Jan. 28th, 2011

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Mirrored from Infotropism. You can comment there or here.

I’ve been having this conversation a bit lately so I just wanted to put it out there.

From 1998-2007 I worked full time in open source software. I considered myself a member of the open source community. Open source was kind of my “thing”.

This is no longer true.

I still use open source software extensively (I’m writing this in WordPress, using Mozilla on Gnome on Ubuntu), but then, so does everyone, whether they know it or not. Sometime around the early 2000s, Linux and other open source software stopped being a fringe, weirdo thing and started just being a sensible choice for most Internet projects. And since almost everything’s on the Internet these days, well, open source is just something that is.

To put it another way: if the open source movement were a software project, I’d say that software project is in maintenance mode. It’s out there, it has widespread adoption, and while there’s still work to be done, it’s more the ongoing work of keeping things going than the initial big push to get it launched. And I’m not much good at maintenance projects.

So what am I doing these days? When people ask me I usually say, “Open… stuff.” And then I wave my hands a bit. In my day job with Freebase I mostly work with open data. But I’m also interested in those sort of open principles as they’re applied to other aspects of our lives.

A short list of things I consider to fall under the umbrella of “open stuff”:

  • Intellectual property reform and alternatives to the current copyright system (eg. Creative Commons, anti-DMCA efforts, etc.)
  • Increased access to knowledge, information, and art (Wikipedia, open access journals, Scarleteen)
  • Decentralised social networking platforms (StatusNet, Diaspora)
  • Radical online collaboration and novel ways for groups to work together online (Wikipedia, of course, but also Anonymous, which I think is fascinating and important even if I mostly disagree with them)
  • Using technology to connect and empower members of marginalised groups (Genderplayful Marketplace, disability hacking)
  • Using the Internet for social change and grassroots political activism (too many to list, but #jan25 seems timely)
  • Non-traditional, non-hierarchical ways of working on projects (Agile, consensus-driven, anarchic)
  • Grass-roots, community-run, egalitarian events (unconferences and the like)
  • Unofficial/unlicensed fan activities, especially creative/critical/transformative fanworks and the communities around them (Organization for Transformative Works, vidding, scanlation)
  • Small-business and micro-entrepreneurial activities on the Internet, especially as they enable independent artists/writers/musicians/creators (Etsy, Kickstarter, Bandcamp)

There’s more, of course, but all those are things that excite me. It feels like there’s something broader there — not just software, but a whole cluster of Internet-related things that are about giving people more options, more ways to express themselves, more ways to make a difference, more ways to (at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo) realise their potential. Ideally while not being beholden to, or at the risk of being shut down by, any one corporation or government or institution.

Of course open source software is a part of this, but I don’t think it’s the only part, and it’s definitely not the leading or most important part for me any more. So, if you invite me to speak or write or come to an open source event or whatever, and I say “I don’t really work in open source any more,” this is what I’m talking about. Hope that makes sense.

(That said, if you read this and you’d still like me to speak/write/attend your open source thing and talk about “open stuff” in a more general sense, let me know.)

Dolores Park mural

Random pic is random: Dolores Park mural, at the corner of 18th and Guerrero, San Francisco. In the style of Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.


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