Do Personality Cults Dictate the Direction of Open Source?

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 13, 2012

Are open source software trends driven by cults of personality? That's the question that Aaron Seigo, a contributor to the KDE Project, asks in a new post. The Var Guy makes a pretty good argument that although open source users line up behind pundits such as Mark Shuttleworth, Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman, these people don't dictate the direction of users and developers as much as Seigo thinks. While noting that fact, it's also worth noting that cults of personality may have an even more pronounced effect on proprietary platforms than open source ones.

Seigo writes:

"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."

He points to the fact that pundits such as Linus Torvalds are often wrong, and yet they constantly function as Pied Pipers, attracting followers who don't always carefully evaluate what they're hearing.

"Torvalds generated a lot of discussion, but no one bowed down to worship his opinions," counters The Var Guy.

The fact is that strong personalities and technology figureheads have a polarizing and powerful effect across the technology scene. Here are two words that should illustrate how powerful one personality can be in the world of proprietary technology: Steve Jobs. Jobs has been lionized since his death, but was worshipped by many users and developers long before that event. 

On the flip side, Bill Gates ushered in the most widely used desktop operating system, but was roundly criticized during most of his technology career. He illustrates that personalities can polarize when it comes to proprietary technology.

Some might argue that open source software might actually benefit from a leadership-oriented personality like Steve Jobs. Other open source purists might argue that creating a monoculture lining up behind one person is directly contrary to open source ideals. It's an interesting argument, though--and it illustrates how the power of technology and the power of personalities are forever intertwined.