How to turn into Free Software supporters people who couldn’t care less

(Historical note: I originally published this on 2008/01/12 at digifreedom.net, the website I set up as an online counterpart to that Family Guide to Digital Freedom which later on became the basis for my basic course. I have moved it here on April 24th, 2012, because I think the advice below it’s a perfect complement to something else published on this website in the same month (With leaders like these, Free Software will never win), and because here you can add your comments)

A few days ago I received a request for help from a Free Software user concerned about his failure to convert anybody to Free Software, no matter how valid his arguments were. My suggestions may seem unconventional and may even sound like heresy for some Free Software advocates, but I am convinced they can be very effective.

Here is an excerpt of the original request, edited for brevity:

  Marco,

  I have a few  questions and tactics that I'd like to discuss with you regarding
  promoting open source software.

  My major problem with teaching people to ditch IE and use Firefox is that
  many do not understand the security benefit. Seriously, it does not bother
  people that their computer is used to distribute spam, or that their
  personal information is harvested by malware.

  What do I say to someone who says "so what" when I inform them that their
 computer is sending spam? What do I say to someone who does not care that
  all that they do with their computer can be monitored via spyware?

This and many other similar messages, which appear routinely on Linux mailing lists, strenghten my concern that traditional Free Software advocacy “has reached a communication plateau or, if you will, some built-in limit”. Here are my suggestions on how to deal with this problem.


Focus on making people support Free Software, rather than using it

Every other month we see a piece explaining “how to convert grandma to Linux”. Forget about converting grandma or anybody else to personally use Free Software as your highest priority. The main exception is programming students and teachers, of course.

With everybody else, first of all accept that today, as I already pointed out, “real people don’t want to live in a world where software doesn’t suck. They want to live in a world where they can ignore what software IS“.

Besides this, if the main quality of the software we love is its being “Free as in Freedom”, we its advocates must leave people the freedom to use non-free software, there is no escape from this. Incidentally, it is also a much more effective strategy. For one thing, when you act this way you cut most arguments from proprietary software supporters to the root.

In any case, in this time and age it is much more urgent to convert people to using Free formats like OpenDocument (with whatever software) and to Free Software advocacy, even if they don’t personally use it. It is much more effective and easier too.

Free Software will survive and remain relevant only if there is much more support in terms of votes, lobbying, responsible purchases and so on, than it could ever come from the current, minuscule community of Free Software users. This is the time, for example, to make even grandma just say no to OpenXML even if she doesn’t have a computer.


In other words, stop saying “Free Software is so good that you must use it yourself and fight anybody who tries to not make you use it”. Try to say:

“your own civil rights, your tax money and the quality of your life heavily depend on how software is used around you: it is in your interest to demand as soon as possible laws that forbid some practices or allow, in certain contexts, only free digital formats and software”.

You can collect many more pro-FOSS votes in this way.

Respect people freedom, make them respect others’ freedom

When you preach Free Software, standards, etc… please make a point to always distinguish between what is “strictly personal” computer usage and using computers to communicate with others, or in Public Administrations. What Joe or Jane do with their own computer on their own files is only their business.

I’ll never try to make individuals use any Free Software unless they do ask first “please give me something different from what I’m using now”. But I will complain, always politely of course, if people send me a file in any proprietary format, or if they use an email client which doesn’t format email properly. That is, in any case when their computing has impacts on other people. Those are the only cases which matter.

Propose or mention Free Software only when it actually is the only or best solution

If your favourite tool is a hammer, all problems will start to look like nails. Resist this temptation. Consider, for example, the limitations imposed by the License agreements of some operating systems or desktop programs: sure, they’re bad, but do you really need to speak for hours about the GNU manifesto, the four software freedoms and all that when all you’d really need is saying “these practices limit free speech and market competition in an unacceptable way and should be forbidden by law, let’s do something about it”?


In the first case, you’ll very likely scare away or bother to death most people around you, even if you’re right. The second approach, instead, could bring on your side many more people (including those who’d rather die than learning again how to use a word processor) or whole NGOs, and will protect Free Software much more effectively. Even if you never say GNU, GPL, Linux, Free Software or anything similar.

