The Reality of Advocacy

by Jono Bacon

Advocacy is a funny old game. Although it seems a loose and inexact science, developing as an advocate demands a range of communicative, philosophical and technical skills. Advocacy is not just about the message, but it is about the tone, colour and dynamics of the communication.

As a professional advocate of Open Source, I get email asking about how to advocate efficiently and with a high degree of success. Most of these emails come from enthusiastic members of our community, and ask for hints and tips about advocating well. From my experience, advocates need to take an inverse perspective - instead of asking how to add more tools to your armour, ask what vulnerabilities afflict your weaponry. There is without a shadow of a doubt a massive, cavernous, gaping hole in many advocate's approach - offering an accurate message.

Defining reality

The act of communicating one desired product or concept over another comes in many different flavours and forms, with advertising, marketing, ideology and advocacy as prime examples. Its temping to assume that these different words are namebadges for essentially the same job, but the different disciplines have dramatically different methodologies and processes. Describing advocacy and advertising as the same science is simply wrong.

Advocacy is largely a skill that is dependent on experience and conscience. This dependence is what separates advocacy from many, but not all forms of advertising, and some forms of marketing. In advertising, it is not uncommon to advertise a product that few, if any of the staff have actually used. An example of this are tampons. I am pretty sure that every advertisement for tampons has not been exclusively developed by women, and even if it were, I am sure that not all of those women use that particular brand of tampons being promoted.

Aside from the experience of using a product, advertising also differs in the form and premise of the communication. Advertising tends to stick to specifics - products, services and brands. In our previous example, an advertising firm would not be promoting the benefits of tampons in general, but instead promoting that specific brand. As far as the advertisers are concerned, there is no benefit in promoting the generic subject as the consumer may simply choose a competitor's product. The advertiser instead needs to hammer home the benefits of that particular brand, irrespective of whether the competitor's brand is better or not. With this limitation, advertising and some forms of marketing really work in more of a vacuum; a vacuum populated by a limited range of issues.

Advocacy is entirely different. The role of advocacy is typically not to promote one particular incarnation of a concept, but the concept itself. As much as I love Ubuntu to bits, and choose to run it on everything I can, the reality is that Ubuntu is merely a vehicle for the bigger picture - Open Source and free software. This bigger picture is where the real advocacy happens, and it incorporates all the usual suspects such as availability of source code, more eyes on the code, preventing vendor lock-in, computing equality, lower cost yadda yadda yadda...

With this bigger picture, advocacy tends to revolve around a series of defined benefits that are present in the concept and not just the product. Part of the reason why we have Open Source advocacy in the first place is because the benefits outlined in the generic Open Source model can be implemented in any product that is Open Source - this makes the message easier to explain and easier to demonstrate with these products available. Luckily for us, the Open Source message ties up with the generic demands that most people make in their IT - they want a low cost of hardware and software, readily available functionality, more choice and strong stability. These concepts are not ticks on the side of a specific product's box, but general demands for good, solid IT.

Advocacy is about conscience

Every advocate has an in-built system for deciding if the software and services they use meets the grade for their advocacy. Take security as an example. There are many, many security advocates and boffins out there, and these people fight for nothing more than good, sensible security and privacy in IT. These advocates demand easy access to security and a dedication to security principles from vendors. As advocates, the ethics of security are the driving factor, and each product will be run through the advocate's ethical machine to see if it holds its own. Although the products may come in different shapes and sizes, the advocate runs each of them through the same machine.

This objectivity is key to successful advocacy, but this does not justify a zealous approach to your ideals. Take Mac OS X as an example. When Apple released Mac OS X, they pushed the fact that it had the power of UNIX and was based upon an Open Source core (Darwin). At every conference that I went to, I saw more and more Powerbooks appearing with people running Mac OS X. Even die hard fanatics of Open Source and free software were wooed by the Powerbook with its small form factor and sexy glowing apple light. The key point is not whether moving to Mac OS X was good or bad, but rather identifying why people moved to it. Instead of lambasting these people as traitors to the Open Source ethos, you really need to ask what were the attractive factors of Mac OS X and how did this satisfy the needs of the user. Remember, Open Source advocacy is not like Star Wars - there is no black and white division and there is no force. Even if there were, it is sometimes better to sit down with Darth Vader and ask why he is such a total shit instead of just giving him to the light saber treatment.

Hindsight is not always 20/20

Experience is something of a double edged sword, and can quite easily conjure up a view that conflicts with your objectivity. Always remember prior experience will be accented and embellished over time. Experiences such as how easy it was to do this, how hard it was to do that, how cool this new feature was or how that feature sucked are all run through a mental process. This process takes the experience, compares it with how much of a challenge it was to you, compares that with how much of a challenge you think it should provide to the user and then this little lot is combined with how much joy or pain you had with the experience. As an example, when I first set up a Smoothwall firewall, I thought it was insanely cool. The task was within my technical capabilities, fairly straightforward to perform and won me the geek kudos in my house. So, a simple, breezy experience, right?

The danger with experiences such as this is that they really can become distorted in your mind as the memory starts to fade. In that particular example, installing Smoothwall was fairly simple and I got a far larger win for the time and expense that I invested. While the investment/benefit comparison remains the same, hindsight forgets many of the original details that conflict with the overriding opinion concocted from the mental process just described. As such, when people ask you about firewalls months later, your immediate recollection has been distorted into a non-accurate description of what actually happened - the recollection fails to be as objective as it could be.

