Spreading the word – The Art of Advocacy

FOSS Advocacy

Article from Issue 199/2017

Learn the tricks, tips, and techniques for converting friends, family, and colleagues to free and open source software.

When was the last time you saw a TV advertisement for your favorite Linux distribution? Or heard a radio spot about GNU? Chances are you've never come across anything like that – and you probably never will. Awareness of GNU, Linux, and free and open source software (FOSS) is spread largely by word of mouth, using grass roots movements and social media. Many of us got into Linux and FOSS because we knew of friends who were using it or read an article describing someone's experiences in a magazine. We certainly didn't start using Linux back in the late 1990s because of some shiny TV ad (Figure 1).

Figure 1: GNU/Linux hasn't had much in the way of TV advertising, although IBM did create a video spot many years ago.

As a reader of this magazine, you probably don't need anyone to advocate Linux and FOSS to you. Chances are that you made the decision to use this software long ago, for your own reasons. Even if you dual-boot and just tinker with Linux as a hobby, you've still gone far enough that you're not interested in hearing someone else's arguments for using it.

But because you're familiar with Linux and FOSS, and have your own (hopefully positive!) experiences with it, why not start advocating for it yourself? There are many different ways to contribute to the FOSS movement, including code, documentation, graphics, and QA, but spreading the word can be equally as useful. Linux and other free software projects benefit from fresh blood and new ideas, so by advocating for the FOSS community, you can help improve the software that we all use and benefit from.

But there's an art to advocacy. Saying the right things to the right people, and at the right time, is critical. You may have seen efforts to advocate Linux on web forums and online chat channels, but they often boil down to "LOL M$ sucks, stop being a n00b and use Linux." The people posting such messages think they're doing the right thing – after all, they want more people to try the software – but such approaches are usually counterproductive.

In this issue, we'll take a closer look at the best ways to advocate Linux and FOSS among your friends, family, and colleagues. We'll analyze areas you can focus on, ways to get people interested, and how to respond to common criticisms. So, let's get started.

Choose Your Audience

First off, think about who you're trying to tempt into using FOSS and Linux (your target audience). Different people will have wildly different requirements and interests, and you should cater for them. Telling a mate who's struggling with performance problems in Windows 10 on his home PC that Linux scales up to a jillion processors and has 45 different filesystems won't have much effect – in fact, that person will just be put off. Similarly, telling a company IT boss that the (very awesome) Arch User Repository has the latest, bleeding-edge software minutes after it's released upstream won't sway him or her – they are interested in long-term support and stability.

We'll look at specific arguments later in this article, but it's important that you keep your target's needs and desires in mind. Once you have a clear picture of what they want, you can start to formulate your approach. A very important thing to bear in mind is that geek jokes and references to hacker culture can torpedo your efforts – and this happens a lot. If you've been in the FOSS world for many years, you might forget that some things sound completely alien to the wider world.

Richard Stallman, for example, gives many speeches around the world espousing the benefits of free software. By and large, they are excellent: He carefully lays out the importance of FOSS, describes how it benefits society as a whole, and makes listeners aware that with proprietary software they're not truly in control of their computers. His speeches aren't highly technical, nor are they overly emotional, but they get the point across effectively.

But one thing always makes us cringe, though: When Stallman explains the four freedoms that define free software [1], he starts counting from "freedom zero" (Figure 2). We get the reference here – in many programming languages, elements in sequences are counted from zero onwards – but this "in joke" simply baffles the unaware. Instead of focusing on the highly important message in Stallman's speeches, listeners can get distracted by this small point.

Figure 2: Richard Stallman delivers superb speeches on FOSS – we just wish he didn't count the "four freedoms" from zero! (Photo source: NizoBZH, http://tinyurl.com/m4zmsju)

So try to avoid such complications in your own advocacy. You might be extremely passionate about something – such as using the name "GNU/Linux" to refer to the operating system (OS) as a whole – but you might want to hold back on getting into the naming debate before your target is actually interested in (or actively using) the software. Later, you can talk about how the GNU project relates to the OS we use today, its importance, and its areas of focus.

Areas to Focus On

Now let's turn to specific things you can discuss when advocating Linux and FOSS. We all have our own reasons for using it, but the world is always changing and arguments that may have been solid 10 years ago might have less impact now.

Take stability, for instance. Back in the days of Windows 98, ME, and early releases of XP, we used to make jokes about the Windows Blue Screen of Death (BSOD; Figure 3). Even though desktop Linux distributions of the time were far from perfect, and had their own flaws, we could sell Linux on stability alone: "Sorry to hear about losing your work – you may want to try Linux. I've been using it for three years, and it has never crashed on me."

