Small distro, big ego

Updated: February 10, 2010

Dedoimedo lemma to happy computing states that the fanaticism of a Linux user is inversely proportional to the size of the user base for the said distro. Have I intrigued you or maybe offended you? Well, read on, then.

In this article/rant, I would like to talk about the general behavior of the Linux community once again, focusing on the individual user. We've talked about this before, but it's time for some polish. Shall we?


Linux user as a rule

Being a Linux user means you're special. Linux desktop holds only about 1% market, so the chances are you're 1 out of 100, which places you at the far end of the Gaussian distribution of desktop usage normalcy curve. That's good.

But geekiness has its toll. Among other things, being a geek means you're more prone to social diseases like ADD, OCD, PDD, and a selection of other behavioral flaws. Still, as varied as the distributions are, so is the soul of the Linux user. Calling one typical would be the greatest mistake of all. While geeks are typical, Linux users are not.

Which brings me to my topic - the ire, the audacity, the zeal, and the despair of the Linux user integrated over his/her favorite distro.

Woe the fool who dares (o/re/de)press one's favorite distro

If you've ever written an article that criticizes the glaring flaws and problems in a distribution, you will know what I'm talking about: the torrent of angry mails and scornful comments, all of which ignore the actual problems and lay the blame at the writer's ineptitude to work the right solutions.

This gets worse the smaller the distribution is. If you bash Ubuntu, it's almost welcome, because Ubuntu is such a big distro. But if you bash a user of a much, much smaller distro, say Crunchbang Linux or sidux, you're in for hell. Now, I'd like to give you an example and then slowly work through the points raised. Here we go:

You know, you're completely wrong. It's very easy to get updates on X distro. All you need to do is drop to runlevel 3, run conf-update -Thym --ignore-size, then prep-emerge and that's it. You don't need Samba anyway, because that's for Windows. And proxy can be set by editing the /etc/environment file and sourcing the .profile. Just make sure you have ruby installed when you compile so you get GUI. I thought you were some kind of an expert, but after you failed with X distro, I think you lost all your credibility.

This is the kind of response you may get when you point out a few flaws with a release. Then, things get even more serious when you try to rationalize your testing, from the perspective of would-be new Linux user.

Not true. I was a new Linux user once. After I got fed with Windows spyware I moved to Linux and never looked back. It wasn't easy, but then I read info pages and compiled LFS and that's it. Anyone can do that, all they need is to sit down and learn. And the forums were really helpful.

Feels almost like a mantra off the daily newsletter by AA. Scary stuff. And I'm not talking about myself, not at all. I've gone through hundreds of distro reviews all over the Web and read the forum discussions and comments revolving around them. The note is pretty much the same, defensive-aggressive, scornful and always aimed at the user, ignoring the technical bits. So let me point out a few things.

You compiled your own kernel

You're the man. So what? That does not give you any right to laugh at people who have trouble double-clicking the mouse. Compiling your own distro can mean a lot of things, including the fact you may be talented, but it also means you have too much spare time, suffer from a compulsion disorder and can't prioritize. Compiling your own kernel at home is not productive, because you're not Google or Intel.

Kernel compilation

You made it, so everyone should

Being able to setup Wireless network from the command line is not a hero's feat. It's merely a feat, if that. In fact, it's wrong. It's wrong, because it perpetuates the state of mind that everyone should dabble in code. This turns the computer from an appliance into a work tool. And that's not the case for everyone. In fact, it's NOT the case for everyone.

Just as you don't hack your TV, your fridge or your oven, there's no reason why you should hack your computer. If that's your job or hobby, yes, but if you want to write emails, you don't need to know how the damn thing works. The ability or rather, the lack thereof, to separate the posh from the mush is one of the big flaws of many geeks.


This gets worse as distros get smaller, because smaller distros are exclusively the domain of geeks, are usually harder to setup and more buggy due to smaller development pool and reduced QA. Hey, there's a reason why Ubuntu is the most popular distro.

Computers are a consumer product, a black box. People use them, because they allow them to do the stuff they want. But for that matter, if they could check their mail on the TV, they might do that.