I see these kind of inaccurate experiences discussed all the time in the Open Source community, and it really does us no good. Objectivity and honesty are key attributes in the good advocate, and it is always important to try and assess how this objectivity and honesty is applied to the different aspects of your advocacy. There is nothing wrong with having opinions, and there is nothing wrong with swinging to a particular view, but it is essential that when advocating you have an accurate recollection and approach to your experience.

What do you think? What do you think of advocacy?


2006-01-03 12:49:32
Why advocate?
This article is all fine and dandy, but I just have to ask, what is the purpose of advocating anything? Why not let people use whatever they want to use by judging it themselves on its own merits? What's wrong with leaving people alone to make their own choices based on the things they care about, which may not be the same things you care about?

2006-01-04 23:38:49
Re: Why advocate?
Advocacy is necessary as long as Microsoft is a monopoly and corporations have undue, consumer-unfriendly influence in government.

Without a level, fair, free market playing field, people cannot 'use whatever they want to use by judging it themselves on its own merits'.

2006-02-02 11:16:37
Why advocate?
Microsoft has an advertizing budget of nearly $4 billion/year to spend on advertizing. In addition, they leverage that by using most of this money and their trademarks and logos as co-op to give them control of content and placement of advertizing done by OEMs and software vendors, giving them indirect control over the content and placement of nearly $40 billion in advertizing.

An OEM must get Microsoft's prior written approval before placing these ads. There is no "official policy" that says an OEM can't reccomend SUSE Linux 10.0 for customers who would like to use Linux instead of Windows, but it's highly likely that Microsoft will not approve the use of their logo, trademark, or screen shots, in this ad.

Again, there is no formal public document, only a de-facto pattern which seems to indicate that Microsoft will general not approve such ads.

Linux advocacy is essentially "word of mouth" advertizing on a grand scale. Most advocates are not paid to be advocates. They are people who have used Linux, like Linux, and are reccomending Linux to a few friends - via mailing lists, newsgroups, blogs, and other public forums.

Freedom of Speech
Because these advocates are individuals, not the representatives of corporations, they have a great deal more latitude in their ability to express their personal opinions. If I were to state that Windows XP with SP2 goes crashes into "Blue Screen of Death", it would be such an obvious statement of a problem that was solved long ago, that my personal credibility would be lost. Microsoft isn't going to sue me for damage to their brand.

Public Bencharks and comparisons
On the other hand, there are far fewer restrictions on publication of comparisons between Linux and Windows when they are posted by an individual posting a personal opinion. It's possible to discuss some of the common problems which still do exist in Windows XP and compare those to Linux and how they have been solved by Linux.

Open Discussions
Of course, because most advocates post to public forums, there are Windows advocates who post responses to most of the more articulate Linux advocates. Often they will pick at minor points of fact as a means to damage their credibility. This is a common trick used by lawyers in the courtroom, and it often has a similar effect in the public forums.

On the other hand, a glowing reccomendation from a Linux advocate which might have a minor error in a point of fact based on a recollection of something that happened 15 years ago can still be very influential. Often it is enough to get users to take the plunge and use a Knoppix Live-CD or download VMWare Player and a Linux VMWare Image.

Supporting Prospective users
For many years, Linux advocates also supported new users, helping them find drivers for hardware that was not on the original distribution compatibility list. Many first-time Linux users don't really check these lists and are often only attempting to install Linux on a machine that just happens to be available, the old Windows 98 PC that was replaced with the new Windows XP PC, or even the current PC that is just being used to "test drive" Knoppix, Ubunto, or SuSE Live-CDs.

Today, more and more would-be Linux users are becoming much more aware of which machines will run Linux quickly and easily. As a result, they will tend to avoid "Linux Hostile" PCs and seek out "Linux Friendly" machines even if the machines are preconfigured with Windows.

Supporting new users
Linux advocates are also very good at devising new ways to introduce Linux to users who do not go through the initial drama of repartitioning hard drives, installing the new Linux distribution, getting all of the hardware that isn't supported by the distributions "Plug-n-Play" self configuration configured. This is essentially lowering those barriers to entry to the point where even those who want to stay with Windows can use Linux to extend the capabilities of their current PC.

Easing the Transition
Linux advocates are also very good at supporting those who want to make the switch to Linux but still want to be able to run some of their old Windows applications. There are a number of options for doing this, including WINE, Crossover, Xen, Win4Lin, VMWare, and Bochs, depending on how "ill behaved" the Windows application actually is.

Hedging the Linux Bet
Ironically, this is one of the reasons that even buyers who intend to purchase a machine that will eventually be converted to Linux will purchase the machine with Windows preinstalled. They will either take a backup "image" that can be used with these other virtual machines, or they will order a media kit, or they will simply partition the disk so that the virtual machine can boot into the Windows partition. There are many very good reasons for wanting a Windows OEM license on the PC, even though Windows won't be the primary operating system in the final configuration.

Similar to Microsoft Advocates
Nearly every organization has a few Windows "gurus" who know how to fix a machine that is behaving badly, know how to remove software safely, can find and stop a virus, can make sure the security patches have been applied, and are generally very helpful to the various Windows users in the organization.

In effect, these are your "Windows Advocates", and they perform a valuable service in an organization with many Windows users. They take the time and initiative to become knowledable and do the research for the rest of the users who just want to get their job done. Linux advocates are performing the same function for a rapidly growing community of Linux users.