Finally, there’s the BSD world beckoning, with its culture and technology. Which option do I pick for primarily two roles: my daily driver at work and a way for me to grow my knowledge and skills, prepared to take on tomorrow’s challenges?

The answer is not as simple as I had anticipated. And the reason is my belief in my own exceptionalism. I have convinced myself that my vote for any one of these three options will turn the tide of FOSS in that direction. That if I don’t support an option then that option will disappear and its community will wither away. That I need to be a part of the community so I can contribute my skills, preventing unforeseen catastrophes waiting to be unveiled. That the FOSS world is waiting for a hero: me.

Of course, this is an absurd way of thinking. One person does make a difference but not at the scale I have imagined. It doesn’t matter to Ubuntu or its community that I fired up Fedora in my VM today. It has no affect on FreeBSD if I don’t learn how to use it. It doesn’t matter to Fedora that I am slowly moving to using Ubuntu daily. In a sense it does matter to all three projects whether an individual stays within the community or leaves. But not in the way I have convinced myself it does.

I am no savior. I can’t save or condemn a FOSS project because of my participation or the lack thereof. The reason is simple: these projects are much bigger than an individual. They have existed before I became a part of their communities; not just existed but prospered. I am but one man.

And therein lies the crux of the matter. If I am not writing code, finding bugs, generating official documentation, etc. then I’m not really a part of the community. I may be a passive advocate at best or a user at worst; but not part of the community. The community is formed of people who actively participate in shaping a project not those who use the output of their efforts without giving back.

A lot of people like myself are delusional in this manner. Just because they can download Ubuntu for free does not give them the right to complain and criticize when the desktop does not behave the way they demand. Either they pitch in, take a leadership role in the community, and fix the problems they have, or they lose the right to criticize. It’s alright to point out bugs and papercuts in a constructive gesture. Anything else reeks of their own belief in their exceptionalism. They have to stop thinking that just because *they* don’t like something that the project’s priorities need to shift to cater to their whims.

No project or product can survive without users. No one disputes that. But it’s not necessary that a project has to be used by *everyone*. Those who participate in developing the product and nurturing the project are its users, too. As long as they use and are satisfied, that’s all it matters.

So all of you who think the world revolves around them and that somehow FOSS means their wishes are paramount, think again. Get off your high horse, throw away the cloak of self exceptionalism, and pitch in. Either you are part of the solution or you don’t matter.

A question now comes to mind: why did I think that I was exceptional? It’s because I *expect* a lot from myself. I want to excel in all things I do. If I’m using some FOSS application that needs contributors I expect of myself to become such a contributor. Alas, there’s only so much one person can do. I have so many other obligations taking up my time that it becomes impossible for me to participate in many platforms and forums concurrently. That’s just life. The problem, though, is that I continue to expect of myself anyways. This causes undue stress, a highly unhealthy trend.

Given this new light in which I see myself, I will attempt to stop worrying about what the Internet says is a viable project and which one to support. I will no longer allow myself to be bound to follow the herd. If Ubuntu on the desktop gives me a pleasurable experience, CentOS works when I need a server, and FreeBSD can protect my network better, then I’ll use the best tool for the job. All these projects deserve contributions from their users. I’ll try my best to become a contributor. Until I do so I know that I’m a user and only a user.


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