Free software has a history of creating and supporting cults of personality. Since it is a widespread human phenomenon, it is easy to understand how this happens. It is, however, unhelpful and destructive and we really ought to actively discourage it, starting by putting aside the current cults.
The most recent, though certainly not the only example, of this retrograde behavior was seen when Linus Torvalds started posting on Google+ about his recent sampling of various Free software desktop options. This made the rounds on various blogs, Slashdot, Linux Today, etc. Why do we care what Linus uses? Simply put: he's a super star in F/OSS and people hang on his every word as a result as if he's an oracle of all things technology. Spoiler alert: he's not.
His opinion on desktop software is as meaningful as his opinions on rocket ships, film production, oil recovery techniques, sociology, religious history, automobile engineering or any of the other topics he has no meaningful expertise in. Everyone will hold an opinion on things they use, such as cars or ships, and things they simply come into contact with, such as film and religion. Sharing our viewpoints is great and a necessary part of democratic discourse which can move societies along their evolutionary path. So opinions have value and can be hugely beneficial when mixed together with hundreds, thousands or even millions of other samples. The trick, however, is not letting those whose opinions are of no great value in terms of being based on greater understanding or access to relevant data become more important than other opinions in those discussions.
Linus is as likely to be "wrong" about desktop Linux as most others who use the desktop. I used quotation marks because he isn't really wrong at all: whatever his viewpoint de jour is reflects his viewpoint very clearly and may even be extrapolated to other people with similar needs and backgrounds. This should not be surprising. It's like saying Linus is as likely to be wrong about rocket ships as anyone else who is into rocket ships but not involved in their design and manufacture. Perhaps more so, even, if Linus isn't a big space enthusiast but only an occasional article reader and watcher of things NASA puts out press releases on.
When I first saw others commenting about his comments on Google+ about trying KDE Plasma, I shared the above sentiment, but in a more compact form. I don't care what Linus uses, at least not as an isolated data point: it is not useful information for one simple reason: it does not help us create the software the world needs.
Let's step to the side and consider this from a different angle: Imagine that someone made Linus' perfect desktop environment. Something that satisfied him entirely and which he could happily talk about whenever he felt like it. Would that environment be interesting and useful for the general public, or would it be something great for kernel developers and grumpy-heads like Linus? It could go either way, really, because (once again) the fact that Linus liked it would not be useful information when held in isolation by itself.
We could pick any other single individual on the planet who lacks the same amount of relevant experience and say the same thing. This is not a bash on Linus, it's an observation of something that Free software world does very poorly. It is not Linus' fault we pay more attention to him on such topics than we ought to; it's us who decide to pay attention to Linus on such topics. We can also decide not to. Even better, we could focus on amalgamations of well formed data sets and pay attention to those instead.
So why, then, do we pay so much attention and care at all what Linus says or thinks on these matters? There are very human reasons for why we do this, which the social scientists in the crowd can probably speak to rather better than I can, so that's a largely rhetorical question. I believe it is undeniable, however, that we risk the direction of Free software by building such cults of personality. It create incentives to acquiesce to what amounts to low-value personal opinion which leads to a meandering pattern of non-progress.
Of course, it goes even further than that. These cults of personality encourage others to mimic people like Linus when it comes to things like communication style. Due to the "we mimic which we admire" tendency in human, holding Linus aloft encourages people to adopt incorrigible asshat communication patterns online. Linus is not a role model for anything other than running very successful kernel (and similar) projects, yet he gets emulated by people who mistake the secret of his success with his communication style.
The cult of Linus is not the only center of a personality cult in Free software, to be certain. This episode was simply a good opportunity to say something about it. I could just as easily write a blog entry about the problems other cults of personality have caused in Free software. My years in the community have "blessed" me with a great big bag of personal experiences related to just about every single out-sized personality in Free software.
