What should we do with Free Software users who don't contribute to it in any way?

(Notes added on 2017/12/06):

  1. links and formatting were updated on 2017/12/06)
  2. now you may help fix the underlying cultural and awareness problems mentioned here, also by suggesting the right concepts for this book

This page, unlike the rest of Stop!, is not written for the general public. It only addresses the community of Free/Open Source advocates. That’s why it isn’t listed in the home page: it is always related to the general theme of the website (which is how technology, especially digital could improve our lives) and it’s more convenient to publish it here, but it’s not for the usual readers of the Stop.

This page was born as an answer to an Italian article titled “Open Source, I want everything now and I won’t give anything back” (*). Its author wrote that (text in parentheses is mine) “every day millions of people use Open Source software for all possible reasons but… the average user never contribute to that software in any way (even if there are lots of things non-programmers could do)". The conclusion of that article is that “it’s sad to see how egoism and careerism are always the fundamental guidelines of existence”.

I think this conclusion is wrong. Above all, I think that people who care about Free Software should think on when and how much such conclusions are correct these days, when talking about Free Software.

We aren’t in the ’80s anymore, when Stallman founded the GNU project. If we speak of “average user” we can’t ignore the fact that today 90% of computer users are absolutely average human beings, not software professionals or passionate hobbysts as it was the norm twenty or more years ago: today’s average users are people who use computers because more or less forced to do so for work or study, as an advanced typewriter. They’re good people, but people who would rather be tortured than studying software source code. How realistic it is to think that such people, with some very rare exceptions, would or could ever play any active role in software development or documentation?

Personally, I think that such an assumption is absolutely unrealistic, that thinking differently you can only hurt yourself and that it’s really unfair to look for egoism and careerism (as if we need proofs of their existence…) in lack of participation of the average software user.

It is simply unavoidable that when usage of a technology becomes a mass phaenomenon the average competence of its users, and the average interest for “what’s inside it” decreases exponentially. How could anybody expect anything different? Just think to aviation. From the Wright brothers to (at least) Lindbergh, whoever wanted or needed to fly couldn’t be just a passenger: they also absolutely needed to be real enthusiasts, pilots, mechanics, engineers, cartographers, electricians, be in perfect physical conditions… How could things be the same today? To make things worst software still is, for the average human being, so much newer and much more alien than almost any other technology than it will take many years to change the general attitude.

Frankly, besides considering it unrealistic, I just do not like to think that today we should expect anything back to the Free SW community, in any form, from all users of Free Software. Today many people must use software, whether they like it or not, for the most different reasons. The more of them use Free Software, the better it is period, don’t make an issue of their passivity.

Imagine a volunteer in a drug rehabilitation center ( or any other non-profit activity you like best) who spends every spare minute helping other people for free. Probably he or she will also need computers and software to carry on that service. If everything goes well, that software will be Free as in Freedom software.

But what should such persons do when they find a bug or, generally speaking, “pay back” those who provided that software? Stop what they do best and is a free service for the community, and try to learn something else (whatever that is, even writing documentation) that they may be genetically unable to do well? What’s the benefit here? And what should FOSS advocates do when such people write on a forum “this Free SW isn’t working and I can’t figure out how to use it”? Tell them “this is a community, contribute to it or stop whining”? How acceptable would that be? Of course, it is only this particular attitude and reaction that I dislike! I am not saying that FOSS advocates should work 24/7 for free or tolerate bad manners.

If you’re interested, here are other things I’ve already written about the limits of certain “communication strategies” of the Free Software community:

and while we’re at this, here are two examples (from Italy, not from me personally) on how to interest in Free Software even people who can’t tell source code from a pizza oven:


Personally, even if I only use Free Software and always write about it and recommend it as much as I can I don’t worry that much if few people already use it and above all I do not care at all if almost no Free Software user contributes to it in any way. I care much more, for example, that everybody demands as soon as possible that only open formats, even before Free Software, are used by Public Administrations and that public data of public interest are made available online with open licenses. I’ll regularly cover these topics here and recommend the same priorities to all FOSS advocates, without stopping promoting Free Software, of course!

update 20091211: after I wrote the initial, italian version of this article, the author of the complaint to which I reacted explained that he was referring to a specific case of lack of cooperation. My general conclusions here still apply, however.

(*) the original link was http://wol.ly/2009/12/09/open-source-voglio-tutto-subito-e-gratis-e-non-daro-nulla-in-cambio/