As regular readers, my friends and family, and anyone who spends more than five minutes talking with me will already know, I am a huge supporter of free software. I will constantly speak on the subject, in public and private settings; I will buy shirts and stickers from free projects; I will even occasionally give my time to free projects that interest me.
Today, however, I’m taking a strange tack: I think free software advocates need to pull back a little bit.
It’s taken me quite some time to come to this conclusion, so I’d appreciate some time to explain myself.
First, I used to be a very gung-ho kind of supporter. I would advocate for all free software, and nothing less….anything less, in fact, was unacceptable under every circumstance.
Now, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about how they react to my discussions with them. I learned, but was not surprised, that I often turned people off with my cold demeanor and exact terminology. I don’t generally give emotion any sway in an argument, and I was pretty convinced that it was a good thing. However, I also learned something–barely–while talking to one particular person. This person didn’t disagree with me, it became clear–she was simply not ready to jump headfirst into what could be a tank of sharks. She wanted to be cautious, and, admittedly, she had a few things still tying her to nonfree software.
This person’s point gave me a bit of an epiphany. Rather than pushing people to take a nose dive, I should encourage them to work against their oppressors in the way that most revolutions have worked in the past: Through small, incremental changes that built on one another. This made perfect sense, because that’s also how I build arguments and other things in my life.
It brought me to the realization that we, the free software camp, had become just as bad as the nonfree software supporters–asking people to throw something away without being fully prepared, and without fully understanding the reasons why.
The last piece in the puzzle is to come up with a better way to advocate. I maintain that any free software advocate should forego supporting nonfree software–so anyone who asks for help with a Windows- or OS X-related issue (e.g., wireless problems, window management tips, how to uninstall software) shouldn’t find that help with a free software advocate. However, a free software advocate could reasonably suggest other options to the problem–for example, if a user can’t connect to a web page in Safari, suggesting that they use Firefox would be the first best step to fixing their issue.
Outside of people coming to you for help, you can help others by suggesting small, incremental steps. Don’t ask them to throw everything away and start fresh. Suggest Firefox, then move on to suggesting other free alternatives–identi.ca instead of Twitter, free games instead of nonfree ones, SumatraPDF (or similar) instead of Adobe Reader, and Songbird instead of iTunes. Once they get the hang of the free alternatives, suggest that they find HTML5 web videos as opposed to Flash. Then, maybe suggest a switch from Windows to GNU/Linux (possibly Trisquel or gNewSense).
These small steps will eventually bring someone to the point where they can run a fully free system.
Thanks for reading!