📆 June 23, 2022 | ⏱️ 5 minute read | 🏷️ computing

How to Proselytize Free Software

In my last entry, The Power of Convenience, I talked about how convenience shapes the actions we take in life and how making something more or less convenient makes it more or less likely for people to do it. In this entry, I’ll continue with the theme of convenience, applying it to free software this time.

Recently I’ve been thinking about which free private messaging application is the best and a thought occurred to me: The best free (as in freedom) private messengers (emphasis on plural) are the one that strike a good balance between convenience and freedom/privacy. If it’s too inconvenient, no one will use it. They’ll go straight back to Discord and Facebook Messenger. If it’s not free/private enough, then there’s little benefit in encouraging people to switch.

So there’s this sweet spot, this goldilocks zone which balances convenience and freedom/privacy. If you’re introducing someone to free software, start by showing them the convenient software. Don’t ask them to change their operating system first. Most people don’t even know what an operating system is. A computer to tech normies is just an incidental tool they need to accomplish something else. They don’t care what operating system it runs or what programs they use.

If you want people to care about free software, show them how it solves a problem in their life better than proprietary software does. If they’re a business owner, using LibreOffice over the paid Micro$oft Office can save them money. They may not appreciate the software freedom aspect just yet, but they may come to appreciate it. You can preach to them about it, but when does that ever convince anyone? Show them the benefits of software freedom. Show them how it gives them more control. Then you won’t need to preach about how great it is.

You might be dealing with someone who’s trying to shake off the influence of big tech in their lives. Show them free and convenient private messaging apps like Element and Session. Install LibRedirect on their browser. De-Google their phone for them and install easy-to-use free apps from F-Droid. They’ll appreciate the privacy and simplicity without the big tech bullshit on their phone.

Whoever you’re dealing with, they’ll almost certainly have some use case which free software is better suited for than proprietary software. Even Richard Stallman agrees that using any amount of free software instead of proprietary software helps. Whether you go full Stallman or you’re just getting started, you are helping the cause.

If someone loves LibreOffice but doesn’t want to try GNU/Linux yet, give them time. Maybe they’ll eventually start using more free software as they come to appreciate the benefits. In the beginning, they may appreciate free software for the quality of the software or some other less important reason than software freedom, but that’s okay. Even people who don’t care about freedom deserve freedom.

Oftentimes users don’t even realize how they’re being mistreated until they use free software. You can tell them “Proprietary software tracks you. It controls you. Blah blah blah.” but preaching to people rarely creates converts. Let them decide for themselves that it’s better. There’s nothing wrong with explaining the freedom benefits if they’re receptive to it. I’m just pointing out that explaining the philosophy behind free software probably isn’t the optimal strategy for gaining converts.

It’s better to hook people on the practical benefits of free software, then seize on their curiosity to share the philosophy with them. I don’t think I’ve gotten a single “convert” to free software by preaching and I don’t ever expect to. Based on my personal experience, people are way more receptive to learning about free software philosophy after they actually use some free software.

You have to put yourself in the shoes of a tech normie and remember most aren’t even aware free software exists. You can preach to them about the evils of proprietary software, but even if they conclude you’re right, they’ll assume there’s nothing to be done about it. Show them convenient alternatives that solve their individual problems first and then you can preach.

Another point I wanna make is that we in the free software community sometimes lose sight of our common enemy: proprietary software. We get bogged down by infighting. We have flame wars about Systemd and Electron, or whether terminal applications are a superior way to use a computer than graphical applications. It’s fine to have these discussion within the free software community, but let’s not discourage potential free software users over it.

Let’s all agree on something: If you are using proprietary software, switching to free software is a Good Thing. It doesn’t matter what free software it is. It doesn’t matter if it uses Electron. It doesn’t matter if it’s a web app. It doesn’t matter if it’s bloatware. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with every technical detail about the way the software runs. At least it’s free software and it’s convenient enough that normal people are willing to use it instead.

I personally hate Electron apps, but I’m happy when people choose Nuclear Music Player over Spotify because I’m thinking big picture. I don’t complain that they don’t use cmus because I don’t want to discourage them. Cmus may be technically better according to me, but it isn’t as convenient for them and the hatred for Electron is a technical complaint, not a moral one like the difference between free and proprietary software. Moral issues are more important than technical ones, so let’s try to remember that when we promote free software to normal people.

That’s my two cents based on past experiences trying to get people to switch to free software. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!