Criticisms and choices (was Re: Is Matrix a good choice?)

Paul Boddie paul at
Wed Mar 16 15:33:05 UTC 2022

On Wednesday, 16 March 2022 12:37:26 CET Max Mehl wrote:
> On a personal and general note, I sometimes wonder about the energy some
> people put into badmouthing certain projects in lengthy posts because of
> personal taste or disliking a person behind the project. This did not
> happen in this thread or by the initial poster, but I recently see it a
> lot with Matrix or of course also systemd.

There's a pervasive attitude in Free Software thanks to the influence of 
broader commercial and social culture, particularly American-style capitalism, 
where there apparently has to be a winner and, therefore, losers. So, a lot of 
energy is spent pursuing the zero-sum game of hustling for one's chosen winner 
and/or denigrating the competition. Ever heard anyone tell you that you should 
"stop needlessly competing with us and join our project instead"? That gets 
said quite a bit in Free Software, certainly in the Python community.

The zero-sum game thing showed itself when people started to consider 
alternatives to Facebook: pretty quickly, there was a lot of hype for Dispora 
with the usual media focus on the personalities involved, plus a lot of 
product focus rather than a focus on standards and interoperability. 
Personally, I don't pay a lot of attention to this form of communication, but 
I understand that things have since settled down. I guess everyone realised 
that the opportunity to be the one wearing the crown and ruling the kingdom 
wasn't really there.

Our wider societies are largely consumerist and focused on "brand name" 
solutions to everything, and it is arguably easier to deliver such messaging 
than it is to communicate a more complicated and nuanced picture. 
Counterintuitively, it seems that although competition and choice are 
supposedly valued, the last thing that people seem to want is to be confronted 
the existence of competition and the need to actually make a choice.

Then again, this is understandable: things like privatisation have effectively 
conjured up pretend markets that compel everyone to choose something that 
should just be provided uniformly and in a reasonable way, and choice in such 
a context is less about preferences and more about avoiding being exploited 
and overcharged by middlemen. The UK energy supplier "market" has recently 
been learning about this the hard way, although such "financialisation" has 
been underway for years in various countries.

> Is that helping Free Software? I don't think so. Sure, we should have a
> close look at software solutions, criticise them based on facts if we
> see defects or bad developments, but let us also try to fix these
> issues. If they are unsolvable, one should at least try to make the
> competing software solution (in this case XMPP, but also sysinit etc)
> better than the one one is criticising; there have to be valid reasons
> why users and projects switched to the newer software apart from "hype".
> With this, we could achieve much more for the benefit of user freedoms
> as a community.

I agree that people should absolutely invest in alternatives to the latest 
trends and fashions. One damaging element of our societies has been the 
running down of their resilience by people deciding that any form of 
duplication of effort is "inefficient" and therefore unnecessary. As noted 
above, however, there is considerable resistance to pursuing such parallel 
initiatives. It even becomes internalised and considered as common sense or 
some kind of natural order: for example, why bother doing this or that when 
"you can just put Linux on it"?

Here the case of systemd is actually illustrative, too, often being presented 
as a controversy based on technological ideology: one side wants to further a 
particular technological agenda; the other apparently rejects that agenda and 
appeals to earlier ideological principles. Soon enough, the discussion gets 
heated and personal, which is, of course, unwelcome and regrettable. But 
nobody really addresses the social and commercial dynamics that underpin the 
real nature of the conflict.

As with other technologies, like the Free Software desktop environments, by 
the time end-users get to use the software, a bunch of other people have 
decided precisely how the experience is going to be. And increasingly, if 
those end-users don't like what they see, their complaints end up being 
brushed off as "entitled" or unappreciative of the vision or hard work of the 
designers and developers of that software. (Never mind that the designers in 
various cases are pretty visionless and seem to have little sense of the 
history of the technologies in which they claim to be authorities.)

But what chance do the end-users actually have of influencing the result? They 
can get involved and presumably be told to "pipe down" when making their 
suggestions, so as not to upset the visionaries, or they can fork the entire 
software stack, which is hardly realistic. One can argue that many influential 
Free Software projects are barely participatory at all in a genuine sense: 
"volunteers are needed" to get the work done, of course, but one has to work 
one's way up the equivalent of the corporate ladder to steer the effort in a 
different direction.

The consequence is a rather more understandable degree of frustration 
expressed by people feeling that they are experiencing a loss of control. When 
a language like Python or a distribution like Debian or Fedora obliges its 
users to do unnecessary extra work or see their systems break, just because 
someone wanted to freshen up some element of the technology, and when 
dissatisfaction about such matters is met with condescension and hostility 
itself, I think that some reactions are understandable, at least if they are 
communicated respectfully.

To return closer to the original topic, I think it is worth asking whether we, 
the users, can exercise control over the technologies involved, and if one 
appears to be suffering from a lack of investment, then we must ask whether it 
is feasible or desirable to overcome its deficiencies and make it more 
appealing. From what I remember of XMPP, it rather suffered from "neat idea 
syndrome" (messages being XML documents that are incrementally parsed, when 
XML itself rather rests on notions such as well-formedness), specifications 
that were verbose and yet incomplete in critical places, and the usual 
proliferation of extensions driven by corporate opportunism. But that doesn't 
necessarily mean that it cannot be salvaged in a more sensible form.


More information about the Discussion mailing list