Free Software Advocacy

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a Free Software Foundation member’s meeting at MIT, and during the lunch break I overheard an interesting conversation. I cluster of five stereotypical geeks (male, bearded, pony-tailed, etc.) were talking. One of thm was regailing his friends ith a story of a clueless woman he had the misfortune of listening to talk about her computer usage. This woman was talking to a friend about typesetting a paper using LaTeX – it was later determined that she worked in some capacity in a physics lab. She described how it was good for equations and the friend asked if it was expensive. The woman thought and said that because they were part of the lab it was free, but that if you just had to buy it it was really expensive. She then thought a little more and noted that she knew someone who had it on their Mac and it was free, but she thought it didn’t seem as good and was probably a knockoff. The group laughed and generally concurred that this woman was painfully clueless and generally ought not be allowed computers at all.

This little story sums up the main problem I saw with the current efforts of the FSF to move beyond building free software to taking on the social activism problem of spreading the adoption of free software. This is the theme of the year for the organization and the main topic of the opening talk of the day by the FSF executive director. The question was raised of how to get people past the preconception that they cannot use free software. The suggestion was made that people set up laptops running GNU/Linux and let people try it to perform various tasks and see that they can use free software. And just a couple of hoursr later these guys were ridiculing someone they had met who had already crossed that barrier and was using free software, but just hadn’t realized it. I suspect that these guys are representative of the FSF core contingency, but they are also prototypical geeks with the attendant distain for those who are not as technologically knowledgeable as they are.
And this is the root of the problem. Free softwarehas become good enough that it has been widely adopted within the technical community. The next hurdle is to push its adoption in the general user community. And this means embracing the preconceptions and lack of knowledge of the general user community and working with kindness and enthusiasm to educate those users to the degree necessary – and no more. Free software advocates need to learn how to communicate with those who know little about technology and do not want to know more. Their computer is a tool, and if changing their tool means having to learn more about how it works, they will not make the change.
This attitude is observable throughout much of the FSF materials. Their “Bad Vista” effort was a brilliiant idea – capitalize on the huge Windows Vista marketing program to draw attention to the free software alternatives. When the media was looking for “the other side of the story” when covering the Vista release, it gave them something to talk about. And this project was somewhat successful. We even saw that a Google search on “Vista” returned the sitet as the fifth link. This was touted as a victory – that someone deciding whether to upgrade to Vista or not will search on “Vista” and find this page and learn about the alternatives.
But if you go look at the Bad Vista webpage, I do not believe the average user will spend more than a second on the page before deciding it is not relevant to their interests. Even the blurb on the Google results page makes it unlikely the user will click through:

The BadVista campaign is an advocate for the freedom of computer users, opposing adoption of Microsoft Windows Vista and promoting free (as in freedom) …

If they do click through, they are faced with pages of prose, written to be compelling to those who are already part of the movement. Discussions of freedom and control are not going to grab the attention of the average user wanting to know if they should bother to upgrade their OS or not. To be effective, the Bad Vista page needs to be presented as an ad campaign. Within a split second a visitor needs to be able to see the problems with Vista (such as a screenshot of an error message showing that an upgrade to Vista has prevented a user from pereforming a task or accessing their data) and an incredibly succinct presentation of the advantages of the free software alternative (such as a bullet list of features – the familiar window-based interface, support for office software, multimedia, web surfing, email, and games, easy one-click installation, usable on almost any hardware, etc.).
That is, the free software advocates need to be willing to argue the reasons that motivate others, not the reasons that motivate them. And they need to be williing to embrace members into the community who may not agree with all of the groups’ tenets, or to take them to the same degree. They have to accept members who will use a free OS but still like having an iPod, and who may even want to dual boot to still play their favorite video game.
This, of course, is a problem with any advocacy group. Environmentalists need to embrace the people who will recycle and buy fuel efficient cars but still want to be able to drive. Anti-war activists need to accept those who oppose the current war but are not pure pacifists. These groups also suffer from the same heirarchy of devotion to the cause that the free software movement does. The unique problem of free software is that it is more feasible to adopt a 100% free software stance and hold the line, and the hardline advocates have been doing this. It is time, if they are really serious about taking the next step, for them to open their arms to a wider spectrum of supporters.

2 thoughts on “Free Software Advocacy

  1. Part of the problem here is that free software is not what competes with Vista. The various Linux and BSD distributions – Ubuntu, Slackware, OpenBSD – compete with Vista, and each one has different strengths and weaknesses as compared to Vista. If you want to argue that Vista’s interface is more flashy than useful, you won’t want to use Ubuntu with Beryl as your example. However, if you want to argue that you can get that kind of flair without having to use Vista, you will. Free software, as an ideology, competes with commercial software, and that’s probably too abstract an argument to get into with most people. Most people aren’t going to care that their software is open source. The selling point should be that free software is as good as commercial software, or better, and just works. Unfortunately, this isn’t often the case, and is often not the focus of free software projects.

  2. This is a really good point – for a lot of projects the freeness is the point, more than the usability. Someone else brought up the issue of proprietary drivers to me, and the fact that Ubuntu isn’t “as free” because of them, and that’s exactly the type of development choice that the average user isn’t going to care about as a selling point.

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