Rule #5: Be Bold!

One of the first rules that entrepreneurs learn is that investors don't like revolutionary new ideas. Even when they work, the reasoning goes, they won't make you any money. Instead, investors want to see "innovative" ideas: ideas that push the existing envelope a little further, but don't totally change the map. With free culture projects, however, the situation is precisely inverted: people don't get as excited about contributing to merely "innovative" projects, they want to make "revolutionary" change in the world. High ambitions attract good company, and free licensed projects will do better not to set their sights too low.

Rule #5: Be Bold!

Think big; set your sights high; and don't be afraid to say what you're after!

Merely "innovative" ideas attract capital investment (when there is any to be had), but "revolutionary" ideas attract followers. On a free culture project, it is usually helping hands rather than cash that wins the day.

Many perfectly good commercial ideas simply fail to capture the imagination of potential amateur developers, and as a result languish in a zone of half-measures, sustained by the minimum cost-effective effort of the handful of people who develop the project because they need it for work.

Amateurs are the soul of the free culture movement, and they need a goal they can be proud of.

This last rule is of course, a popular slogan for Wikipedia, but in a broader sense, it applies to all free culture projects. Timidity can be a slow but sure death for a project that needs a lot of resources and interest to stay alive, but just doesn't matter enough to enough people to get it. In order to get finished and supported, a project needs to present itself as a vital need, a fascinating original solution, or in some way fundamentally fun in order to get finished.

Figure 12.1: "Be bold!" is a popular slogan on Wikipedia, where it means that you should just go ahead and make changes rather than asking for permission (Drawing credit: Eric Piercing/CC By-SA 2.0)

After all, writing code, drawing diagrams, or copy-editing text are no-fun jobs on their own. With no paycheck at the end of the tunnel, we do these tedious tasks because we are driven to see the result, and we want that result to matter.

Manifestos, Meaning, and Motivations

Richard Stallman could've told the world he wanted to create a collection of free utilities and libraries for the Unix operating system. After all, that's what the GNU project on its own accomplished.

But that's not what he did. Stallman exposed his real vision: a world without proprietary software, with an operating system made entirely from free software. That was a revolutionary idea, and he knew it. Why else would he write a "manifesto"? Stallman articulated his dream in a way that is not common outside of ideological revolutionary documents. Consider these excerpts:

"Once GNU is written, everyone will be able to obtain good system software free, just like air."

"Complete system sources will be available to everyone. As a result, a user who needs changes in the system will always be free to make them himself, or hire any available programmer or company to make them for him. Users will no longer be at the mercy of one programmer or company which owns the sources and is in sole position to make changes."

"Finally, the overhead of considering who owns the system software and what one is or is not entitled to do with it will be lifted."

Figure 12.2: Stallman, here wearing his "St. Ignucious" hat for a presentation in France, is good at being a controversial icon, and uses it to support his cause and attract followers (Photo Credit: Thomas Bresson/CC By-SA 2.0)

Perhaps the most stirring text, though, is the preamble which is found in every copy of the GNU General Public License, a document as critical as a national constitution to the advocates of free culture. In part, it reads:

"The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software—to make sure the software is free for all its users."

Stallman didn't just try to create a "product", he created a "cause". That kind of bravado attracted followers who were inspired by the vision he depicted. It turns out that there are plenty of talented and capable people out there who don't have a cause, but want one.

Figure 12.3: In recent years, Stallman has become much better known for his political activism than for his contributions to computer science (Photo Credit: Elke Wetzig / CC By-SA 2.0)

Other successful projects have been just as bold in their visions. Jimbo Wales (figure 12.4) expressed the purpose of Wikipedia thus:

"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Figure 12.4: Wikipedia is a huge and therefore expensive project, considering the server overhead involved in keeping it going. Thus, founder Jimbo Wales needs to be pretty bold in promoting it, much like a conventional entrepreneur. Here, he is being interviewed on an Argentinian news program (Photo credit: Loco85@Wikipedia/CC By-SA 2.5)

Nicholas Negroponte also managed to capture some of the revolutionary spirit of free culture early in promoting the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project:

"One laptop per child: Children are your most precious resource, and they can do a lot of self-learning and peer-to-peer teaching. Bingo. End of story."

