OpenBSD and the impact of culture

July 11, 2015

We use OpenBSD here for firewalls and a few other things, and over the course of doing so we've found a number of bugs and issues. Have we ever reported these to the OpenBSD people?

Ha ha. Of course not. We'd have to be crazy to do that.

The OpenBSD culture has acquired a reputation for being what we could politely call 'abrasive'. But let's call a spade a spade and say 'abusive' instead. As the folklore has it, if you show up with a question or an issue or a bug report that the OpenBSD people feel is stupid or ignorant or wrong, you can expect them to call you an idiot and a waste of their time. Innocently say something that they don't like? You can look forwarded to being upbraided, perhaps by the infamous Theo himself. Maybe you'll even get an explosion of invective.

(When I wrote about how a social obligation to report bugs implies that projects have a social obligation to make reporting bugs not unpleasant, OpenBSD was the big example I had in mind.)

If we cared a lot, if we desperately needed OpenBSD to work right in some case where it doesn't, maybe interacting with this would be worth it. But we don't, it isn't, and so we don't. We'll almost certainly never submit an OpenBSD bug report no matter what issues we run into. I suspect we're not alone in this.

(Certainly in the one case we ran into where we couldn't get OpenBSD to work at all for us, we just abandoned it rather than particularly file bug reports or interact with the OpenBSD community. This wasn't even a decision I was involved in, as it was a project my co-workers were doing.)

If OpenBSD doesn't want to get bug reports except from people who are really dedicated, the folklore about their culture is working really great for them. If they would maybe like some more bug reports, assistance, and so on, it is not being so helpful.

I also rather think that this culture affects how interested people are in using OpenBSD. Especially with free software, the community around the software can really change how usable it is because the community is where you go for information, help, advice, bugfixes, and so on. If there is effectively no community for you, the software becomes an unsupported black box, and those are much less useful and attractive.

Culture matters. Culture has an impact, one that goes far beyond the obvious. And contrary to what people sometimes say, you cannot divorce culture from technical issues or consider code and personalities separately, because how you talk about technical issues influences whether people are willing to talk to you about them at all. Some people will care enough to persist anyways; other people won't.

(And OpenBSD is not particularly an exception here, although it does make a great example that I have personal experience with. Any number of projects have their own cultural issues; I'm sure you can name your own favorite cases.)

Written on 11 July 2015.
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Last modified: Sat Jul 11 03:39:41 2015
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