E-Mails are not Free Software

This is one of those things I have always wanted to say in a mailing list but it is not the appropriate place to do it because, you know, feelings and all of that intangible stuff. Fortunately, my blog is my own private place where I can actually rant about everything and be mean, so I'm laying here a couple of facts about one of the greatest myths in Free Software movements.

I participate in a large number of mailing lists, some of them more heated than others. Usually, the heated ones are those related to Free Software advocacy to some extent (yet, I have to say the KDE development lists do head a lot at times), and most of the content of heated discussions are endless, cyclic arguments in favor or against all kind of well-known hotspots in Free Software: what is OpenSource, Ubuntu is Evil, Debian is Not Free, Stallman is Good (notice that topics like Microsoft is Evil and Apple is Killing Innovation aren't even common, because we all agree on that). Then, another particularity of these mailing lists is that the people that actually engage in those discussions are pretty much the same, repeating the same arguments and reaching the same conclusions - if any.

Then, when there are other types of discussions, e.g. someone has an idea for a project or wants to organize an event, a very different set of list members starts discussing about that. Those discussions are, in general, very short and few of them actually reach any substantial goal. I have a theory that could explain why I see that behavior, but I'll leave that to the conclusion of this post.

A third type of discussion can happen as an inner topic inside a discussion of any of the two types listed above, that is the merit discussion: the part of the discussion where people start arguing about who has the merit to receive what and why. There are very well known arguments around these discussions, and one of the most popular cards pulled out is:

Not because you are technical does it mean that you contribute more to Free Software. I may not have the skills or time to contribute to Free Software the same way you do, but I do spend a lot of time explaining people what Free Software really is and why it matters...

That may sound plausible, except for the fact that the people that usually use this argument are people that spend a lot of time in the endless rants described above. That, my friends, is not Free Software Advocacy. You can talk all you want and argue everything people post in mailing lists, but you are not really contributing something new to Free Software (and no, explaining the 4 liberties once a month is not a contribution).

The problem is that Free Software communities are trying to make it clear that you don't need to have a technical profile to help Free Software, and that's true, but there are many examples of people actually doing stuff for Free Software that are neither code contributions nor e-mail rants. Eben Moglen is an example: we are all writing Free Software today because of his initial work on software licensing, and that has very little to do with code contributions themselves. Electronic Frontiers Foundation is also battling hard at the frontlines of Software Freedom and is mostly integrated by lawyers and non-programmers. Then we have Artists, UX Engineers, Translators, and people from just about any profession, helping big software projects with different kinds of contributions. That is called advancing Free Software, ranting is not. But it is a lot easier to find real contributors through the usual tools: the About menu in a program, the website of a program, etc; than it is to find a mailing list troll outside the mailing list itself, so it should be easy to differentiate one from the other.

My theory here is that it is a lot easier to rant along a predefined path of arguments and show-off some knowledge about history and the who-is-who of Free Software than to actually do things that will contribute to the movement. Yet, I trust that all merit battles around the world in different communities of Free Software advocacy will be handled in an intelligent way and people will silently find out whether this individual is a real contributor or a mailing list troll.