Change in the Age of Information – Part 3 They Came to Astroturf…

“… and they left with mud on their shoes.”

After a little over a month of self-imposed exile, Linus Torvalds has returned to the helm of running the world’s largest open source software project, Linux. However before discussing how a leader like Mr. Torvalds is beginning to come to terms with the shortcomings of his behavior, it might be interesting to review some opportunistic aspects / fake news that surrounded this controversy which has inspired the title and first line of this post.

First, The contentious Code of Conduct (CoC) was NOT set up by Torvalds. He said in an interview with ZDNet that “I actually stepped away from the CoC discussions exactly because I did *not* want it to be seen as me personally being involved in the discussion” but he added that “he doesn’t mind the CoC itself.”

The “fake news” aspect that generated thousands of comments on Reddit and elsewhere was eventually described by the tech community (including Torvads) with some colorful terms such as “bike shedding” and “astroturfing.” Bike shedding is when a team avoids an issue like a controversial building project by first focusing on trivial issues like building the bicycle storage shed. Astroturfing is when people with an agenda (for example, political or religious) falsely represent themselves as being part of a grassroots movement. Astroturfers, who were not part of the Linux community before or after this discussion, pushed hard to convince people that the CoC was a result of Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) pushing a political agenda. Hence the comment, “and they left with mud on their shoes” which was a turn of phrase indicating that the false identify the astroturfers tried to pass off as real was eventually replaced by the more accurate, but messy, information from the real grassroots Linux community. To quote a Reddit thread that received almost a thousand comments, “It was almost exclusively brigadiers from far right subs coming here to astroturf. There was nothing natural about that response.”

Getting back to how a leader like Mr. Torvalds is beginning to understand the shortcomings of his behavior and the responsibilities of power, his first act upon returning was to meet with a small group of about 40 key Linux developers at something called the “Maintainers’ Summit” in Scotland. Torvalds is in an powerful position similar to the CEO of a medium sized corporation and his first act was to travel from Portland to Scotland to meet with 40 software engineers. Amazing! That alone says a lot about him. Here’s a person paid over a half a million dollars in 2015 and he starts by meeting the technical people most impacted by his behavior. Soon after, he gave an interview to ZDNet in which he explained the steps he has taken to correct his behavior which boil down to “talking weekly with a professional,” an outgoing email filter to filter out expletives, and asking the people he works with closest to “send me email if they feel I’ve been unnecessarily abrupt.”

This doesn’t seem like much considering the massive upheavals in the Linux community this situation has caused, but given Torvalds passion for his work, maybe it is enough. A recent article in The Verge summed it up nicely, “… it sounds like productive first steps are being made to revise the Linux community’s culture for the better.” Only time (and some great code) will tell.