Free as in Car Keys

I have been working as an intern with the FSF this summer.  The majority of my time has been spent on a new program that will take a stab at revolutionizing the world of Free Software.  This initiative, called GNU Generation, works to fill a vital time-sensitive hole in the world of Free Software: involving young people.

Yes, all Free Software contributors are important, but none so much so as young people.  Microsoft, Apple, Infinite Campus, and other malevolent software companies are constantly trying to wedge themselves into this market.  Why?  They recognize the importance of this age group.  Young people are the future, and if that future is going to involve Free Software, they have to learn about it and its importance early on.  That is why GNU Generation targets the 13-18 year old age range.  This age group in particular is just beginning to discover talents, interests, and ethics.  More than any other age group, they understand the importance of freedom, decentralization, and improving “the system”.  The only thing 98% of this age group know about is “free of cost software” and “paid-for software”.  In fact, the majority of them haven’t ever used a single piece of Free Software in their whole life, let alone understood it.  Most of those who have used Free Software have used only OpenOffice or FireFox due to their “free of cost” benefit without knowing anything about the concepts behind them.

Proprietary software companies can squeeze themselves into this crack simply because they have piles of money.  They are so rich that a major advertising campaign doesn’t even leave a dent in their wallet.  Some of them are so rich that even failed advertising campaigns get as much attention as wildly successful ones.  (**Cough cough** Jerry Sienfeld **cough cough**)  Most proprietary software companies use the methods they do because they are, well, proprietary software companies.  They create their “product”, and sell it in the same method products were sold hundreds of years ago.  This concept is then applied to public relations and marketing.  They don’t recognize the power of the communication age, and that they can have all kinds of unaffiliated people working to advance their company.  Most Free Software projects use a distributed model for development.  Each person contributes his/her efforts to the project, and the project grows.  Though it is not Free Software, Facebook is a wonderful example of this model applied to advertising.  It only took one person in any given circle of friends to sign up before everyone else in that circle had to join.  Eventually, Facebook became the size of medium-sized country.  It never had to run any major advertising campaign.  Instead, it applied Free Software concepts to advertising its proprietary service, encouraging each person to do his/her part.

GNU Generation aims to work in a somewhat similar fashion, without the proprietary edge.  It’s goal is to create a support network for young people to start contributing to and advocating for Free Software.  It is easy to become overwhelmed in a world where people consider “Do you prefer PC or Mac?” to be an intelligent-sounding question that demonstrates one’s knowledge of technology.  (Especially when they assume “Windows” by saying “PC”)  The social “viral” effect has been shown to work as long as long as the objective is easy, accessible, and worthwhile (in the eyes of the general public).  Applying these concepts to the current state of Free Software gives the basis of GNU Generation.

GNU Generation provides services to both Free Software projects and young people interested in contributing.  It aims to create a welcoming environment that encourages and provides resources for high-school-aged students (approx. 13-18) to contribute to Free Software.  Free Software projects can register and submit tasks to be completed by participants.  Participants can choose to either sign up for a one of the tasks created by these Free Software projects, or create their own project.  Creating a project can include either a contribution to an existing Free Software project, or a brand new project from scratch.

Free Software is really something to get excited about.  Through the community created by GNU Generation, hopefully that excitement will persevere through the years to come.  Unfortunately, it will take more than just a small little campaign to make this happen.  It will take the cooperation of all Free Software users, developers, and advocates to really get the message across.  So if you value your freedom, and would like Free Software to succeed, take the time to talk to your family and friends about the importance of Free Software and the values it carries on its shoulders.  Together, we can create a real GNU generation.

The GNU Generation Homepage

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 9:57 am  Comments (3)  
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What the FSF is doing wrong

Please don’t take this post the wrong way just because of the title.  I love the FSF.  However, based on my observations, it has made some major mistakes that have ended up leading fewer people to freedom.  Allow me to elaborate.

The FSF has evaluated most of the reasons that encourage people switch to Free Software, and has campaigned accordingly.  They have all of the essays, web pages, brochures and other resources known to mankind about why it is important to jump to freedom.  They’re forgetting something, though.  The social aspect.  It is completely missing from almost all of the FSF’s activities.  The fact of the matter is that the choice of what computer software to use depends just as much on social factors as other things do for Joe Shmoe, whether Joe is a Windows power user, a six year old child, a stay at home dad, etc.   Think about a new user going to one of the Free Software Foundation’s sites, like badvista.org or defectivebydesign.org.  Other than a few comments, there is no verification whatsoever that a large number of people support the FSF’s views on these issues.  There are two major ways the FSF could gain the social element, and make sure the number of people jumping to freedom is skyrocketing through the roof.

1. Build open communities on a large scale – In order to allow more people to jump to freedom, the FSF has to show off the number of people who love Software Freedom.  By making the Free Software philosophy seem less alien and abstract to new-comers, people will gain a sense of trust in it.  The FSF has done a fabulous job building communities already, but most of these communities have the prerequisite of Free Software knowledge.  Even an advanced user doesn’t want to dive into the emacs-devel list!  The FSF has made an attempt at this with the formation of the fsf-info mailing list, but this is still too much of an entry barrier.  Most people, and not just the technophobes, want an easy path into a large community.  Currently, Windows is the easiest way to achive this.