It's about the community ... not

It's nice to have the sense of belonging to a group, a cause, sharing the same ideals and goals. Online forums let many people participate in virtual societies bonded by mutual interests.

Over time, a bond evolves, tying people closer. But then, a certain threshold is crossed and the bond of intellectual exchange turns into emotional dependency, like that of a battered spouse. Some people put the technology aside and give all their worth into the virtual cause, forgetting that they came to the forum for technical advice.

But think about it. People online have never seen you or met you. If you die, you die alone. They won't send you money or their kidneys if you get into trouble. Using a distribution because of its online, virtual community is a bit worrying. First, communities tend to change, people come and go, so it's never a static relation. Then, the fact you base your technological decisions on emotions fires off the klaxon.

With smaller distributions, the sense of familiarity is even greater. Which is fine. You may even call these people your friends. But ultimately, the computer and the operating system you're running are just tools. And you can't fall in love with your tools. That's sick.

Fetish for code
I lost my heart to a sudo user ... oh wait, it's just a tool. Wait, wait, I have a better one. My xterm brings all the boys to the yard and they're like, it's better than yours ...

Ubuntu, openSUSE, sidux, Vector Linux, or Puppy are just tools. If they can meet the requirements, use them, if not, replace them. As simple as that. People online are nice and all, but ultimately, the business report you need to submit by the end of the month or the new Gibbs sampling algorithm you just wrote are the ones that will determine how successful your use of the tools was.

No point running Linux if you can't open your boss's PowerPoint, eh? Or sending someone a love letter in PostScript. You need to choose the right tools for the right task.

Tone it down, mate

Now, let's discuss the ego. All combined, Linux users tend to feel superior over their stray sheep brethren, the Windows and Mac users. And as Ubuntu becomes more popular, this sub-group of Linux users is also placed onto the Wall of Shame and booed. My question is why?

Why do you care? Why waste ATP nucleotides on childish games when you can enjoy a nice meal, read a book, have a walk down the beach? Are you really offended that some people prefer GUI over the command line? Does it really, really bother you that some people must have Microsoft Fonts and listen to music in MP3 format?

If Linux distributions were toys, you'd realize how inane the fight really was. Adult people fighting over favorite plastic. Here, we're fighting over favorite C code. Ridiculous really.

One more thing you should introspect about is the criticism your distro receives. Maybe it's justified? Maybe not everyone is a clueless, hating noob? Maybe someone really has a point and you ought to listen? As a proud and loyal member of your distro community, your duty is to make sure the distro gets better and flourishes, right? You can't do that by being more zealous than the Knights of Venice during the Siege of Jerusalem in the Second Crusade.


The natural selection applies to operating systems equally well as to species. Darwin got it right. It's not about right or wrong. It's about the survival of the fittest. Microsoft got to be the most popular desktop operating system vendor because it did and does what people need. It may be expensive, inefficient, slow, and riddled with spyware, but that does not matter. Evolution does not care about niceties.

The same with your distro. If it's small, it means it's doing something wrong. Maybe all that criticism by people you scorn is just friendly advice by people who wish to help.


There you go, all writ plain and logical like. Has to do with basic evolutionary needs, I guess. Think about it. Being nice is always ... nice. In fact, the more you share with others, the nicer you are, the more respect you gain. Elitism never made for long-lasting friends.

Think about Bob Dylan and his superb song Like A Rolling Stone. Just a quick quote:

You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you

You can still be the super-hacker-user, just don't flaunt it in everyone's faces. You'll just look ridiculous. Takes a man to suffer ignorance with smile, Sting says. Man, I'm having one big VH1 moment here!

P.S. My goal was not to piss off anyone, just provide some food for thought regarding basic human interaction, courtesy and whatnot. There's no reason why Linux users should be the rudest bunch there is. We could be the ones setting the example, rather than scorn the newbs for being, well, simply less interested in computers than we are. That's all.

P.S.S. My apologetic tone will probably disappoint the angry crowd, but then, there's nothing more satisfying than being courteous and gentleman-like in the face of disdain.

P.S.S.S. Tux soldier logo taken from Wikipedia, licensed under GPL.


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