Today, the OLPC website continues to carry a mission statement for which the term "bold" is almost inadequate:

"To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future."

Figure 12.5: The OLPC is an ideal example of a "bold" project, and its marketing appeals to high ideals (Screen capture of OLPC website)

Of course, most marketing strives to make products seem bold and revolutionary, but the difference here is that these projects' goals actually are as revolutionary as they claim to be.

Figure 12.6: Donald Knuth is known mostly for his TeX typesetting system, but also for a number of academic works on computer science and mathematics. His writing style takes on a tongue-in-cheek academic tone, and his software has an unparalleled reputation for quality. All of which contributes to the mystique around TeX and a resulting desire of developers to develop for it (Photo credit: Jacob Appelbaum/CC By-SA 2.5)

Mind you, not all such revolutions are political or even social. Some are founded on an appeal to artistic aesthetics or to craftsmanship—like Donald Knuth's TeX, which he proposed would simply typeset text beautifully, or Matthias Ettrich (of KDE) who proposed simply to create a consistent and usable interface:

"So one of the major goals is to provide a modern and common look and feel for all the applications. And this is exactly the reason why this project is different from elder attempts"

The need to be doing something new is important: after all, if it's been done before, what's the point in doing it again? So, when you express what you're doing, don't shoot yourself in the foot by trying to minimize what it means or the problems it presents. Hard problems are what developers live for.

Community projects' success in fully achieving their goals may well vary: OLPC has faltered somewhat due to disagreements within that community, which could be characterized as tension between government and business investors' timidity about such a bold mission and community contributors' impatience with that timidity. On the other hand, GNU and Wikipedia are both clearly successful projects. The success of TeX at its aesthetic goals has made it the standard for its own academic market.

Troubleshooting Tips

The Cult of Personality

Do you have to be a "character" to run a free culture project? Well, a strong personality certainly does seem to help. But there's a lot of leeway in just what sort of personality you have. What is really required is just self-confidence.

The more you violate the previous two rules, the more you'll have to rely on this one: as projects get bigger and more complex, the need for charismatic leadership grows. You'll need to work harder to attract people to your goal, because they have to overcome a bigger "buy-in" in order to join you.

And so you should present it as a cause: "I want to do this, and this is why I want to do it". Write a manifesto if you need to, or even just a vision statement. Make people understand why the world will be a better place if you can achieve your goal.

Trust in your own personality, and don't try to make one up. Not everybody was meant to be an ideologue like Richard Stallman or a rhetorical speaker like Lawrence Lessig. But there are just as many "quiet" leaders like Donald Knuth, who simply wanted to make a really good typesetting engine or Linus Torvalds, who started out just having fun, but later wanted to focus on real technical quality in the Linux kernel. Those kinds of goals attract followers too.

The main thing to remember is to do something good. Communicate how good it is, and others will want to help you do it. Sincere vision really matters.

Think Big, Start Small

At first, this rule might seem to contrast sharply with the previous "grow, don't build" rule, which counsels you to start really small. But in fact both are compatible—because even mighty oaks are grown from tiny acorns. The main point here is to have a higher goal in mind when you start and to share that inspirational vision with potential contributors.

There is however, a degree to which these rules balance each other. The less you follow the previous two rules (by dividing your project up into small components, each to be grown as an independently useful project), the more you are going to be stuck with a big and difficult to manage project. Running that larger project is going to require you to capture the imagination of potential helpers, and that's where having bold goals can help you get the help you need.

Fortunately, there is not just one model or personality type for bold leadership of a project. Many different people have managed to get their thoughts across in many different ways, ranging from the friendly academic humor of Donald Knuth to the revolutionary fervor of Richard Stallman. There's enough room for you to find your own pace and style.


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