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.