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Curated Thoughts on FOSStodon

This is my second essay directly about the situation alluded to in this announcement from @kev@fosstodon.org. In summary, someone requested that the GIMP software project consider changing its name due, in part, to that name being spelled identical to, and a homophone with, an “ableist insult.” In turn, the administrator of a Mastodon instance, Kev at the FOSStodon instance, said that people were being “over-sensitive.” You can pick up on his side of the story from the post I’ve linked.

This is currently a living document and will be expanded and changed to better reflect all my opinions.

What follows are selections of my commentary on the matter, lightly curated to try and present the points in a more useful matter. The commentary took place on my own Fediverse account, but also in emails with members of the FOSStodon community. I’m going to try and arrange things as a series of questions and answers, though due to the complexity of the topic and the low-quality of this writing, there will be failings.

Before reading this you’re encouraged to read My Thoughts on Kev and FOSStodon. Other essays that touch on similar topics are There and Back Again (A Fediverse Journey), and I Cannot Trust Post-Modern Conservatives.

Note: I’ve had people use gimp toward me in hateful ways. I have a visible physical disability, and people have used gimp to reduce my personhood to that disability, to demonstrate their disrespect. I mention this not for sympathy, but to clarify that I’m not speaking on behalf of another group, but representing my own objections to the term.

What is a “Techbro”

People keep calling FOSStodon an instance for techbros. This confused some people on the community, who defined techbro as a different thing: someone who works in tech, but isn’t into tech; someone who uses open-source software, but isn’t into open-source software.

I don’t think the distinction matters. Here’s what I gave in answer to one community member. (So, “you” is in reference to them, or FOSStodon users, or FOSS techbros, or techbros. As I’ve said, I don’t think the distinction much matters.)

The history of FOSS, and its intersection with the classism necessary because it involves complex technical devices that cost oodles of money and require education to use, is, well, more complex than the machines it uses, but it is NOT the whole of the history of non-proprietary software. I think because of that you might be under-appreciating just how white it is, relative to the non-FOSS cultures that have similar views. Do you remember when FOSS communities scrubbed references to “hacking” from their online presences, because I do. Y’all are “developers,” you are “engineers.” You use the language of capitalists to use capitalist systems to do capitalist things. You fret about things like growth and even here, you’re concerned about capturing market share of potential social media tool developers, not stopping what could be an ongoing violence.

FOSS isn’t the whole of ethical computing. It isn’t even the whole of free and open source software culture - there’s a reason some folk choose to say FLOSS instead, and it’s because of the implicit - and I think intrisic - reliance on the kyriarchy that FOSS has. I might even wonder if FOSS wasn’t cultivated as a subculture of hacker culture in order to deradicalize it, now that I’m thinking about it - I don’t know the history, but it’s a wonder I’m having.

I think you might be trying to defend one thing: the absolute morality of libertarian property rights regarding software and the social goods such a wide distribution of property rights would enable, and FOSS, a global subculture that is more united around its identity than its morality. I hope i’m not putting words in your mouth, but I think maybe you’re scared of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and that brings me back to: that’s really presumptive, to think that if techbros don’t maintain a bastion of FOSS culture, the distributarian ideology would dry up as well.

It won’t. As evidenced by how many white bros are mad at Kev for hurting the perception of the morality because of his behavior; folk like you; who clearly care more about the big issues being slugged out. I know we might have pecularities in how we use the term, but I think good allies really will, when the chips are down, side with their morals. The only reason I think some - like you - aren’t, is because you’re not appreciating every nuance of how your participation puts down chips even before you make a decision, and well, some actual disagreements that are valid and just disagreements about practice but I don’t think those are the hangup.

Can FOSStodon Be Saved?

A few communities members are remaining to try and fix the instance. They’re concerned if that’s the right decision.

I told them

Because of that closer alignment to techbros than marginalized folk (you share nearly every part of your culture with them except your belief in free software), when y’all aren’t actively promoting FOSS values, you’re promoting techbro values. And even when you’re promoting FOSS values, it’s techbro takes on it: naming software gimp isn’t hurtful? Yea, that sounds like something a fratbro wearing a Redskins jersey would say, if they knew about the topic.