Just don’t count on security and stability as valid issues

At least on desktops, the only really valid protection against most software or hardware failures, that is external backups, has nothing to do with which software they use (see previous suggestion). Apart from this, most non-geeks simply don’t use personal computers for anything really critical yet (and are happy that way) nor use their computers for more than a few hours a time. Add to this the general diffusion of laptops which, by their own nature, are required even shorter uptimes and “selling” desktop software because it’s stable and secure really becomes an uneffective strategy.

Help people to do what really interests them

Since most people would rather die than write or study software source code, it is actually counterproductive to promote software “because you can modify it yourself and be part of its community”.

Look for really practical advantages which can be enjoyed every day by the person you want to convince. Before IE 7 came out, I used to spread Firefox without ever mentioning its Free Software status. I simply showed people its tabs, saying “after 30 minutes of surfing the Net in this way you’re not going back to any other browser”, and it worked quite well. Now that IE7 has tabs, another strategy may be to start from Firefox extensions which may be useful to them. Do your pals blog? Do they need online bibliographies? Show them Zotero or the blogging extensions of Firefox. They can discover that it also crashes much less and it’s Free as in Freedom later on, on their own time, while you’re converting somebody else.

Ditto for OpenOffice. I have learned that speaking to end users of its geeky community, its licensing status, etc… immediately freezes any cerebral activity in a 10 meter radius. But I have also learned that if I say “This thingy here can export .doc to PDF all by itself, just click here, and you can legally use it for free in your business” people wake up and do try it. Of course, in both cases I never mention Gnu/Linux unless I’m asked about it.

Theoretically, there is no doubt that in this way you are not educating people to the values of community, sharing and so on. In practice, as I said above, there is also no doubt that most people will simply ignore you if you start from there, so let’s be pragmatic.

Help people to just practice the ideals or duties they had already freely chosen by themselves

Promotion, if not direct adoption and development, of Free digital standards and software may be already included in the ethic guidelines that million of individuals already freely committed to follow with all their energies, even if they haven’t realized it yet. When this is the case, just show those people the right links and point out that they may have even more reason than others to adopt and require Free digital standards and software. Here are some examples, in strictly alphabetical order.

Environment

If the people you’d like to turn into Free Software supporters care about the environment, first of all show them how much computer waste we produce and hide abroad, then explain that, very often, most of that waste is created by the wrong software and finally invite them to reduce computer pollution in the most natural way.

Religion

When you meet Catholics, why don’t you suggest them to read about the affinities between Free Software and Catholic Doctrine or the Eleutheros Project? For Christians in general, start from here instead. Please also note that the main themes and arguments in the first and especially the third link, or at least the general approach, are likely relevant in other religions.

Scouting and other youth organizations

Scouts are thrifty and paddle their her own canoes: do they know that certain types of digital standards and software look a bit like the soul of Scouting made software, or that even a World Scout Bureau representative agreed that the good practices evident in the Free Software community seemed to him to be entirely consistent with the method and ideals represented in Scouting today? As in the previous paragraph, the basic arguments remain valid for any educator who places high value in self-reliance, thrift and cooperation.

Taxpayers

Do the people around you deeply believe in cutting the costs of Public Administrations at any level? Throw in a casual remark that, in the near future, more and more money may be wasted by wrong management of Public computers and websites and they’ll work for Free Software without any further effort from your side.

Where’s the trick?

Even if you disagree with the specific examples presented above, the method is surely valid, is always the same and can surely be applied in other contexts: start from the actual deep passions, beliefs, interests and practical needs of the people in front of you and go backwards from there, delaying the apparition of terms like “source code”, “the four software freedoms”, GpL, GNU, Linux etc… as long as possible.

Follow this strategy and you’ll surely give to Free Software many more people who will actively protect and promote it, both with their votes and with their wallets, than if you had tried to convert the same people to personally use and like it.

Credits and further resources

As I said at the beginning, much of this piece is a reformatted version of an email conversation between me and a Free Software advocate concerned by the lack of success of his efforts. Even if he may not agree with some points of my analysis and suggestions, I thank Dotan for stimulating me to put them together and he’s interested to contact directly other Free Software advocates who share the same concerns.

Last but not least: another way to turn into FOSS supporters people who couldn’t care less may be to send them to my online Digital Citizens Basics course.


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