For the last month since attending Ohio Linux Fest and the Boston Summit, I have been stewing over two questions which came up at both conferences, in myriad ways. The first relates to our current FOSS communities and the diversity (or lack thereof) within them. The second focuses on promoting our software to a wider audience and the best way to do so. While in some ways these are separate problems, I think that the answers to them are connected in ways that aren’t always obvious.
Communities in the FOSS world have long been rather homogeneous, consisting largely of young, white men. In many cases individuals have been (and still are) focused on ‘scratching their own itch’, without fully grasping how their actions can be beneficial or harmful to the larger community. The result in many cases is to push those from dissimilar backgrounds away, while pulling in more of the same. The inevitable result is an increasingly insular and homogeneous group that is often unappealing and sometimes hostile to outsiders.
But diversity in communities that wish to continue growing is essential – without it they are apt to stagnate and slowly wither away. As a result, fostering and encouraging diversity should be a goal of any organization that wants to continue to grow. The question then becomes how to best foster diversity, and where to look for new members. People who are likely to be interested in and receptive to our message. Luckily for free software, I think such a group already exists and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace.
That group consists of people concerned with living sustainably and in harmony with our world. As a result of their devotion and belief in the benefits of doing so, they likely participate in and actively support a variety of other groups and projects with similar values to our own. Many of them are focused on local and organic foods, as well as clothing and alternative lifestyles that promote health, the environment, freedom and privacy. They have accepted some inconvenience and, in many cases considerable expense in order to do so. I suspect many of them would be receptive to arguments in favor of free software as well, largely because of the basic premise that is at the heart of free software – the freedom to use, alter, and share knowledge with everyone.
I know of many people who fit this description, who currently support and encourage the use of Apple products. Why Apple? I’m not entirely sure, but at some point Apple became the preferred alternative to Microsoft, HP, Dell, Google, etc. The problem from our perspective of course is that Apple is one of the worst industry players in relation to freedom. As a result, I suspect that many of them could be swayed to try and eventually promote free software, if they were educated about it. The question then becomes, how do we find, reach out to and educate them?
Many communities focusing on these common sets of beliefs and values already exist and could, I think, be tapped into. Perhaps our first course of action should be to become involved in them, and whenever an opening is given to do so, explain free software, what it is, and why they should care. Then, when their interest has been piqued, gently explain how they can start using it. Moose Finklestein at Ohio Linux Fest pointed out that using free software does not automatically mean using Linux. That by starting with the free software that they already know and possibly use – Firefox, LibreOffice, etc, we can show them that it´s not just for geeks, but for everyone – including them! Explain that by choosing to use free software, they are choosing to support freedom and the right to use their computers however they see fit, without the restrictions imposed on them by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. By showing them just how functional free software is, we can bring them into the fold, and show them all the amazing choices available. As they grow more comfortable with free software, they will be more likely to want to give back to the community and become contributors themselves.
Certainly not all of them will want to give back, but many of them will. Many of them are actively involved with other causes and groups which they support, from CSA’s and co-ops, to community gardens, youth groups, small businesses, and many others. Supporting and contributing to free software is less of a leap for them – in many ways its just another way to promote the values that they already hold. Encouraging them to give back however they can, through graphics, design, writing, testing or coding, depending on their skills is paramount. A common misconception outside of the FOSS community is the ways in which you can contribute. Many people (including myself until recently) are under the impression that in order to contribute you must know how to program. This is not the case, but it remains a misconception and hurdle to many potential contributors. Making it clear that contributions outside of code are valued should be a high priority. However in order to become involved, they must first feel welcome, which brings us to the last, and perhaps most difficult problem: making outsiders feel welcome.
Its something that many communities find difficult, both online and off. How do you make people, who are from varied backgrounds and stages in life, feel welcome? What is it that makes one community seem open and welcoming to those outside it, while another feels closed and cliquish? And how do you make the latter feel more like the former? Today, unfortunately, much of the FOSS world looks and feels like a giant, sprawling mess of connected but insular factions, most of whom are uninterested in anyone else. Whether this is the case or not is certainly up for debate – but that is how our communities are often perceived. Changing this perception is essential to our communities continued growth, and with it the use of free software by everyone.
One barrier to becoming involved in many FOSS communities today is the way in which they are operated. Currently most FOSS communities are based around mailing lists and IRC, both of which can be intimidating and, particularly in the case of IRC a technological challenge. By setting up other access points to the community, like forums, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+ groups we can can make ourselves more accessible and user friendly. I’m not advocating disbanding mailing lists and IRC completely, but simply expanding our online presence outside of the rather technically minded one we have now. Expanding into other media forms can also help us become a more dynamic community by sharing ideas and interests outside of free software with each other. In the process we show that we share other values, interests and concerns as well, which in turn makes us appear less aloof and therefore more open and welcoming to outsiders.
The FOSS community now stands at a crossroads, and our choices in the immediate future will likely shape our communities and influence our ability to succeed for years to come. If our goal is to convince more people to join us in using and contributing to free software, we must make ourselves more appealing as a community. Doing so will require changes, perhaps some of the above, and likely others I have not thought of as well. Regardless though, the choice to do, or not to do is ours.