Figure 3: We all used to joke about Blue Screens of Death in Windows, but today, we have to be more subtle when advocating Linux based on stability.

Since Windows 7 onwards, though, that argument isn't quite as powerful; Microsoft has beefed up the stability of Windows (although we still think it doesn't compare to a well-tuned Debian installation). Telling potential convertees that they can avoid BSODs and major crashes by switching to Linux won't have as much effect. You might have some success in this area when talking about massive server deployments that need extremely high availability, but many home users running Windows probably haven't seen a full-on crash for a while.

Next up is security. This is definitely an area where we can advocate Linux and FOSS over proprietary software. However, we have to be careful: Just because a piece of software is open source, that doesn't make it inherently more secure, as major bugs like OpenSSL's Heartbleed [2] have demonstrated (Figure 4). If we just wave our hands and say, "Linux and FOSS are simply more secure," and a gaping hole is discovered a few days later, we end up with egg on our faces.

Figure 4: FOSS is not immune to security holes, as Heartbleed proved. But we can still argue that it's more secure than proprietary software.

So instead of focusing on the number of security problems discovered in one piece of software versus another, you can talk about how FOSS is better at preventing and handling such problems. As you know, with open source, many eyeballs can look through code and find security vulnerabilities before they are exploited. This is a potential benefit, as not every piece of FOSS has thousands of people working on it, but it often plays out in reality.

Similarly, you can talk about how FOSS projects are much more proactive when it comes to security. Find an example of a security hole being discovered and then being patched within hours. Compare this with an example from a proprietary software company that took days, weeks, or even months before releasing a patch.

You can extend this argument even further by talking about unknown vulnerabilities. Because we regular humans can't look at the Windows 10 source code, do we have any idea how many potential vulnerabilities there are in the operating system? Of course not. There could be some real whoppers in there being exploited by crackers and government agencies as we speak. And if those crackers are netting lots of info or money by breaking Windows boxes, they won't be in a rush to tell Microsoft…

Contrast this with Linux and FOSS. Yes, they are not perfect; yes, they have security issues as well. But with all the code in the open, such issues can be discovered much more quickly, and it's extremely hard for nefarious types to squeeze in broken code to be exploited later on. When you're advocating Linux, make your target know that you feel much, much more comfortable – and in control of your PC – by running FOSS.

Other Benefits

You can talk about other things as well, such as performance: Many Linux distros run like a charm on older hardware, negating the need to upgrade so often. The ability to deeply customize the OS could be a big win for many people as well. But, if you're tempted to talk about price, this is also where you have to be careful. Most people get Windows preinstalled with their PCs and don't realize that they've had to spend money on it.

Additionally, people can be rather mistrusting of things that are "free." Where's the catch? Do I have to pay later? Is it like a "freemium" service where all my data is uploaded to the Internet? On top of this, some people may still have the perception that GNU, Linux, and FOSS are some kind of "hippie commie" movement – which wasn't helped by Microsoft executives, in the early 2000s, saying Linux has "characteristics of communism" and is "against the American way."

So explain to your potential convertee early on exactly why Linux is free. Discuss how it's developed, who works on it, and how it is funded (many projects like LibreOffice and Debian survive off donations). But, you can also state that there is plenty of money made in the Linux world as well – point to Red Hat, a company that makes megabucks from providing support and other add-on services for FOSS. (See the "FOSS and Support" box for more info.) Show how Google has tens of thousands of machines running Linux and contributes back.

FOSS and Support

There's a common misconception that there's no support available for FOSS. Sure, that may be the case for some random two-person SourceForge project that's at version 0.1.3, but many big-name FOSS apps and distros have commercial support options available. Most companies and large organizations don't switch to Linux without paying someone to provide support.

Now, this is a bit trickier for home users; they're unlikely to pay for Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Collabora Office (a supported enterprise version of LibreOffice). But when advocating Linux, if this argument comes up, you can turn it around: Have you ever phoned Microsoft for support with Windows or Office? What sort of help did you get?

Chances are that your target has never done this nor interacted with Microsoft in any meaningful way. They've paid for "supported" software, but their options are limited. Look at the support page for Microsoft Office home users, for example [3] – it recommends visiting the Office community forums (Figure 5). Well, great! You've spent all this money, but Microsoft is asking its own users to provide support for each other.

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