Remembering Telsa Gwynne

Telsa Gwynne, whom I knew through my time in the LinuxChix community between 2000 and around 2007, died this week:

Telsa is the direct inspiration for the entire 15 years of content on this website, especially the personal diary. Before joining LinuxChix, I first knew Telsa through her online diary (its archival title, “This was a diary, once”, is painful to read now), which I heard about through someone who read Alan Cox’s diary, and I was struck by how striking daily life could be in written form. Telsa’s diary was full of personality and snark, and singlehandedly inspired me to begin writing about my life online too.

I thought of her as a net celebrity, although not in the usual way of “married to Alan Cox”, but as “writer of one of my favourite websites”. I was therefore a little bit shy about directly interacting with her when I initially joined the LinuxChix lists in 2000, but I first met her in person in 2001 at linux.conf.au when she and Malcolm Tredinnick were hanging around debriefing and complaining about CVS, on which he was teaching a tutorial that year which Telsa later wrote up. She was grumpy and kind and normal, even if she did know CVS.

Andrew saw her again at LCA in 2003, but I didn’t go and I think I only met her one more time, in Wales in 2004 when we visited their house and due to poor planning with trains, ended up staying the night. Telsa and Alan were kind hosts and we enjoyed Telsa’s huge knowledge of local history as we walked all around Swansea.

Telsa’s final diary entry in 2006 says she “plain[ly] and simpl[y] los[t] interest in running to stand still just to understand how to use anything mechanical.” However hard she worked for it, I remember her as profoundly technically knowledgeable and an excellent teacher. A great deal of my initial learning about both CSS and character encodings came from her, and she was well known as a high level user of DocBook. A friend shared one of her posts to a private LinuxChix technical list today, walking through the differences between library packages and -devel packages in Linux distributions, and their implications for compiling software.

I hadn’t been in contact with Telsa since she or I variously withdrew from our common online communities, so since 2007 or before. I kept an eye on the very occasional updates to her website, and was pleased to think that she had found a more satisfying life outside her Free Software community volunteering. I still find this a happy thought.

Telsa was also a critical inspiration to me as an activist: in the early 2000s (and still) it was hugely controversial to either believe that open source communities could still work if they were more civil (the entire LinuxChix project was partly an experiment with that), and even more so to insist that they should be. Telsa is the earliest person I can think of who stood up in an open source development community and asked it to change its norms in the direction of civility. I don’t know how heavily her online harassment experiences played a part in her departing Free Software and some online communities — I hope it wasn’t a large part — but I’m sorry it happened and I’m angry.

Telsa was a brilliant and kind and strong person, and I am sorrier than I can say that we will never be in contact again. To Alan, Debbie and others who loved her: my profound sympathies for the loss of an amazing person.

Other memorials:

Telsa online: