Last week, I wrote a blog post about people who seem to be generally hostile towards free software advocates. A lot of people weighed in, and I’m happy to say that it’s resulted in a significant shift in my thinking.
The first thing I needed to do was to split up the question into several parts; so I split it into different groups of interaction. Those groups, and my conclusions about them, are as follows:
Free software user towards other free software users
This category, I think, was the one I was most worried about when I wrote the original post. It’s clear to me now that, in order for someone to make most of the criticisms that I highlighted in the previous post, someone would have to be aware of at least parts of the GNU philosophy.
These people are usually irritated with a free software advocate who disagrees with their preferred licensing scheme. Copyleft advocates don’t get along with permissive advocates, and vice versa. I’ve mostly observed permissive license advocates being discourteous, but I’m sure copyleft advocates have been just as discourteous at some point.
This category of hostile interaction is absolutely ridiculous. Sure, there are disagreements, but it’s foolish to argue about such things. Even the most hardcore copyleft advocates agree that, in an ideal world, permissive licenses would be better. Copyleft advocates use the tools available to them to ensure the freedoms they desire, for themselves and their users. And permissive advocates, while they’re usually very friendly and practical people, get very offended by copyleft advocates who are too insistent, claiming that copyleft is too restrictive. Both groups have goals, but both are working towards digital freedom. That ultimate goal needs to be the focus, rather than the particular tools used.
Free software users towards non-free software users who make free software
This is something of which I’m guilty, I’m ashamed to say. People who make free software for non-free platforms, like the iPhone or Windows, are sometimes victims of criticism because they straddle a fence between two worlds. But that fence is a huge barrier to some people, and the people who sit on it can help bring people across.
The problem, I think, is that when I try to help these people find free tools (like Gitorious, for example), I tend to come across as being too focused on one side of the fence. The people in this difficult position see me as attacking them, or their decision to help people in this way. I could try to explain at length that I mean only to find better tools for them, but that seems like wasted effort. They appear to be doing good work, so why bother criticizing? Someone making free software with non-free tools should be encouraged to continue making free software above all else. It might be helpful to encourage free developers to use Gitorious from the start, but criticizing their use of GitHub now seems unnecessary.
Free software users towards non-free software users
This is probably the most ridiculous form of hostility surrounding the free software movement, and probably the source of a lot of negative feelings. Free software users and advocates might occasionally look intimidating based on the fact that their information is something most people don’t ever consider, and don’t already understand. This fact combined with the very serious nature of most free software advocates makes for a very difficult person to converse with.
The best way to deal with this situation, then, is never to criticize, and never to obstruct people. I maintain, as I have in the past, that it would be better to not help people to support non-free software. However, rather than simply refusing without explanation, or with only a few words. Explain a way to accomplish the same thing with free software, and why you prefer free software. The goal here is to be verbose, so brush up on your ability to explain things to non-technical users!
Free software users towards non-free software developers
This is a relatively justifiable form of hostility, since the objects of it are directly opposed to the mission of free software advocates. However, there’s a problem: Developers are the best way to spread free software (more on this later), and we’re starting to alienate them!
Maybe we can’t win these people over with words, but it would be helpful to stop alienating them, certainly. For now at least, my best advice is to simply not advocate to them. Telling somebody that they’re doing things wrong is probably not the best way to win them over, and that’s really our only tack with non-free developers. Simply allowing these people to be, and encouraging them if and when they create free software, is our single best play.
In general, there are some things we should keep in mind when talking to the public. First of all, try to avoid “smear campaigns”. This is one of the most common criticisms of the Free Software Foundation in particular, and it makes a lot of sense. While Free Software is a reasonable idea, some of the ways it gets spread can be a little unnecessary and hostile. Simply calling technologies by their proper names will not cheapen the message at all, especially when the person speaking is already criticizing the technology for valid reasons.
Second, focus on positive reinforcement, rather than negative feedback only when things go wrong. I touched on this somewhat in the previous sections, but here it is again: We should be seen as an encouraging community, rather than some resistance that fights against people. This is why sites like OpenHatch have such great importance to the free software movement–we should encourage people to do good work, rather than criticize them for doing bad work.
Third, consider now that other freedoms, freedoms that aren’t related to software, are also important. While most of the time, people who make this argument simply mean freedom of choice. I maintain that freedom of choice isn’t freedom at all, merely an illusion–similar to allowing prisoners yard time. If you allow some amount of space, that’s good, but it’s still prison. It’s the same with non-free software: You can choose a lot of different software just like you could walk around the yard, but you can’t modify or share it, among other things.
Supply and Demand
One of the interesting points I’ve heard recently is that there are two major theories about the most effective approach. Some people prefer supply-side advocacy. This method is when developers are targeted, and they change their ways. This method costs relatively little, because there are fewer people who are more aware of the subject, but it can also be severely tedious. As we’ve seen, non-free developers are very set in their ways.
The other theory is demand-side advocacy, which is focused on users rather than developers. This takes a lot of time as well, since users can also be set in their ways, but are also troublesome because of their lesser domain knowledge.
My view of this is that supply-side advocacy should be the focus. Developers, while stubborn, feel good simply by making software. Add in altruism as a motivator, and possibly the ethical benefits of allowing their users freedom, and they’ll certainly be interested in making free software….or at least, that’s the goal!
Demand-side advocacy can be helpful, but since a lot of people don’t understand software, it can be difficult for them to understand the importance. If the landscape of free software gets wider, users should start to spill over more readily.
Thanks again for reading this blog, and thanks especially to everyone who contacted me in response to the last post. As always, go freely!