After reading “Community Power Part 4: The GNOME Way“, unlike the other articles of the series, I was left with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Strangely, reading it triggered some intense negative feelings on me, even if I fundamentally agree with many of the points raised there. In particular, the “The Hows” and “In Practice” sections seemed to be the most intense triggers.
Reading it over and over and trying to understand the reason I had such strong reactions gave me some insights that I’d like to share. Perhaps they could be useful to more people, including to the author of article.
I think one of the misleading aspects of the article is the extensive usage of “we” and “us”. I’d like to remind the reader that the article is hosted on a personal blog, and thus its content cannot be taken as an official statement of the GNOME community as a whole. I’m sure many members of the community read this “Community Power” series as “Tobias’ interpretation of the dynamics of the community”, but this may not be clear to people outside of this community.
In this particular article, I feel like the usage of these plural pronouns may have had a bad side effect. They seem to subtly imply that the GNOME community think and act on a particular way – perhaps even contradicting the first part of the series – which is not a productive way to put it.
On Nuance And Bridges
The members of the GNOME community seem to broadly share some core values, yes, and these values permeate many aspects of daily interactions in varying degrees. Broad isn’t strict, though, and there actually is a surprising amount of disagreement inside the community. Most of the times, I think this is beneficial to both personal and collective growth. Ideas rarely go uncontested. There is nuance.
And nuance is precisely where I think many statements of the article fail.
Let’s look at an example:
Shell extensions are always going to be a niche thing. If you want to have real impact your time is better invested working on apps or GNOME Shell itself.
If I take the individual ideas, they make sense. Yes, contributing to GNOME Shell itself, or apps themselves, is almost always a good idea, even if it takes more time and energy. Yes, Shell extensions fill in the space for very specialized features. So, what’s the problem then?
Let me try and analyze this backwards, from how I would have written this sentence:
Shell extensions aren’t always the best route. If a particular feature is deemed important, contributing to GNOME Shell directly will have a much bigger impact. Contributors are encouraged to share their ideas and contribute upstream as much as possible.
Writing it like this, I think, gives a stronger sense of building bridges and positive encouragement while the core of the message remains the same. And I think that is achieved by getting rid of absolutes, and a better choice of words.
Compare that to the original sentence. “Niche” doesn’t necessarily convey a negative meaning, but then it is followed by “if you want to have real impact […]“, implying that niche equals unsubstantial impact. “Your time is better invested” then threateningly assumes the form of “stop wasting your time“. Not only it seems to be an aggressive way of writing these ideas, but it also seems to put down the efforts of contributors who spent time crafting extensions that help the community.
It burns bridges instead of building them.
The “traditional desktop” is dead, and it’s not coming back. Instead of trying to bring back old concepts like menu bars or status icons, invent something better from first principles.
These are certainly bold statements! However, it raises some questions:
- Is the “traditional desktop” really dead? I’m sure the people using Windows and Mac outnumber people using GNOME by many degrees of exponentiality. Or perhaps was Tobias only thinking about the experience side of things?
- Is it really not coming back?
- Are old concepts necessarily bad? Do they need to be reinvented?
I am no designer or user experience expert, evidently. I’m just playing the devil’s advocate here. These are unsubstantiated claims that do sound almost dogmatic to me. In addition to that, saying that a tradition is dead cannot be taken lightly. It is, in essence, a powerful statement, and I think it’s more generally productive to avoid it. Perhaps it could have been written in a less threatening and presumptuous way?
Let’s try and repeat the rewriting exercise above. Here’s my take:
GNOME’s focus on getting out of the way, and creating meaningful and accessible interfaces, conflicted with many elements that compose what we call the “traditional desktop”, such as menus and status icons. We set ourselves on a hard challenge to invent better patterns and improve the experience of using the desktop, and we feel like we are progressing the state of the art of the desktop experience.
My goal was to be less confrontational, and evoke the pride of working on such a hard problem with a significant degree of success. What do you, reader, think of this rewritten sentence?
To conclude this piece, I’m honestly upset with the original article that was discussed here. Over the past few years, I and many others have been working hard to build bridges with the extended community, specially extension developers, and it’s been extremely successful. I can clearly see more people coming together, helping the platform grow, and engaging and improving GNOME. I personally reviewed the first contribution of more than a dozen new contributors.
It seems to me that this article comes in the opposite direction: it puts down people for their contributions; it generates negativity towards certain groups of the extended GNOME community; it induces readers into thinking that it is written on the behalf of the GNOME community when it is not.
Now that it is already out there, there is little I can do. I’m writing this hoping that it can undo some of the damage that I think the original article did. And again: despite using “we” and “us” extensively, the article is only the Tobias’ personal interpretation of the community.