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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  1. I would suggest a read of this blog: http://www.kdedevelopers.org/node/3643

    THAT kind of tech is how we can make the community instantly available to all new users, and draw them in. It is up to us freedom lovers to make sure not everyone in there are open-sores people :p

    I like your post- but the world has too many ‘forums’ and social networking websites already- we gotta do one better 🙂

  2. I completely agree with you in most of the cases.

    Social Aspect:
    The free software website should also host the essence of freedom to a greater extent.Describe essential historical events which deal with open knowledge.

    Proprietary Ads:
    Yes we should protest abt this issue,showing proprietary ads on a free software site is really stupid.

    Welcome new users:
    It takes a certain amount of time to understand software freedom.When i started using free s/w(knowing that code is open),I realized essence of freedom after 4 months .(Now if you ask me, i would say > NO ETHICS , NO SOFTWARE)So when a new user asks you a question,answer them properly.,dont be rude with them as they dont feel the essence of freedom at an instant you explain abt free s/w.

    But abt,,

    Paid FSF forum:-
    Lets think in this way>If its not paid, every one ranging from a noob to a pro will use those forums and when some new user asks a question , improper analysis of free software by un-experienced users will divert this new user.And the new user may believe in wrong analysis as it is original FSF forum.

    I really appreciate your criticism , It is through criticism we come to a better conclusion.

  3. I saw an article go by one of the aggregate news sites recently talking about Linux distro anarchy. The article is here ( http://thephilip.org/2008/08/27/linux-distro-anarchy/ ), an my comments are under the name Mojo. When I wrote them I didn’t realize that the article linked to another. Even so, you may wish to read my talk about anarchy and Linux.

    I bring this up so I don’t have to repeat myself too much before getting to my point: Do it yourself. This movement is anarchistic, and as such should be more about doing it ourselves than depending on others to do it for us. The FSF does many great things, and perhaps could do much more. But for the things you want in a sort of Linux / FOSS newbie portal, well, build it and they will come. The FSF does not have to be the ones to do it. With freedom comes the power to take things into your own hands. If it’s a good idea, and enough people want to make it happen, it will. You can do your part to encourage, suggest, and even co-ordinate and create by your own hand if necessary.


  4. PS – Great article. I am sorry, I should have stressed that up front. I liked it very much. But if the FSF won’t, well, we can. If we want it bad enough.


  5. What I like about FSF’s recent work in this area is the jobs board. A great place to find FS jobs aswell a justification for newcomers… this IS big and you CAN make money doing it.

  6. We need to educate people in mainstream schools about the issues related to open systems and FOSS. The way to do this is to provide general qualifications with these issues embedded o that mass take up is not only possible but likely. Teach people how to make the change and why it is sensible to do so but don’t make it a condition of participation. That is what he INGOT project is all about.

  7. I liked some of the points you made. Freedom of any kind is all about the social aspects. It is all about how we interact with each other, whether we respect one and other and, by extension, what we expect in return.
    Unfortunately we often get hung up on the myth of choice. With computing people are rarely free to choose what is best, moral or right. Children are exposed at school, certainly here in the UK, to computing for the first time and that experience involves propriety software with no mention that there are alternative.
    In school and the workplace we use computers provided by someone else, we do not have the freedom to choose. Parents by computers for their children, governments provide computers in municipal buildings, friends buy (or are given) computers from friends etc.
    Opening minds to new ideas is a ‘social thing’. Be it in educational establishments or conversations between friends or colleagues it is about human interaction.
    I chanced upon free software by accident and now I try and pass on that experience to those I meet. What everyone always wants is someone to talk to, to ask questions or for advice. Free software or free ideas are about a relationship, an involvement on an equal footing….

    …so what was I trying to say?! Oh yeah, any and every means needs to used to bring the idea of free software to as many people as possible. Start at the bottom and work up. If children learn to use computers on free OSes then businesses of the future will use them because that is what their workforce is trained to use.

    It’s late and I’m ranting again, apologies to all.


  8. “The FSF has evaluated most of the reasons that encourage people switch to Free Software, and has campaigned accordingly.”

    No. Stallman and the FSF have elaborated most of the reasons that encourage software DEVELOPERS (actual or potential, that is individuals who either already develop software or DO have the time and skills to contribute to it) to switch, not PEOPLE. Confusing “people” with software developers is a very snob and dangerous attitude.
    See the Free Software manifesto for the rest of us (http://digifreedom.net/node/57) and the Seven things we’re tired of hearing from software hackers (http://digifreedom.net/node/57)

    “They’re forgetting something, though. The social aspect”

    Precisely. See http://digifreedom.net/node/103 on how to help people who couldn’t care less to become FOSS supporters, not users. Or http://www.ukuug.org/newsletter/16.3/#help__marco on “how to help everybody love FOSS”

  9. You know, I love the Linux OS and the free software, but until this thing becomes like a Mac or Windoz, turn it and it runs it’s not going to gain a lot of momentum. While I was running Gutsy I had wireless internet. Upgraded to Hardy and it still won’t work. Not a big deal since my computer is located next to the router, but what if it wasn’t.? I know I prefer this over windoz but it’s not for everyone who doesn’t have some geek in them.

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