01 June 2007

Open Source Public Relations

Marketing says “Buy me.” PR says, “Its OK, go ahead.”

To be blunt, open source public relations sucks. Linux public relations sucks. (While the open source and Linux communities are very close, there are members of one who are not members of the other. Despite this, I will henceforth refer to both groups simply as the open source community.) If the open source community expects any significant adoption of their ideals and products, decent public relations is a necessity. This is due to the nature of the community and the market.

With the exception of Apache, user bases of various open source software products are far below that of commercial rivals. The results are a smaller talent pool, fewer businesses or business-like points of contact for help, and most importantly, greater effect of a single individual on the image of the user and support community as a whole. As members of the community, we must recognize this and attempt to keep our perception positive, and remain active in public relations to that end.

Would you send your child into someone's household storm?

We tend to be a very passionate bunch. While people rage on and fight wars over issues of religion and politics, we do the same over software licenses and patents, feature sets, and implementation details. Its human nature to get defensive, and often offensive, when it comes to beliefs. Being passionate about something is a good thing, but perhaps we need to keep our passions behind closed doors. When outsiders look in, without context and understanding, how are they likely to perceive conflict? Will they see colleagues battling things out for the greater good of the product and community? Will they see unprofessional people who are still emotionally children crying over bruised egos? Regardless of what the truth is, its the perception that matters

Consider for a moment a household in turmoil. Most of us know at least one. It could be parents who are constantly fighting, or perhaps its a single parent with questionable friends or a poor choice for a love interest. Maybe its just the family that is falling apart because nothing seems to be going right. Regardless, would you send your child into such a household to stay even a night? Nobody is perfect, but when you see significant, obvious problems which could affect your child, could you really send them into the fire? The situation may not seem relevant, but the reality is its more significant than most would believe.

Technology is becoming a greater and more significant part of our lives every day. It could be your business and the hopes, dreams, and mortgage it carries that is effected by your technology choices. Maybe its the memories of a lost loved one immortalized in digital photos and video clips. It could also be your finances, your recreation time, your educational tool, or your connections to distant friends. Software, operating systems, media formats – they can all be key parts of our lives. Who are you going to trust that to?

Who's legs to stand on?

Most people don't have the passion about technology that we do, so choices are made in a much more practical way. Would you trust your digital life to a successful business with strong leaders, excellent market position, and the ability to command and define the landscape? Would you trust it to a bunch of people in the game as a hobby who's allegiance is fleeting, and needs defined by ideals instead of practicality? To us, the decision is clear. The problem is, its also clear to the people we seek to bring on board.

We have to understand the needs of others, and what is important to them. We can't even begin to speak to them on the right level until we know where they are coming from. We can't possibly devalue the importance of going with the crowed when we don't even know why other's have made that choice in the first place.

Do you care?

You can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped, but there is more to the situation than saving users from themselves. Today, the open source community doesn't have the power it needs to drive the world in the direction it wants. We dig and we claw, we make some headway, but in the end we are still being kept down. If we are to reform or eliminate software patents, promote and standardize open formats, eliminate DRM, or accomplish any of our other far-reaching goals, we need all of the help we can get. Let's present the best of ourselves to others, and seek to understand their wants and needs. Maybe if we work on our PR, we can rally more troops to the cause.

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