A Field Guide to Free Software Supporters: Page 3

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7) The Activists

In the last few years, largely because of the increased involvement in social issues by the Free Software Foundation, another FOSS group has begun to emerge. This group is the Activists, who, almost alone among the types described here, try to take their principles outside the community by forging alliances with mainstream environmentalists and other social activists.

This is the position taken by Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, when he says, "Free software should be an obvious civil-society issue. It should be as obvious as recycling cans. It should be something that every parent should be asking when they go into a parent-teacher meeting: is the school using free software? Is my child being taught to use free software? Having control over your computer and knowing that your devices aren’t spying on you, that you have an ethical computer, [these] are all issues for civil society."

Besides venturing outside the world of developers and free software, activists also differ from Hardcore Advocates in their generally greater tolerance for those who fail to adhere to strict free software principles. They are no less dedicated to those principles, but their dedication seems tempered by the real world realization that hectoring people is a poor way to make them become supporters. They see their role as educators, rather than evangelists.

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So far, this camp is relatively small. However, the increased activist position of the Free Software Foundation in the last years is obvious in its number of advocacy campaigns; for example, the anti-DRM Defective By Design campaign; and in the appointment of social activist Benjamin Mako Hill to the board of the Free Software Foundation. Such indications suggest that activism may well be the wave of the future for free software. Already, groups like Free Geek are introducing FOSS to people far outside the traditional community.

Conclusion

I am tempted to put these types on a scale, with Microsoft Haters on the right, and Activists on the left, with the positions growing increasingly idealistic as you move to the left. However, this scale does not really work, except in the three types of Advocates. It would be misleading, for instance, to say that Open Source Programmers are less idealistic than any other type of advocate; they simply have different ideals. The same is also true of Hardcore Advocates and Activists.

In practice, too, human behavior is not nearly consistent enough for pigeon-holing. While many people fall fairly definitely into one of these camps most of the time, many can probably be classified under different types at different times.

For instance, Linus Torvalds, although described here as an Open Source Programmer, could be said to be acting like a Softcore Advocate a few years ago when he insisted on using the proprietary BitKeeper for version control on the Linux kernel (he has since moved to free software). Probably most members of the community have acted like members of all these types from time to time, even though most favor one type of behavior over the others.

Nor are these types necessarily the only ones in FOSS. Rather, they are simply the ones that I've encountered.

Still, despite these qualifications, this field guide does show that there is more variety of opinion and behavior in the FOSS community than is often credited. If you are an outsider being introduced to the community, or a FOSS supporter moving outside your usual circles, you could do far worse for yourself than to identify beforehand the approximate positions of those with whom you are mingling. Otherwise, your interactions could quickly become far more complicated and unpleasant than they need to be.


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