Why Linus Torvalds is more popular than RMS

Quote of the day. This one made me laugh out loud–probably because I have a journalism degree, I’ve seen journalism professors show up for class sloshed, a good number of my friends are journalists, and, technically, I’m a journalist myself.
“I know how journalists work. They drink too much and they search for interesting stories.” –Linus Torvalds, in the Spring 1999 issue of Linux Magazine.

As for Torvalds, his mom, dad, grandfather, sister, and uncle are all journalists. Yikes!

Stallman on the warpath. My chance to be divisive, I guess. As a journalist, I mustn’t shy away from it. Hey, we’re supposed to look for these opportunities. So…

GNU/Linux is a horrible name. Stallman’s efforts should be commended, yes. I believe they have been. Stallman’s not exactly a household name yet, but certainly more people know who he is now than a year ago. If he wants GNU and his Free Software Foundation to be known, he needs to borrow more pages from Eric Raymond, or even better yet, Torvalds.

As an aside, I had a conversation with a friend and one of his friends the other night over coffee, and the whole Linux/Open Source/Free Software/whatever topic came up (probably because he introduced me as, “Dave, my friend who wrote a book about Windows and now he’s writing a book about Linux.”). I was trying to explain Stallman, and finally I just said, “He’s so libertarian he doesn’t believe in capitalism.” She stopped for a minute. “Libertarians don’t believe in capitalism?” Sure they do, usually fanatically so. But capitalism puts certain limits on your liberties, and if those liberties mean more to you than capitalism, you can start to disdain capitalism. It’s strange, but remember, in the 1930s the leaders of Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain took conservatism to such an extreme that it led to a form of socialism. The boundaries blur at the edges.

End aside. Raymond and Torvalds are better known than Stallman partly because they’re nicer and more reasonable people. Want proof? OK. Here’s an interview with Stallman, here’s one with Torvalds, and here’s one with Raymond.

It’s pretty clear from reading these interviews why Torvalds is the most popular of these guys, and why he’s become a bit of a media darling. Yes, he looks more like the anti-Gates than RMS or Raymond, but there’s more to it than just that: He’s more charismatic, he’s less intellectual (though he’s obviously a brilliant guy, he’s much more apt to laugh or crack a joke than try to convince you he knows more than you do), and he’s considerably more humble. He’s a likable guy. More likeable than Stallman or Raymond, and more likable than Gates.

Harping the GNU/Linux thing isn’t going to accomplish much. People have a hard enough time figuring out what Linux is supposed to be. And where do we draw the line? Sure, Linux isn’t very useful without some set of utilities (and the GNU utilities are the most commonly used). But what about XFree86? That didn’t come from GNU. But if it weren’t for XFree86, very few people would be interested in either GNU or Linux. And what about KDE? Stallman hates KDE because it dares to use the Qt library, which wasn’t always GPL. But it’s largely thanks to KDE that we’re not stuck using the often-convoluted interfaces that shipped with early Linux distributions. Without KDE, there probably wouldn’t have been a GNOME in response. OK, so now we’re up to GNU/Linux/XFree86/KDE. Oh yeah. A lot of the daemons people use with Linux (minor details like Sendmail and BIND–just the building blocks of the Internet, nothing to get worked up about) came not from GNU but from the BSD project. GNU/BSD/Linux/XFree86/KDE, anyone?

This becomes a convoluted mess. Maybe “Linux” isn’t the best name (if we named all OSs after the kernel, Windows 9x would still be called DOS), but it’s the name people recognize. My goal in writing is to communicate as clearly as possible. That means using the popular name.

A makeover for Stallman. I’m already in trouble, so I might as well get in a lot of trouble. We find out early in that interview that Stallman lived in is office for 13 years or something. He had a bed in his office! What, did he sleep there, wake up, code for 16 hours a day, except for breaks for meals and a break for a shower whenever he felt like it? As Torvalds says, journalists look for interesting stories. Here’s an eccentric guy. Let’s find out more about his eccentricism. Find out about the eccentricism, you learn about the dedication. It sounds like this guy just might be more dedicated and fanatic about software than Martin Luther was about Jesus. How can that be?

