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 and, 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 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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  1. Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..

    Matt Hanson

  2. Very interesting piece. Blog is thorough and easy to understand even to those who aren’t so much into technology. I am impressed that you are only in HS.

    Thanks for the intriguing read this morning. Take care.

  3. I think these advertisements could be useful. Not all *nix users have a firm stance on free software. I’m sympathetic to FSF’s cause, and yet I frequently find myself drooling over the latest grubby idsoft games.

    Restricting oneself to free software is no small sacrifice. Turning a blind eye is all too easy. Due to a recently discovered non-free license, the gNewSense community removed GLX support from their latest release. This a critical component necessary to run openGL apps in X11. They now essentially have no 3D support nor hope of replacement in the near future. I take my hat off to them, but that’s a heavy price. People could stand to be reminded of the motivations behind such decisions from time to time.

    Those who don’t realize the value of their freedom are likely to lose it.

  4. Hey!

    Just to clarify things: the half-page advertisement for the FSF has appeared in Linux Format for a long time now, and we give it to them at no cost. Yes, I agree that trying to preach to the choir would be pointless, but the point of the advert is to encourage Linux users to sign up as a member of the FSF, and thus help support the costs of all the work the FSF does.

    Take care,

    Paul Hudson
    Editor, Linux Format

  5. Paul Hudson – I agree, and I join with those who are appreciative of your efforts to help the FSF spread the word.

    However, the young man has a point when he states that the FSF COULD help themselves a lot more if they were only willing to get off their geeky butts and talk to the people.

    Personally? Yeah, I know all about the FSF – why? Because I’ve been in the software engineering world for over 20 years. Strangely, I DIDN’T know anything about it for the first 10 of those years. I stumbled into it by accident one day.

    The trouble with Stallman is that he wants the world to accept the idea of free software, but he also wants to keep his cliquey little club house to himself. The man has multiple advanced degrees, and he can’t seem to get his head around something as trivial as the basic political science necessary to communicate his goals effectively to the world.

    Way to go on this blog kid! Love it! Keep up the good work.

  6. Without Linux, FSF wouldn’t even be known except for a hard core of users, so give credit where credit is due. GCC and the GPL are worth acknowledging, but the rest is down to Linux Torvalds for his all embracing attitude. Stallman is an old school fundamentalist and isn’t going to further free, Open Source Software to the masses. Linus has already done that and Linux gets masses of advertising.

  7. I am sorry, John, but I have to disagree with you. If Torvalds had never made Linux (the kernel), Hurd would be done. Then, we would be using the GNU operating system, instead of GNU/Linux. Linus was good at getting people to work for him, but he is by no means the reason the FSF is where it is today.

  8. This article is a good point.
    I work in a marketing department and there is a phrase “Tue gutes und rede darüber” which translates like “Do good and let everyone know”.

    I also run a little Community for spreading the word.

    Greetings from Germany

  9. That would be speculation, Trombonechamp, not fact. In my opinion, we’d be using the GNU/BSD system rather than Linux.

    I welcome a new approach to advertising but I don’t exactly know what we could do other than clearly understand freedom, communicate freedom to people and encourage people to reject proprietary software.

  10. Thanks for the post. As the designer of the advertisement, I’m glad it caught your eye.

    We don’t do a lot of advertising, that’s true — most advertising is quite expensive, but we do have some print publications who give us ad space, and in return we make them patrons of the FSF.

    Certainly the purpose of our magazine advertising is to get people who are already using free software and GNU/Linux to find out a little bit more about our work, and to help us by becoming an associate member.

    Most of our funding comes from our supporters.

    We are starting to get better at this — we ran events at the same time as both OSCON and LinuxWorld this year, both for members and non-members.

    Matt Lee
    Campaigns Manager, Free Software Foundation

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