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It is alright to be just a Linux user

Being a GNU/Linux user is a peculiar thing in that you stand a great chance of being pulled into such hard to define brackets such as "Linux community", "Free Software community" or "Open Source community". Words such as "community", "sharing" and "cooperation" are tossed around so much that it really shouldn't be so surprising that some have went so far as to compare the FOSS (Free Open Source Software) phenomenon with some sort of a communist or socialist ideology. There is so much emphasis on the collective yet so little talk about the individual.

Unfortunately, whenever one puts so much weight on a collective precise thinking is seldom what's being practiced, for a "collective" is merely an abstraction for a "number of individuals". A collective therefore doesn't actually exist. So explaining the FOSS phenomenon in terms of collectivism leads to severe and even dangerous misconceptions. To see what's actually going on we only need to look from the perspective of individuals involved, and that would be a practice of thinking that's much more precise. Answers then become more specific and even simpler, because we don't have to use vague abstract sounding words in our explanations.

Even the term "Linux community" is more likely meaningless than not, almost like an attempt to impose a perception of coherency and uniformity to something that is anything but coherent and uniform. It would almost be more precise to call it a "Linux anti-community". Even the nature of software development model employed flies in face of what is represented by "community" as it encourages more diversity and individualism than any model I know of. Everyone can have their own flavor, take control of their own software and even fork a whole project if they so wish.

I'm not denying that there isn't a strong sense of community to Linux user experience, but that's mostly because they're generally more straightforward about expressing themselves, another individualist rather than collectivist trait, inside of a smaller community set around a specific piece of software or a specific distribution, NOT around an entire FOSS phenomenon or the GNU/Linux system. If anything, "Linux community" is actually just an anarchy of many many little different communities all with their own subcultures and fandoms. Tell me that doesn't explain a lot? ;)

So, let's see what's actually going on in the FOSS paradigm.

Individual A, with programming skills, decides to write a program and then offer it under the terms which allow other individuals to make copies, give or even sell those away, make modifications etc. His or her hope is that this will get the program used by more people. (S)he derives value from knowing that it is useful not only to her or himself, but to others as well, but that may be only one of the selfish motives. Others may be gaining opportunities for practice and education, gaining respect and fame, filling up a resume with something of significance and thus gaining better chances of getting a desired job etc.

Yes, those are selfish motives. Everything an individual does is in pursuit of self-interest. Even those who claim self-sacrifice and try to act in opposite of their self-interests are in fact acting in their self-interest because the whole reason why they self-sacrifice is expectancy of some sort of a reward, even if it is only a feelgood of some kind or a place in heaven. :P Unfortunately, hoping for such elusive rewards doesn't guarantee them and thus most self-sacrificing people actually end up in a form of misery. Why, most of what they did was in pursuit of exactly the opposite of their own happiness.

No community-ism and associated guilt trips!

Unfortunately, this is the kind of mentality espoused by some in the so called "Linux community". They say programmers are being selfless when giving away software, that they are making a form of self sacrifice. They also assume that their cause is shared by everyone or should be shared by everyone. These claims and assumptions are then used to support demands that others sacrifice themselves in kind, "contribute back", which usually means something like "you should sign my petition, donate to my project, digg my story" etc. They present themselves as speaking in the name of the whole community, and we've seen just what "community" in this context means, and then make their demands. And if you don't comply it's not too uncommon that you're branded as a "freeloader", uncaring, unthankful or otherwise guilty of something. They remind me of taxmen.

I wish to disparage such myths, however. I posit that there is no universal cause inherent in being a GNU/Linux user, that there is no inherent obligation, and that you should not feel guilty at all if you just use it and don't dedicate special amount of effort to "contributing back", doing advocacy, making donations etc. You should do it only if you actually want to instead of because you succumbed to a guilt trip arranged by someone else.

Getting this great OS for free is exactly what its makers allowed. You didn't break anybody's contract by doing exactly what it allows! If some of them have second thoughts about it that's an issue they have to deal with, not you. If someone isn't getting enough donations it isn't you they should blame. If someone's little advocacy project isn't getting as much attention as they'd want, it's not you who is the demon because you didn't tell everyone and your cat about it.

And if you are one of those who cares a lot about having an increasing number of users adopt GNU/Linux then I think heeding this advice should help you. Think about how many users may actually feel turned off by the frenzy of community-ism, being flamed for "not doing enough" and being caught in cross fires full of religious zeal over why someone did or didn't do something. Just because someone is a Linux user does not mean they are immediately subscribed to the religion of "Linux Community" and the profession of a "Linux Advocate".

Free Software empowers you as an individual. Don't let the falsehoods of community-ism undo that.

FEATURED POLL:

Are you predominantly a (GNU/)Linux advocate or just a user?

NOTE: Do NOT interpret this as my calling anyone or anything a communist. All similarities between what I'm describing and communism are purely, well, something you should darn well think about because if you are making such connotations there must be a reason for it. But don't throw your own connotations at me.

Thank you

Comments

 

I have been a Linux user for about five years now, moving from Mandrake to Ubuntu in late '05. I was pleased by the philosophy, but also by the ease of use. I am an Advocate, but I also give nothing back to the community. I scan the web for ways to make my user experience better, and to keep abreast of new programs. I find it more important to myself to espouse Free Software in general, though. Getting someone to switch to Linux is difficult; getting people to switch to Firefox and VLC, use HandBrake, and generally appreciate the OS is much easier, and does make headway for the cause.

I have been fortunate enough, however, to know a few people who are just Users, and it's great for them, and great for the movement. Even if they know nothing about the Four Freedoms, they appreciate what those things bring them. They love not paying for software. My fiancee talks to people about how easy printer installation was on Linux compared to Windows. Even if she doesn't care about the underlying philosophy, people like her will spread Ubuntu to people who just appreciate the functionality.

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