Advocating honesty

by Jono Bacon

I have been a part of the free and open software world for about seven years now, and one area that this community has been overflowing with is the excitement about the software we use. This excitement is typically tied together with enthusiastic advocacy, and in some cases ranting, about how great this software is. Promises of how things are so much more stable with this free software and the bountiful up-times of servers are often bandied around. I am guessing that that Netcraft get one or two hits after such advocacy.

Now, don't get me wrong here folks; I am not knocking advocacy in any of its forms, but there is no doubt that some members of the community are so psyched up about the software that only one side of the story gets painted. As an example, we know that Linux is:

  • Stable

  • Secure

  • Low cost

  • Not vulnerable to virii

  • Entirely free

  • Supported by a great community

  • Supported commercially

  • . . .

All good stuff, yes. What often does not get expressed in this wonderful picture are the rather more negative aspects of Linux:

  • Often difficult to use for newcomers

  • Hardware installation can be a pain

  • Lack of application support

  • . . .

Before you all email me with complaints and suggestions that these disadvantages can be overcome, I know that many of these are being actively worked on. The point I am making is that Linux is not perfect; nothing is. Linux has its fair share of flaws and incapabilities. If advocacy is to be true and fair, these flaws need to be outlined also.

The key issue with flaws in free software is that the open source model is the solution. Yes, Linux may have these flaws but they are all being actively worked on by a community of interested users. When there is a problem within the software that drives the community, it is going to piss someone off enough to make them work on a solution. This is the classic case of scratching your own itch but sharing the back-scratcher with everyone else. So long as the software in our community is open source, I can see no reason why problems cannot be overcome. Admittedly, there are certain legal issues with DRM and other areas that will be difficult to overcome, but the technological challenges that face us are certainly achievable. We are a technically capable bunch and in many ways we need to push areas that are not as technically challenging but still important. Classic examples of this include documentation, training materials, demonstrations, representing the software to charities/governments/education and other areas.

A useful motivational technique with the free software community has been to always look for areas of weakness and attempt to apply your abilities where possible. Everyone has a skill that is useful and even if you have few creative or technical skills, there are always opportunities to contact organisations and groups in your area and have a chat to them about the benefits of this software and what it can do for them. Remember though, always offer a balanced and objective view. The last thing any of us want is for everything to be hyped and built up to an unobtainable level. In these cases (and this happens more often than you would imagine) disappointment is the only response. This is not a failing on the part of the software, but a failing on the part of the advocacy; no software could achieve the lofty features promised.

Before I finish up, let me plant one other technique in your mind for pushing this software into more places. If someone asks you for help and you are able to pop over and give them a hand, only promise to help if they will perform a similar good deed for the community. As an example, if you are going round to a pals house to help them install Linux, only do it if they will make a promise to use their skills to do a similar good deed such as writing up a HOWTO or helping someone else. Their deed does not need to be anything technically challenging, just something that helps out. This may sound a simple and idealistic approach to helping people but it really does work. Not only do they get the help, but you feel like you have helped two people and someone else will get further help too. This benefits everyone involved.

Do you think advocacy really works? What other techniques can we use to fairly promote this software?