Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2013/ Lessons From Software Freedom Day 2013

Lessons From Software Freedom Day 2013

Another Software Freedom Day has come and gone. Once again I helped organize a local event. Software Freedom Day is supposed to be an event when we step back and reflect upon the impacts the free software movement has upon us. Through the process of organizing and promoting the event, I ended up reflecting more than I had anticipated; my head is swirling with a haphazard collection of ideas and thoughts, often contradictory. Here is my awkward braindump.

Reflection 0: I found it difficult to convey why anybody (not already immersed in free software ideology) would want to attend our event. Once upon a time, internet connections were slow, and Linux distros were hard to install. After a brief golden age, Linux distros have become difficult to install again (thanks to proprietary video drivers and stripped-out binary blob firmware) but installing a Linux (or GNU/Linux) distro on one's computer is far less compelling than it used to be -- it is much easier to try new distros in virtual machines. In addition, internet connections are no longer slow, so installing software via CD or DVD (or even USB key) seems sillier and sillier. For our event, we still made software DVDs, and people still took them, but I think there is a good chance that not one person will ever use them for their ostensible purpose.

The hardware landscape is changing. The idea of "installing software" on "a personal computer" is becoming quaint and irrelevant. People's computers come in the form of mobile devices; their software is in the form of apps that are installable in a few clicks from centralized curated repositories (thank you, apt-get -- I guess?), and their data is in The Cloud. My gut tells me that the free software movement may have a role to play in this brave new future, but I do not think we are doing so now. Certainly this year's SFD celebrations did not address this need.

That leaves the talks. I think a few people came out because they were interested in specific talks, but over the years I have noticed that we offer the same kinds of talk year after year: a talk on the meaning of Software Freedom Day, a few talks on multimedia software, and something about "Linux for Windows users" (which we neglected to give this year). Is this sufficiently compelling? Does it accomplish our implicit goal of reaching new users and those unfamiliar with the free software movement? I do not feel that it does.

Reflection 1: I think I am losing my religion. This reflection got awfully long, so I have uncharacteristically split it off into its own entry: Losing My Religion (again)

Reflection 2: We pay insufficient attention to free culture, and that is harming its adoption. This year, I tried to stir the pot by broadening the idea of celebration of free software to include the free culture movement -- cultural works that can be shared and modified with fewer restrictions than the "All Rights Reserved" policy of most of the cultural works we consume. I thought that such a sampler would be more relevant to people than CDs of software that could better be downloaded off the Internet. Cultural works can be useful even if they are a hundred years old.

I attempted to solicit selections for this free culture sampler from the KWLUG membership, which is composed of a high proportion of free software enthusiasts. I hoped that we all had small collections of free culture works on our hard drives, and that we could pull the best of it together into a nice sampler for others.

It turned out that there were not many suggestions to be had from our Linux-loving community. Many of us extolled the virtues of Creative Commons and public domain culture, but not many of us actually consume it (or if we consume it, we are reluctant to share our suggestions). I received some of the same old selections everybody names: animated movies produced by the Blender3D foundation, and Sita Sings the Blues. Although these are fine cultural works, they are the same examples of free culture that everybody cites. Is there no additional free culture out there? Is none of it any good? Or are we just not paying any attention to it? In response to my query a few people started conducting CC-licence searches on the internet for suggestions, but I was surprised that we did not have favourites already.

In the end, we restricted the free culture sampler for this year to audio, which resulted in the 2013 Free Culture Sampler, which you can download from . We ended up putting this sampler from the following resources:

In the end, I think the sampler turned out pretty okay, despite scrambling at the last minute to find tracks. It takes work to wade through oceans of boring music, but curation services like Jamendo radios make this easier. (I only wish there was a similar system for -- there is so much music in the Live Music Archive, and I have no idea of what to listen to.) I think the problem here is demand, not supply -- we do not spend enough attention consuming the free culture content that is available, which removes one of the few incentives people have to release their content under Creative Commons licences.

I am a part of the problem. I spend far too much attention watching or listening to (non-free, often pirated) content on Youtube, and not enough attention exploring the free culture world. I will never be a saint about this, but I have the ability to spend more attention consuming free culture works, and then giving back by leaving reviews and recommendations (and payments?) for the stuff I like.

Reflection 3: I do not like organizing events, and I am not very good at it. This is hardly a new reflection -- I have actively resisted leadership and organizational roles for years now (but not that successfully -- I get roped in again and again). When Software Freedom Day season came up again this year, I felt some dread. However, in the end I resolved not to be resentful, even if I ended up doing the bulk of the organizing. I do not know whether I ended up doing the bulk of the organizing or not -- certainly I did not end up doing everything myself, which was a relief. But those last two weeks of organizing definitely felt more like work and less like fun.

In some ways I did more promotion for the event than I had in previous years, at least in terms of getting my voice heard. I wrote an article for the Good Work News, I did an interview/rant for the Kwartzlab podcast, and on the day of the event I was interviewed by two students at Conestoga College. I also distributed posters and filled out forms for event calendars that I suspected nobody reads. But none of this was very effective.

Perhaps the most effective promotion I engaged in was with the Bits and Bytes computer club. I presented a 10 minute spiel for the group, and in return a few members showed up to the event (and found some presenters for their group, which is fantastic).

The event itself was not a disaster. We had hiccups, and certain things like the Installfest did not work out well at all, but the event happened and some people showed up. Is that good enough? It does not feel good enough. The majority of attendees were already free software aficionados, and if our goal had been to spread the word about free software to so-called "regular people", then we did not succeed.

Is proselyization the goal? I think it was my goal. But without more effective outreach, we won't reach that goal -- and given how weak I am at promotion there is no way we will reach that goal if promotion is left in my hands. So is putting the effort to organize Software Freedom Day really worth it? I ask myself that question every year, and almost every year I push through my reluctance and help with organizing anyways. It may be time to reevaluate that decision.