... which is the "big lesson" here: nobody is a messiah and we are all equally frail and imperfect. In more positive words: we are all equally infallible and perfect. So where can we derive leadership from, if not from luminescent personalities?
I don't believe Free software needs, or even benefits from, global leadership, anymore than the world needs dictatorships or a single global government. What Free software needs is local leadership, and those leaders need to have their influence limited (by a healthy lack of deification, among other things) in order create an environment in which it is valuable (and more acceptable) to reach out to others across domains.
Without this, we drift ineffectually. Free software was not able to truly take off on consumer devices until a corporate dictator stepped in, basically ignored everyone else, and pushed out Android. That in turn has become a primary source of GPL violations in today's world (I just found another one today, this time in a tablet being offered for sale by a very nice and reputable Free software supporting computer retailer) and is not an ecosystem with equal participation or open governance as hallmarks. We needed Android because we couldn't do it ourselves, but Android is also a huge weakness for Free software efforts and falls well short of what is realistically possible. We can't complain too loudly though, because we couldn't get our shit together to produce better results sooner.
We're still waiting for this savior on the desktop side. Some thought it would be Ubuntu, but what we got from Ubuntu, largely due to a "self appointed dictator for life" approach, is a fork of one of the major desktop environments and its community with a unhelpful sideshow of nearly endless backbiting between various Linux distributions, kernel developers and others with Canonical. All of this happened for understandable reasons, none of it was done without internally consistent logic, and yet it has not furthered anyone's ultimate goals for Free software success.
I don't know about you, but I am sick and tired of Free software being inefficient and self-destructive due to internal schism.
Ah, but we do have a positive example where Free software has done very well: the server and super computing. Why has Free software, driven by the open source development model, shone so brightly here? When we take a deep look at its history we may note the relative lack of personality cults and the amount of emphasis on data that matters (something that is easier to accomplish when one can use performance benchmarks or compliance suites as respected and reliable metrics). Certainly there are people who are respected, admired and influential in server-side Free software, but there has been a distinct lack of personality cult and a huge number of of cooperative (even in competition), technology-centric efforts. Samba springs to mind immediately for me with the likes of Jeremey Allison and John Terpstra, two people I highly respect but who don't have that "cult of personality" aura.
It's not all roses on the server side all the time, of course, and as a counter-example to Samba I'd probably point to MySQL and its travails over the years (from early non-Free software status, to odd GPL interpretations to corporate take over), which I believe directly correlates to its centralized control by charismatic leadership coupled with project fanboyism. You know, just like we see with desktop Linux.
To those who may agree but reply with "that's just how people work, not much we can do about it": well, I accept your POV and humbly disagree. We may not be able to change the world at large (at least, not over night), but we can positively affect the parts of the world we create ourselves. We create Free software together, and therefore we can create it in the image we want it to be.
As a participant co-creating this world, I have an impact on how it works and the culture that surrounds it .. as do you. We are not completely powerless to ourselves; we can make wise choices if we choose to. The progress of social justice in human history has shown that we are not slaves to our human foibles, though it can take time and effort to emancipate ourselves.
We can make the decision to free ourselves from cults of personality by taking our own advice: build decentralized structures of responsibility, influence and attention that reward things like cooperative effort. This will allow us to bring our efforts together into one combined and massive bonfire rather than thousand tiny embers fighting for fuel and oxygen such that they twinkle in but then almost inevitably back out again.
We need to realize that the behaviors that arise from our current culture do not further the goal we all share together of Free software success. If that is truly what we want, then we need to alter that which retards our progress towards it. We need to value Free software progress more than we value the reward of mutual fanboyism.
Put simply: if we want open client-side software to thrive we need to engage in a conscious improvement of the Free software culture and, just as importantly, leave behind those who choose not to. I won't try to fool anyone: this will take years to accomplish ... but we can start now.
Go ahead and say: "I don't care what Linus Torvalds uses on his computer." See how easy it can be? :)