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Sowing the Seeds of Open Source Advocacy

by Jono Bacon

Aristotle was a confused yet accomplished man. As someone who demonstrated incredible understanding of philosophy, his efforts typically hinged around expressing abstract concepts to people in a language they understood. With a portfolio of such complex topics, Aristotle developed better ways in which he could express his views; he didn't just work on the content of his message, but he worked on how he delivered his message, too.

Although Aristotle developed his message many, many years ago, the concept of optimizing how we talk to people has developed further throughout history. From Aristotle to Heraclitus to Friedrich Nietzsche to Helen Keller to George Bernard Shaw, many people have advocated new thinking in times of rabid opposition. One of the most famous advocates of new thinking was the civil rights activist Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge by saying, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Although it is wrong to insinuate that open source advocacy is as important as civil rights, open source shares some ties with these other advocates. From the ethical standpoint of free software to the task of challenging established thinking, it is useful not only to learn from the contemporary advocates of today, such as Eric Raymond, Bruce Perens, and Richard Stallman, but also to explore how people such as Martin Luther King approached the challenge.

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The Importance of the Message

Within the open source community, advocacy is as critical as contributing source code, patches, or documentation. Although advocacy is not a technical contribution, it is critically important to spread the message of open source to other people in a language that is cohesive to their context. It is easy to preach to the converted when advocating open source to people at Linux user groups and trade shows, but standing in front of a board of executives who care little about computers--let alone a facet of computers, such as open source--is quite a challenge.

One of the most eloquent examples of an advocate speaking in the right language is that of Dr. Edgar Villanueva. As a Peruvian congressman, Villanueva faced a stiff and critical letter from Microsoft Peru regarding the government's increasing interest in open source. Villanueva wrote a stunningly crafted response to the letter that demonstrated a consistent understanding of the issues presented in an ordered, logical form. The beauty of Villanueva's letter was not just as a well-considered document, but that in the evidence that he had explored, he used the most appropriate language to rebut Microsoft's points. This language undoubtedly helped the subsequent success of open source in his country.

Another interesting feature of Villanueva's letter is its use of factually representative content that specifically sought to clarify critical points. This technique is essential in developing your message, and you should back up all of your points with factually honest information. These facts add more value to your message and give the reader the view that A) you know your subject well, and B) that open source is a proven technology. Consider a simple example. Imagine that you send an email to an MP in the U.K. to discuss how open source is important. You could include this sentence:

Open source has proven to be useful in government, and more and more government organizations are using open source.

To add more impact, replace it with this:

Open source has proven to be useful in government, and a recent report commissioned by the Office of Government Commerce cited open source as "viable" ( This has spurred on the take up of open source in councils such as Dundee Council, where open source has involved substantial cost savings and stability/consolidation improvements.

The second version not only puts across the message that open source has increased in use, but it also validates the statement by mentioning an official report by a third party.

A feature of both of these sentences is that the language is clear and applicable to the reader. One school of thought believes that a writer should write in a style that is applicable to the audience; stories are descriptive, kids read simple language, and bureaucrats read bureaucratic prose. This is generally true, apart from the bureaucratic context. William Zinsser, an established language teacher and author of On Writing Well, says that "just because people work for an institution, they don't have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pomposity" (On Writing Well, p. 167). This skill is critical in developing the tone and authenticity of your message. I recommend that you read On Writing Well or listen to the fantastic audiobook of it that Zinsser himself reads. He is a very inspiring and interesting teacher.

Before moving on, I want to write a few words about research and statistical information. Research and statistics are crucial to your message, but the source of the information is just as crucial. If, for example, you are targeting a large organization with a complex managerial structure, it is likely that there will be a culture of managers impressing managers. With this in mind, research needs to come from established organizations such as government agencies, objective research institutions, universities, and professors. Within this targeted audience, educational chops play a real role. On the other hand, if you are targeting a small business, real-world information will more likely be of interest. In this case, usage/skills statistics, press, similarly-sized case studies, and awards may have more impact. In a smaller organization, the focus is more typically on technical ability and costs, as opposed to the political issues encountered in larger corporate environments.

Approaching the Task

With your message crafted, it is possible to advocate in one of two fundamental ways. First, you can go for a more marketing-inspired, blanket-driven approach, in which you send out a general message to many people. This kind of approach has seen great success in the Spread Firefox and Infopoint projects, but the challenge with blanket advocacy is the need to be very careful in how you craft your message. This is because it will have a very generic application in multiple contexts you will be unaware of. A future article will discuss this approach.

The second approach is more involved with specific consultancy and promotion of open source in a particular company, organization, or education institution. With this method, you have the twin tasks of understanding a specific IT infrastructure or problem and of developing an idea of how open source can solve these problems. There are three main parts to this:

  • Make your colleagues understand what open source is.
  • Make them understand how it can be useful for them.
  • Determine the best method in which to use open source software in the organization.

Within this method, your involvement can take on one of two further paths; internal or external consultancy. In the latter approach, you are advocating open source to a specific organization or sector that does not already employ or know you. The first goal here is to garner the attention of the company and convince them to take you seriously. This is always tough, because so many people who cold-call a company to express the benefits of a particular software tool or system are selling a product. Once again, your identity can cause your options to fork. IBM sending a team of salesmen around to a large organization to preach, over an expensive meal in an expensive restaurant, how their products can help will have more impact than a single person approaching them. This is largely because of the business culture of big business. If the same two sets of people were to approach a smaller startup, the opposite might occur.

Some people refer to internal advocacy from the inside out as guerrilla evangelism. In many ways, this method offers the greatest opportunity (people inside the company know and trust you), but it can also offer the greatest personal risk. If you apply an incorrect level of advocacy, there is the unfortunate chance that you will hear people utter things like "Damn, Joe is going on about Linux again." With this in mind, it is important that you understand from the outset that no one likes an evangelist, mainly because the interpretation of evangelism is that it is just blatant salesmanship. This is where the "guerrilla" part of guerilla evangelism kicks in. Your nominal goal is to make yourself known as someone who understands open source and who can offer realistic advice on how to best use open source.

When you are in a guerrilla evangelism role, you also have the challenge of percolating through the hierarchy of managers. You may not know the person who makes the decisions for IT in your organization very well, or at all, let alone have any influence on this person. You could theoretically go straight to the top and explain open source, but will this person take you seriously; would the President of the United States take advice from a civil servant?

Moving on

This article has provided a bird's-eye perspective on the issues of open source advocacy. These higher-level issues are fundamental in understanding the devil in the detail. In future columns, I will explain some of the ways in how you can advocate open source in a well-considered and intelligent manner. This process does not only involve understanding the open source community, but also understanding the business community and purely how people tick. Aristotle seemed to have a spookily accurate interpretation of how to develop as an advocate, and he was fundamentally correct when he stated, "It is possible to fail in many ways ... while to succeed is possible only in one way."

Jono Bacon is an award-winning leading community manager, author and consultant, who has authored four books and acted as a consultant to a range of technology companies. Bacon's weblog ( is one of the widest read Open Source weblogs.

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