Wanted: Empowered, Active, Activist Users

The other, better-known and wiser Dan Gillmor (disclosure: we don't just share names, we're related) has started a new project called Mediactive. His older project, We the Media was about the power and coming growth of grassroots journalism. The new project focuses on media "consumers", instead of media "producers". Economic metaphors usually leave me cold, but it resonates with me when he says:

So I’m declaring victory, albeit early, on the supply side of the equation. [...]

But that doesn’t solve what may be a bigger issue: crappy demand.

We have raised several generations of passive consumers of news and information. That’s not good enough anymore.

The directional shift he's taking is an important one, and not just one for an independent, grassroots media. It seems parallel in many ways to the situation i see around free software.

The free software community has clearly demonstrated that we can build quality, liberated tools for the public in and from the commons (though there are admittedly tons of crap tools in the commons as well). But the society-altering political goals of free software (that everyone should have the right and the ability to freely use good tools fully under their own control, a corollary of freedom 0 from the FSF's four freedoms) are still going to fail if the majority of the tool users shrug their shoulders and either:

Software needs an active and engaged userbase if it is going to become Good Software. Your software works for you? Fine. But if you can make it work for a dozen people who are engaged enough to say “Wouldn't it be great if...?” or “How come it acts like...?”, you can build a tool capable of solving problems you couldn't have imagined on your own. And those users can help and engage each other (and still more users) too; the community makes the tool more powerful. More powerful free tools provide more freedom to their community of users.

Dan's new project seems to acknowledge that not everyone is going to become a grassroots journalist themselves. And great as the dream of free software is, we cannot realistically insist that everyone become a software developer either. For either grassroots journalism or free software to live up to their promise, we need active and engaged (or even activist) users.

This is a tough project. i'm an active and engaged software user -- i have to be if i want to be a decent software developer, protocol designer, system administrator, or participant in debian. But it takes work and mental energy just to be a user like that, let alone the other responsibilities. But frankly (sorry, Dan!), i'm a terribly passive media consumer. I know Dan's right, that i can contribute to the cause of grassroots and distributed media (a cause i believe in, without seeing myself as a grassroots journalist) by being a more engaged and activist user of the media. But i don't do it currently. Why? While i'm not sure exactly how to be an active or engaged user of the media, i have no doubt that if i threw myself at the task, i could figure it out. But this kind of learning takes time and is real work, and even if i had it all figured out, i'm sure that being active and engaged would take more time and work than being passive. And i already feel swamped by other obligations and plans.

Most software users must feel the same way about their tools. How can we reduce those barriers? How can we not only help people see that their contributions as users are vitally important, but help make those contributions and that participation easy? As far as i know, Dan (who understands the goals, tech issues, and social concerns around software freedom as well as any non-programmer i know) doesn't run a free operating system himself. And i don't participate in any significant way as an engaged user of distributed, grassroots media. That sucks.


Tags: free software, politics, users