Back to Eric's Home Page Up to Site Map 14 June 1998

Fame? Ego? Oversimplification!

(I originally wrote this 14 July 1998 in response to a thread on Slashdot.)

Many messages appearing on Slashdot in the last couple of days have made me wince pretty hard...and consider whether, in fact, I was really wise to try to haul the social dynamics of hackerdom out into the light.

What's bothering me the most is some of the people who have gotten enthusiastic about the analysis I presented in The Cathedral and the Bazaar (CatB) and Homesteading The Noosphere (HtN), but, in their enthusiasm, are arguing something like a bad parody of it.

I don't use the word `fame' at all in either paper, except once in reporting on Fare Rideau's critique of an early version of HtN. (The reference has since been removed; Fare reworded his critique after reading this essay.) This is not an accident. `Fame' is a vulgar, brassy, and shallow thing when compared to the earned and considered esteem of one's peers. Believe me on this, because I've had quite a bit of both (especially lately) and I know which one feels like a cheap high with a bad hangover and which one is food for the soul.

And so, I think, do most hackers. It oversimplifies my work and (much more importantly) insults the people and culture my work describes to imply that most hackers have some inner fantasy of tickertape parades, talk-show appearances, and hordes of adoring groupies. But that is exactly what the word `fame' connotes -- and the way people have been flinging it around in disagreement and (worse) agreement with me suggests that a lot of them need to think carefully about the difference between `fame' and `peer repute'.

That difference is crucial to understanding our culture. Because `fame' is a mob phenomenon, essentially an emotional response. It's irrational and self-reinforcing. There are people who are famous for being famous. The photographer who took the pictures for my People interview back in 1996 during my pre-CatB first fifteen minutes of fame called them `face people'. Often, there's nothing behind the face.

Peer repute, on the other hand, is a much subtler and solider thing. The earned and considered approbation of one's peers has to come from accomplishment, from productivity. Often those peers are few, and this becomes more true as one becomes more accomplished. Higher levels of it, unlike fame, become progressively harder to earn because one's own standards for who is a fit peer keep rising.

Linus said "I am your God" at Linux Expo on stage and brought down the house. The line was ironic and hilarious precisely because what he has is not `fame', not uncritical adoration, not the masses gazing up at him in awe, but rather a rational peer response to real achievement. He knows that; and he knows that we know it.

I thought most of us did, anyway. The last day or two of Slashdot makes me wonder. So, in case it needs saying again, don't confuse `peer repute' with `fame'. And if you've interpreted CatB and HtN as assertions that `fame' is the only significant motive for hackers, think again.

Reality, as usual, is more subtle and complex than that.

Back to Eric's Home Page Up to Site Map 14 June 1998

Eric S. Raymond <>