Large communities come in many shapes and sizes.  The most common example, when dealing with the internet, is a forum.  Think of how reassuring it would be for a new user to be able to look around and ask questions about the importance of freedom in his/her own life.  There is a forum hosted on fsf.org.  Unfortunately, it is only available to paying members.  No individual is going to become a member in order to see if Free Software applies to them.  It makes you wonder: is the goal to convince more people to go to freedom, or to make money through subscriptions?  To me, it almost sounds more like “Open Source” than “Free Software”!

Other large-scale community options are possible as well.  A major example is a Digg-style news-sharing site.  A wonderful Free Software news sharing site named Free Software Daily already exists.  Unfortunately, there is no mention of Free Software Daily anywhere on fsf.org or gnu.org.  Free Software Daily’s parent, Free Software Magazine, is briefly mentioned in a 1550 line directory.  Other than that, there is no promotion whatsoever of these wonderful resources on the FSF’s site.  It is strange that these resources are not mentioned, because of the number of users they could lead to freedom.  Just for a second, think about how easy it is to subscribe to an RSS feed.  Copy.  “New Feed”.  Paste.  “OK”.  Now, think about how much the news you read influences you.  Even in history, think about how much the media or the lack thereof has influenced people in almost every famous historical event.  There is a “community blog” on the FSF’s website, as well as a main new stream, but neither of these are exhaustive in article quantity.  Allowing a simple submission of articles by the community will not only give a wider and more plentiful selection of articles, but will also encourage people to be on the lookout for articles relating to software freedom and to critically read and evaluate these articles.

2. Make sure users are properly welcomed – All Free Software advocates need to make sure they remember how important each and every single user who switches to Free Software is.  Every single user must be taken by the hand and led into the world of Free Software.  This goes hand in hand with large scale communities.  I predict that Microsoft’s downfall won’t be poorly designed software or stupid executives (ones who think cancer is contagious).  Instead, I believe that it will be them not giving a rip about their different customers, and forcing a “one size fits all – make it work” method down everyone’s throat.

My first exposure to GNU/Linux was a couple years ago, when doing a school project on the history of “Linux”.  Since this was the biggest single school project I had ever done, and because it was a competition, I needed an expert’s opinion.  I didn’t know where to find someone who would know that kind of information, so I cast my line into the water and sent emails to all of the biggest names in the field.  I emailed Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, Andrew Tanenbaum, Bill Gates (about the Open Letter to Hobbyists), and Richard Stallman.  I (unsurprisingly) never got a response back from either Torvalds or Raymond.  “Bill Gates” wrote me back, encouraging me to stay in school.  Andrew Tanenbaum sent me back an email complaining about how many times he is asked about that every week.  Richard Stallman was the only one to send me back a quote.  My interest in GNU and the FSF rose now that I had a quote from the guy in charge, so I started to look more into the FSF’s philosophy.  I fell in love with what I found, and have supported Free Software ever since.

Not everyone is going to email rms, though.  Most new computer users will still be influenced by the people who lead them in, though.  For most people, “computer == Windows”, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how most new users are being taught.  Even if the person decides to go with GNU/Linux, almost everything they hear about it will refer to “Linux”.  Eventually, the person will be led down the “how does it benefit me now” path instead of the “how will it benefit all of society in the future” path.

Even for experienced Windows or Mac users, it is important that the highest possible priority be put on every single case.  Experienced users will, more than new users, know to look online.  Nothing says more about an online community than the “Let me explain it to you” attitude.  A good example of an online community that has this attitude is LinuxQuestions.org.  Is LinuxQuestions.org a good thing, or a bad thing?  Well, for freedom-lovers, it is a very bad thing.  LinuxQuestions.org is filled with users who advocate for proprietary software, ads for proprietary software, and is even based on proprietary software!  The users there are ready to take the experienced Windows/Mac user by the hand and lead him/her into the world of “Linux” and, if he/she is lucky, “Open Source”.  I am not against ads for proprietary software on most Free Software sites; accidental clicks generate a hefty sum!  I am against, however, these ads appearing on sites that are targeted at new GNU/Linux users.  Excluding everything else, the fact that they run the site on proprietary software should say enough about them.

The world of Free Software today is due in a large part to the FSF.  But, the world isn’t free yet.  The single easiest way for the FSF to advance the spread of freedom is to make the changes described above.  Being a freedom-lover myself, I hate to see people not switching to free software simply because of a couple unintentional mistakes. These changes would also offer a resource for people to suggest for others.  Knowing that a user could go to fsf.org and be doused in Free Software knowledge and encouragement would offer a much easier way for advocates to lead interested people in.  If the Free Software Foundation were to make the changes outlined above, a whole new group of people would be Free Software users that would have never had much exposure before.  Hopefully, it will help create the GNU Generation that we have been dreaming of for so many years.

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm  Comments (9)  
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The FSF needs a new approach to advertising

Ah!  A fresh issue of the “Linux Format” magazine.  I rip off the plastic wrap and open up to a random article.  This article is about the newest piece of proprietary Grubby Games software.  I immediately realize something isn’t right.  My eyes slowly make their way to the bottom right side of the page.   There is an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation staring right back at me.

