The role of critics in FOSS development

mini cowboy, CC-BY-SA by rdenubila on Flickr
mini cowboy, CC-BY-SA by rdenubila on Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of years of the role that critics play in the course of free/open source development.  Obviously one of the advantages that FOSS software has over its proprietary counterparts is that it almost always has a richer feedback mechanism, so that it can incorporate the feedback (and patches!) from a wide variety of interested parties.  (The mantra of “No matter how many smart people you hire, there are always smarter people outside your organization.” rings loudly in my ears!)  This feedback loop is important — perhaps even vital — to long term development.  At the same time, the open nature of FOSS development gives critics a large forum in which to voice their opinions.  How best to be make sure that there’s a fair balance between constructive feedback and criticism?  I was reminded of this balance by a couple of quotes from former US President Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1894, he said:

Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.


On April 23rd 1910, he put it a little more eloquently:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.


To each of you who are in the arena — who are daring greatly, who are fighting the good fight, I tip my hat to you.  It’s not always easy work, or sexy work, or work that gets a lot of praise and glory. Thank you for your tireless efforts to make the world a better place one piece, one parameter, one package, or one project at a time.  And to those critics who aren’t in the fight, we still hear you — but at the end of the day, I’m more willing to pay attention to those who are engaged in the battle.

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Jared Smith is very enthusiastic about free and open source software. To learn more about Jared, visit

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