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.