When I saw this, I was shocked!  I had never seen an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation before!  I have been reading incorrectly-titled “Linux” magazines for a long time, and never once seen an advertisement for the Free Software Foundation.  I feel that most GNU/Linux users who care about GNU/Linux enough to go buy a magazine on it already have an opinion about the Free Software Foundation.

There aren’t too many GNU/Linux users I have actually met in person.  One of these users had never even heard of software freedom before.  He had been using “Linux” since the middle 90’s.  When I wished him “Happy Software Freedom Day“, the conversations followed:

Him: “What is that?  Is that a day for pirating software?”

Me: “No, software freedom as in Free Software”

Him: Blank stare

Me: “The Free Software Foundation?”

Him: Blank stare

Me: “It’s kind of like Open Source, but…”

Him: “Oh, Open Source!”

At first, this surprised me.  How could someone who used GNU/Linux for that long not know about software freedom?  Well, I figured that there really were a handful of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and did not know anything about software freedom or the FSF.  But I never assumed that a large number of people were like this…  until I learned about the stereotype “Ubuntu user”.

By no means am I saying that all, or even most Ubuntu users know nothing about Free Software.  I personally use Kubuntu.  Even Richard Stallman and the rest of the FSF use gNewSense, a derivative of Ubuntu.  The reason I am making the reference to Ubuntu users is because so many of them believe that Linux=Ubuntu, and have no idea what GNU/Linux is. Just do a Google search on “Best Ubuntu Applications” and see how many come up.  Now take a look at how many of them don’t mention “Linux” anywhere on the page, even in the comments.  It’s shocking.

In my opinion, the users I am talking about use GNU/Linux for one of four reasons:

  • They want to make themselves seem really geeky
  • They are trying show off to their peers
  • They need to save money
  • They have no choice

Some people think that these people should not use GNU/Linux in the first place.  I firmly disagree.  Originally, I tried “Linux” back in ’05 because I heard it was free of cost, and I had a computer that wouldn’t run anything other than Windows ME.  I thought it would be a good experience to try to get this computer to work.  I played around with it for a year or so, until I did my History Day project on it.  When I started, I didn’t even know the name of the OS was GNU/Linux, let alone what GNU was.  This was my introduction to software freedom.  Most of what I know now came from the research of that project.  After learning the history behind Free Software, I became an instant advocate, and immediately made a presentation to my school’s Tech Coordinator about why Free Software should be used in our school.  (Even though it didn’t work very well – when you are in middle school, you don’t exactly have that much power…)  If I hadn’t been drawn into GNU/Linux by the initial cost factor, I would have never even tried it in the first place.

I do think that it is a good idea for the Free Software Foundation to advertise.  It is important that new users are inaugurated into the world of software freedom.  I don’t, however, believe that the magazines are the best way to reach the target audience.  “Linux” magazines have already left a bad taste in Richard Stallman’s mouth (see “The GNU Project“), so why would he allow the Free Software Foundation to advertise there?  Almost all of the people who read those magazines either already know and love the FSF, or have conciously chosen to ignore it.  At a level that requires buying an expensive magazine, you won’t get many newbies.

So what are my suggestions for where the FSF should advertise?  If they could pay to include a chapter in “Linux for Dummies”, that would be a much better outlet for the pennies the FSF makes every year.  Obviously that isn’t possible, so my suggestions are as follows:

  • Answer posts relating to proprietary software on UbuntuForums.org and LinuxQuestions.org, and talk to these people about the benefits of Free Software
  • Create media, including videos, music, etc that people would enjoy listening to (that means this doesn’t count) that they would enjoy sharing with others
  • Start Free Software User Groups
  • Make an effort to get schools to switch to Free Software

Think about it: would it better if everyone in the world heard the name “FSF” mentioned once, or if a small group of first time “Linux” users were educated about why Software Freedom is important.  One trip to the Free Software Foundation’s website probably won’t get anyone to change their ethics regarding computer software.  I admit that I went to both the FSF website and the GNU website after I first used “Linux”, but didn’t really take the time to understand any of it.  The FSF needs to hook people.  The advertising techniques I mentioned above (and certainly ones I didn’t think of as well) would greatly enhance the publicity of the FSF.  The goal is to get people hooked, not to try to tell people to go to fsf.org and make a donation.  You can’t get people hooked by showing them a generic advertisement; you have to get down to the personal level.

I love the Free Software Foundation dearly, and appreciate all the work they are doing to spread software freedom.  I just hope that they can improve their advertising to better spread the word of Free Software.

6/30/08 Update: I just received a comment from Paul Hudson, editor of “Linux Format”.  He informed me that “Linux Format” gives that advertising space out to the Free Software Foundation for free.  That’s really nice of them to help out the FSF.

Unfortunately, this also reveals another problem.  The Free Software Foundation doesn’t do any advertising or publicity!  They do all of this great work, but don’t spread the news beyond their their cronies.

Published in: on June 28, 2008 at 8:22 pm  Comments (10)  
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