Open source and arguing over the Internet

I’m generally reluctant to wade into arguments, but there’s been a war of words between Dave and Stephen Downes over the weekend – and unlike the slightly jovial sparring I had with Marc Canter a while back, this one has made us both quite upset.

Dave’s post on Saturday, open source – only in an ideal world, was intended to draw out argument, and hopefully provoke a little discussion about the business models we take for granted on the Internet. It’s no secret that we’ve found it a struggle to make ends meet while developing Elgg, and the other Curverider projects are a way for us to make more of an impact. In particular, in just over two weeks, Explode has had more publicity and interest than Elgg has over three years. That’s made us look up and take notice, and I believe was one of the catalysts for Dave’s post.

There’s nothing wrong with his assertion; it’s not a closed case that open source is a better model. Debate is what the Internet is really good for, because you can easily reach a lot of different people with radically different viewpoints than your own. That’s one of the reasons we built Elgg, and I think that principle stands up as a good one for society as well as for learning. If everyone follows some basic rules, you can widen the gene pool of ideas. Rule number one is avoid ad hominem attacks, and unfortunately, this is the way Dave was responded to on a very well-read elearning blog.

In another life, I’ve run a forum for serious debate (which I won’t link to, but you can find it if you try) for over five years, which gets roughly the same number of pageviews and contributions as per day, and where teenagers – not usually the most level-headed of people – have discussed everything from Cindy Sheehan to gay marriage, largely without incident. These are the rules that have kept us going for all that time:

Use the English language to the best of your ability. That includes at least trying to use the correct spelling for your region, and using easily understandable punctuation. If we see you speaking in 1337, or writing “hey peeps how r u”, we will cry.

Don’t personally insult another forum user, especially not because of their political or social views. This also includes trashing a forum topic they’ve made; if you feel it’s below you, don’t contribute. Basically, if you don’t have something constructive to say, don’t say it at all – if you’re too abusive, you might find yourself banned.

Don’t post IN ALL CAPS, or make “me too” postings – i.e., if you’re posting, make it legible, and try to further the conversation.

I think this stands up as a good principle to debate anything on the Internet. One of the most powerful features of personal publishing is the ability to get your message out there instantly – whether you’re right or wrong. To quote someone else in a webby field, with great power comes great responsibility; in other words, think before you post.

Arguing with Dave’s post about the merits of open source is fine. Debate away; all parties might learn something, as often happens when people disagree and discuss civilly. But there’s nothing to gain from attacking him as a person, or smearing our goals as a project based on your personal suspicions or prejudices.

Let’s keep this adult, people.

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