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Jonathan Roberts [opinions]

Involving the community: my podcast experience [free-software] [community] [freedom] [podcast]

I recently started a new podcast where people like you and me have the chance to put questions to key people in our community. While doing that I discovered some aspects of our community that I feel are often over looked in the drive to find new users.

Why I did it

For those of you who don’t know, I recently put together a new podcast where people like you and me had the chance to put questions to a panel of key players from the world of free software. I’m afraid I can’t claim to know where the idea came from anymore, but what I do know is that after having the idea, and seeing it to fruition, I’m really pleased I had it!

To be honest, however, it was one of those things that occurs to you and you think “yeah, great” but never really believe it will happen; this time, I thought the idea was a good one and decided to give it a shot. So, I went about finding the email addresses of some people I thought would be interesting to hear speak and dropped them a note explaining my idea. Something surprising happened too: they replied. More than that, they were happy to take part!

Something surprising happened too: they replied. More than that, they were happy to take part!

Initially, I thought it was a good idea simply because I always enjoy reading interviews and hearing people talk passionately (and knowledgeably!) about a subject I’m interested in. Add to that, the format of ordinary people asking the questions works really well on the BBC radio show Any Questions. After getting the replies, though, and reading some of their comments in the messages I started to realise that it could be more than just an interesting listen.

It was an opportunity for those of us who usually struggle to make contributions elsewhere in the community—whether due to a lack of time, lack of technical knowledge (as is often my situation!), lack of confidence or any other reason from a myriad of possibilities—to ask a quick question and get some feedback from those right at the centre of our community. It was also an opportunity to rediscover the principles that underlie everything we do in the free software world: to rediscover the importance of freedom.

The good times...

There is, in my opinion, something special about free software: I started using GNU/Linux about a year ago now and all the way through my transition from proprietary software there has been a huge number of people willing to support me however they could. I saw this attitude reflected once again in the generous responses from the guests, who, despite busy schedules, family commitments and, in one case, a hangover, gave up their time to talk on a show being put together by a gap year student with no previous experience! This sense of community is, in actual fact, only half of why I think free software to be special; I had only considered the other half, until recently, marginally important. This “other half” is freedom.

I’d always thought the terms “open source software” and “free software” to be interchangeable, but while in the initial stages of preparation Richard Stallman pointed out to me the difference between these two terms. “OK” I thought, and I investigated a little and found that this is the case. I still failed, however, to see why the difference is important—why freedom is important.

Figure 1: GNU’s head

While making the actual recording, though, this began to change: Richard Stallman’s suggestion that he was influenced by growing up in the United States in the ’60s demonstrated to me how free software links so strongly with values of fundamental importance to us all; Jeremy Allison’s door handle analogy is a clear practical example of why these freedoms are important; also, Jeff Waugh’s comments that he loved having a community out there “creating fantastic stuff” with free tools highlighted, for me, how freedom is at the very centre of our community.

...and the bad

Of course, in putting this together it wasn’t all generous responses and grand realisations of the importance of freedom: I had my fair share of times when I panicked about getting enough questions to ask the guests; fears that nobody would know about it, or that nobody would want to listen. On a few occasions, I blamed the community for these moments, but in all honesty, it was me who was responsible.

I thought it would be easy: I would post to Digg and Slashdot, lots of traffic would be driven to me and questions would be plentiful! I was wrong. The internet is a very big place and starting something new on it was never going to be easy. The free software community, though, came through for me once again (as it had all those other times when I needed to set up printer networking, figure out how to record a VoIP conversation etc etc!). Free Software Magazine put up a blog post about it, Linux Format put it on their front page news section, people responded in forums, mailing lists and IRC, and, in the end, we got some great questions to make, in my opinion, a great show.

The moments when I did blame the community, though, opened my eyes to some things, which I don’t think I’d ever have considered otherwise. All that I know about the ideals and philosophy behind free software—until recently—had been based on hearsay, on piecing together little bits of information I found here and there. This had on some occasions resulted in misconceptions. More importantly, however, it had prevented me from gaining a deeper appreciation of why free software is so important, about why the community is the way it is and about how freedom is at the core of everything we do.

Freedom is at the core of everything we do

Moving on from here

I suppose my point is this: we want to expand the numbers of people using free software because the software itself is really good, but this isn’t our strongest selling point, nor our most significant. As much as we’d rather not admit it, proprietary software isn’t bad (in quality terms); where it fails is in the lack of freedoms it gives to its users, the very place we are strongest. The next time you’re trying to convince someone to try GNU/Linux, tell them the door handle story, tell them about DRM and point them in the direction of GNU’s philosophy links—help them to understand. In doing so, they’ll discover not just great software, but a welcoming and knowledgeable community, who care passionately (and with good reason too!) about freedom. Perhaps, even take the time to do these things yourself, or to listen to the discussion in the podcast and remember why we all love this community.


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