So that leaves a lot of people I think rightfully hesitant about where you’ll ultimately pull people with your efforts. I’m concerned you’re not making white culture better by making it more FOSSy, but keeping FOSS culture bad by maintaining its whiteness.

There’s also the simple matter of: isn’t it presumptive to assume we need white people to come build better tech or communities for lifting up marginalized folk? It’s a form of white saviorism. Rather than advocate for more technology, more education, more income (techbro solutions to social justice), stop arguing when people say y’all are using current technology in harmful ways. Listen when you’re told your approach to wisdom doesn’t work with the real world.

In a word, stop trying to make the word more equal without giving up your privilege. It just won’t work, and after decades of FOSS, quite a few people are right to be mistrustful that y’all’ll finally get it right this time.

A tangent, now. I think I’m able to express more about why techbros and FOSS are the same, and why I do think I have some insight into why FOSStodon probably can’t be saved:

How Can This Be Solved, Beside Discussion?

I was also asked by community members several questions along the lines of, how can this be solved without slugging it out, hashing it out over these issues as they come up. How can people do what’s right before they know what’s right. Here’s what I said.

If someone says you’re standing on their foot do you step back or start to ask them about their experience with the pain?

If you’re undecided about whether the oppressed or oppressor is right… why not just side with the oppressed? Literally worst case, they’re wrong and so your actions are useless in fighting oppression. What’s the worst case of supporting oppression?

I know it might seem trite but really; if there’s two people shouting an opinion at you about the harmful marginalization of a community and how one group’s behavior enables it… why would you trust the opinion of someone who’s defending their potentially harmful action, over the person who’s claiming harm, by default?

[Here’s my logic - I welcome criticism on it; I’m not confident in it.]

The point here is that, it’s important to consider the message hashing it out sends. To some people, it’s literally saying their safety is less important than you maintaining reasonableness. To others, it’s saying that you need people to spend their labor on you: there’s this tone of, “you owe it to us to convince us that we’re hurting you,” when that simply wouldn’t be a viable response without systemic power to stand behind you.

What Should FOSStodon’s Moderators Learn Right Now?

I was asked by community members what they might be able to learn from Kev’s apology; what perspectives they weren’t seeing when they read and accepted it.

I said

What’s Wrong with Kevin’s Apology

In it he says:

These are absolutely juvenile opinions. That they’re held by someone who considers himself a leader of any sort of community should be shameful. Y’all who accepted it as an apology… what? It’s not an apology to you! It’s not yours to accept. I’m personally offended by GIMP as a software name, and I am telling you: I do not accept this apology, and in fact, I think he’s just taken a bunch of words to explain exactly how convicted he is that I am a snowflake and that that is just as bad as if I were a Nazi.

I’ve said it in a few posts but y’all working in tech - especially FOSS tech, where it’s clear you have surplus time - really have no excuse to be ignorant on these issues. I don’t know Kev’s situation specifically, but Just based on average software dev incomes, y’all could pay out of pocket go to university part time and still earn more and work less than lots of people in poverty. There’s absolutely no excuse for this sort of behavior when y’all - have been in this field for 10+ years, and take such pride in your abilities to provide redress for social problems.

It’s inexcusable, and it’s ridiculous that now y’all - not you, again - are basically going “well if we’re wrong, PROVE IT. But don’t get emotional because remember: we don’t respect snowfla- sorry, over-sensitive people.” You’re asking people with less resources to do extra labour so you can take it and build your own community for it. That’s almost cultural appropriation, given how much work marginalized folk have put into learning how to handle online spaces in a safe way, and to present it as something you NEED to do or else there wont’ be those spaces?

[I advised better instances to join.]

If your dream is a more equitable internet, why are you trying to recreate the centralized cultural enclaves that support the society that made the internet you don’t like?

Why not… actually be radical?

Editorial and License Information

My name is emsenn and I wrote this essay for the benefit of the commons. To the extent possible under law, I have waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to it. If you're viewing it on a remote server, you're encouraged to download your own copy. Essays like this are made possible with financial support from readers like you. Thank you. To read more of my work and to learn more about me, visit https://emsenn.net