“FUD” Has Become Meaningless

It’s Time to Drop an Over-used Word

by Kai MacTane

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Once upon a time, the term “FUD” meant something. Journalists writing for IT-oriented publications like Information Week and Wired got used to writing little explations like “‘FUD’ stands for ‘fear, uncertainty, and doubt’” every time a source used the term in a quote. But somewhere along the way, throngs of unthinking Slashdotters and open-source partisans killed the term. By abusing it to mean “any pronouncement about technology that I disagree with”, they’ve rendered it almost completely meaningless. The word now means whatever its user wants it to mean, and might as well be abandoned.

The History of “FUD”

It dates all the way back to the days when IBM was the biggest player in the mainframe market, when IBM’s marketing people would warn prospective buyers of the plethora of unfortunate things that befell people who were rash enough to buy competing products from companies like Amdahl. Phrases like “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” subtly implied that people did, indeed, get fired for buying Amdahl (or, later, DEC). Instead of looking at the technical merits of the products, they played on people’s insecurities.

In short, saying “this stuff is FUD” used to be a shorthand way of saying “This stuff isn’t just false, it’s deliberately misleading, in a way that’s designed to play on people’s anxieties in order to keep them supporting the market leader. It’s not just factually incorrect; it’s a deliberate lie being used as a business tactic.”

It doesn’t mean that any more. Thanks to relentless over-use and even outright abuse by legions of F/OSS fanboys, “FUD” now means little more than “You poopy-head! Shut up!” It’s like saying someone is “helping the terrorists” or just plain “un-American”; the modern-day equivalent of calling someone a communist. It’s not a real word with actual meaning. Consider the following examples of live usage in 2006:

Don’t Criticize Ruby

Joel Spolsky, in the course of answering a question about enterprise-level Web framework platforms, mentions his honest impression of Ruby: it’s slow, and not mature enough to bet your entire business on. Though Spolsky can’t possibly benefit (or be harmed) by a downturn (or an upturn) in Ruby or Rails adoption, Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson calls Joel’s post “one of the purest forms of FUD I’ve ever seen”, mistaking one writer’s admission that he has some fears, uncertainties, and doubts for a marketing division’s attempts to instill those emotions. (It’s interesting to note, way down in the comments, Des Traynor’s cogent rebuttal to Hansson, and the way it stands out from the Rails fans’ groupthink.)

Still, Hansson’s misuse of “FUD” is at least somewhat defensible — Spolsky does admit to feeling those emotions, even if there’s nothing tactical about it. Other writers bend the word even further.

Still dealing with the Ruby world, one blogger promoting automated code testing mentions that “One of the common complaints and FUD mentioned about Ruby and Rails is non-existent or weak support for debugging”. So, we once again have a Ruby fan effectively claiming that if programmers have critiques of a programming language, and voice them publicly (perhaps in the hope that their concerns will be addressed in the next version), it's tantamount to a strategic assault on that language.

Imagine if Niklaus Wirth had reacted with such petulance when Brian Kernighan criticized Pascal. Instead, he took many of the criticisms to heart in designing his later languages, and in 2002 wrote that he was convinced “that its successors Modula and Oberon are much more mature and refined designs than Pascal. They form a family, and each descendant profited from experiences with its ancestors.”

Don’t Criticize Wikipedia, Either

Then there’s Brian Meidell, who writes that “[t]here has been a lot of FUD about whether [W]ikipedia is a bad thing, and how contents on a wiki can’t be trusted because it’s publicly editable.” Well, yes, people have been publicly questioning the accuracy and trustworthiness of user-editable resources. Before people decide to trust Wikipedia like Jimbo Wales wants us to, we want to kick the tires first. Testing something out is good common sense, not FUD.

Beyond the Edge of FUD

In a blog entry questioning why the indigenous Chilean tribe known as the Mapuche felt the need to sue Microsoft for releasing a version of Windows localized in their language, the writer asks, “Is this just about anti-Microsoft FUD, or is there a problem with the resulting product?” It’s unclear what “anti-Microsoft FUD” is supposed to refer to in this instance: The way people like to sue large and well-financed corporate targets, hoping to collect some of that money for themselves? The fact that lots of people love to hate Microsoft and complain about them frequently? Seriously, where’s the FUD?

Finally there’s Armin Wallrab, who takes issue with IBM’s critique of Sun’s choice of open-source license for Java, claiming that “IBM still seems to fight in the cold war and pulls the old (but well known) strategy ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ — FUD.” But in the article he links to and is commenting on, it’s hard to find IBM promoting any of those three things. Instead, IBM simply says that they’ve already told Sun they think the Apache License would have been a better choice, and they haven’t changed their mind about that.

Much like the Ruby partisans, in Wallrab’s world the mere act of voicing disagreement or difference of opinion is equated with “spreading FUD”. It’s interesting to note that Wallrab is a Sun employee — perhaps some IBMer could consider Wallrab’s disapproval of IBM’s critique to also be FUD? After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

With such a wide and fluid definition, anything can be FUD. The term has become completely meaningless, and might as well just be dropped entirely. It’s dead, Jim. And you know what? I think that’s a good thing. Without “FUD” available as a generic snarl word, people will have to actually point out real flaws in each other’s arguments, instead of just calling them silly names.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. He can still remember learning the rudiments of programming on a DEC PDP-11 at his middle school, less than 10 miles from DEC’s headquarters in Massachusetts.