In fact, Stallman may have logged 16-hour days at the keyboard. He alludes to it in the interview, when he says he suffered carpal tunnel syndrome from too much coding. But he didn’t talk about it.

Stallman has this ridiculous folk song he plays about how hackers need to follow him, and they’ll be free. He alludes to folk music in the interview, how one person can take a song someone took from someone else, and it becomes a rich thing. What if Stallman brought his acoustic guitar to this interview, said, “Like this!” and played his ridiculous song, then said, “Hmm. Maybe not.” A little self-depracating humor works sometimes. Especially when you have a reputation for being pompous and arrogant. Just ask Linus.

People have to have a compelling reason to listen to you. Giving them a bunch of free stuff is a good start, I’ll admit. Though he speaks about word processors in a demeaning manner, which may make some programmers born and bred on text editors stand up and cheer, but I’m not sure I like the tool of my trade looked down upon in that way. I’m sure my mom doesn’t. The tools we need are different from the tools rms needs, and he needs to recognize that.

So, the difference between my mom and me. I have to listen to Stallman, I have to at least feign interest in who he is and what he’s doing (and to be honest, I don’t have to try all that hard) because I’m being paid to write a book that’s almost as much about him and his work as it is about Torvalds and Gates. But why should my mom give a rip about this guy? And therein lies the problem. With years of retraining, my mom could get her job done with a Linux (or better yet, Hurd, so Stallman and GNU can get all the credit) box running GNU Emacs. Hey, it’s a text editor, it’s a Web browser, it’s a programming environment, it’s a dessert topping, it’s a floor wax! And at the end of this retraining, I could then look her in the eye and say, “You’re free.” And you know what she’d tell me? She’d give me a dirty look and tell me it wasn’t worth it.

Stallman’s attitude is, “I’ll sacrifice a little (or a lot of) convenience in order to be free.” Torvalds? He freely admits his mom uses a Mac, his dad uses Windows, and his sister uses Windows. Then he corrects himself. “No, she [his sister] uses Microsoft Works. Windows is nothing more than a program loader to her. She doesn’t care how these computers work.”

I think the contrasting attitudes have a lot to do with why Torvalds feels he has too much attention and Stallman not enough. People more readily identify with Torvalds.

2 thoughts on “Why Linus Torvalds is more popular than RMS

  • December 7, 2002 at 8:40 pm
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    I’m sure I’d like Linus if I met him but he didn’t conceive Free Software, he happened to launch one of the best Free Software projects ever. Let me be clear, this isn’t about granting RMS the benefit of the Law of Primogeniture, it’s about paying attention.

    Few people seem to listen when Stallman warns that if we don’t understand and cherish our freedoms we are are liable to lose them. The GNU Manifesto and the GPL explain how a licensing scheme that precludes software hoarding is ultimately better for everyone, but if we just pass around binaries like cheese samples and fluff off the GPL as a mere formalized blessing of this activity we may one day discover that Free Sofware has devolved into freeware-with-sources-available — and a big, free codebase for veteran carrion-eaters like Micro$oft.

    I wonder if pragmatist thinkers like Eric Raymond care much about this sort of thing. It’s already a possibility under BSD-style licensing. More later…

  • December 13, 2002 at 12:44 pm
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    Having recently corresponded with Stallman… well… I agree with many of his sentiments, but there has to be a level of compromise even in freedom. Freedom does not mean doing everything the way that one person says.

    Freedom. I think that Torvalds is more popular because he is himself more free. He isn’t out fighting for freedome, and becoming ensnared in such a fight. The man exudes freedom by being free.

    I know Stallman has done a lot for the community and I believe he will continue to do so – but he himself will not be free until he stops fighting, and starts being.

    We don’t have to *fight*, this is not a footrace to win. This is about giving people the tools to have freedom. One cannot give something away that isn’t understood, much less usable. Open Source and the Free software community aren’t about conquering proprietary software. They are about freeing people. The difference *is* the difference.

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