tl;dr: Databases are a very poor fit for any licensing scheme, like copyleft, that (1) is intended to encourage use by the entire world but also (2) wants to place requirements on that use. This is because of broken legal systems and the way data is used. Projects considering copyleft, or even mere attribution, for data, should consider other approaches instead.
Below is the talk I gave at LibrePlanet 2016. The tl;dr version:
- Learning how political philosophy has evolved since the 1670s shows that the FSF’s four freedoms are good, but not sufficient.
- In particular, the “capability approach” pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum is applicable to software, and shows us how to think about improving the capability of people.
- There are a bunch of ways that free software, as a movement, could refocus on liberating people, not code.
I did not talk about it in the talk (given the audience), but I think this approach is broadly applicable to every software developer who wants to make the world a better place (including usability-inclined developers, open web/standards folks, etc.), not just FSF members.
I was not able to use my speaker notes during the talk itself, so these may not match terribly well with what I actually said on Saturday – hopefully they’re a bit more coherent. Video will be posted here when I have it. [Update: video here.]
Most of you will recognize this phrase as borrowed from the Wikimedia Foundation. Think on it for a few seconds, and how it differs from the Four Freedoms.
I’d like to talk today about code freedom, and what it can learn from modern political philosophy.
Last time I was at Libre Planet, I was talking with someone in a hallway, and I mentioned that Libre Office had crashed several times while I was on the plane, losing some data and making me redo some slides. He insisted that it was better to have code freedom, even when things crashed in a program that I could not fix without reading C++ comments in German. I pointed out, somewhat successfully, that software that was actually reliable freed me to work on my actual slides.
We were both talking about “freedom” but we clearly had different meanings for the word. This was obviously unsatisfying for both of us – out common language/vocabulary failed us.
This is sadly not a rare thing: probably many of us have had the same conversation with parents, friends, co-workers, etc.
So today I wanted to dig into “freedom” – what does it mean and what frameworks do we hang around it.
So why do we need to talk about Freedom and what it means? Ultimately, freedom is confusing. When card-carrying FSF members use it, we mean a very specific thing – the four freedoms. When lots of other people use it, they mean… well, other things. We’ll get into it in more detail soon, but suffice to say that many people find Apple and Google freeing. And if that’s how they feel, then we’ve got a very big communication gap.
I’m not a political philosopher anymore; to the extent I ever was one, it ended when I graduated from my polisci program and… immediately went to work at Ximian, here in Boston.
My goal here today is to show you that when political philosophers talk about freedom, they also have some of the same challenges we do, stemming from some of the same historical reasons. They’ve also gotten, in recent years, to some decent solutions – and we’ll discuss how those might apply to us.
Apologies if any of you are actually political philosophers: in trying to cram this into 30 minutes, we’re going to take some very, very serious shortcuts!
Let’s start with a very brief introduction to political philosophy.
Philosophers of all stripes tend to end up arguing about what is “good”; political philosophers, in particular, tend to argue about what is “just”. It turns out that this is a very slippery concept that has evolved over time. I’ll use it somewhat interchangeably with “freedom” in this talk, which is not accurate, but will do for our purposes.
Ultimately, what makes a philosopher a political philosopher is that once they’ve figured out what justice might be, they then argue about what human systems are the best ways to get us to justice.
In some sense, this is very much an engineering problem: given the state of the world we’ve got, what does a better world look like, and how do we get there? Unlike our engineering problems, of course, it deals with the messy aspects of human nature: we have no compilers, no test-driven-development, etc.
So before Richard Stallman, who were the modern political philosophers?
Your basic “intro to political philosophy” class can have a few starting points. You can do Plato, or you can do Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger), but today we’ll start with John Locke. He worked in the late 1600s.
Locke is perhaps most famous in the US for having been gloriously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Before that, though, he argued that to understand what justice is, you have to look at what people are missing when they don’t have government. Borrowing from earlier British philosophers (mostly Hobbes), he said (in essence) that when people have no government, everyone steals from – and kills – everyone else. So what is justice? Well, it’s not stealing and killing!
This is not just a source for Jefferson to steal from; it is perhaps the first articulation of the idea that every human being (at least, every white man) is entitled to certain inalienable rights – what are often called the natural rights.
This introduces the idea that individual freedom (to live, to have health, etc.) is a key part of justice.
Locke was forward-thinking enough that he was exiled to the Netherlands at one point. But he was also a creature of his time, and concluded that monarchy could be part of a just system of government, as long as the people “consented” by, well, not immigrating.
This is in some sense pretty backwards, since in 1600s Europe, emigration isn’t exactly easy. But it is also pretty forward looking – his most immediate British predecessor, Hobbes, basically argued that Kings were great. So Locke is one of the first to argue that what the people want (another aspect of what we now think of as individual freedom) is important.
It is important to point out that Locke’s approach is what we’d now call a negative approach to rights: the system (the state, in this case) is obligated to protect you, but it isn’t obliged to give you anything.
Coming from the late 1600s, this is not a crazy perspective – most governments don’t even do these things. For Locke to say “the King should not take your stuff” is pretty radical; to have said “and it should also give you health care” would have also made him the inventor of science fiction. And the landed aristocracy are typically fans!
(Also, apologies to my typographically-sensitive friends; kerning of italicized fonts in Libre Office is poor and I got lazy around here about manually fixing it.)
But this is where Locke starts to fall down to modern ears: if you’re not one of the landed aristocracy; if you’ve got no stuff for the King to take, Locke isn’t doing much for you. And it turns out there are a whole lot of people in 1600s England without much stuff to take.
So let’s fast forward 150+ years.
You all know who Marx is; probably many of you have even been called Marxists at one point or another!
Marx is complicated, and his historical legacy even more so. Let’s put most of that aside for today, and focus on one particular idea we’ve inherited from Marx.
For our purposes, out of all of Marx, we can focus on the key insight that people other than the propertied class can have needs.(This is not really his insight; but he popularizes it.) I
Having recognized that humans have needs, Marx then goes on to propose that, in a just society, the individual might not be the only one who has a responsibility to provide those needs – the state, at least when we reach a “higher phase” of economic and moral development, should also provide.
This sounds pretty great on paper, but it is important to grok that Marx argues that his perfect system will happen only when we’ve reached such a high level of economic development that no one will need to work, so everyone will work only on what they love. In other words, he ignores the scarcity we face in the real world. He also ignores inequality – since the revolution will have washed away all starting differences. Obviously, taken to this extreme, this has led to a lot of bad outcomes in the world – which is what gives “marxism” its bad name.
But it is also important to realize that this is better than Locke (who isn’t particularly concerned with inequality), and in practice the idea (properly moderated!) has led to the modern social welfare state. So it is a useful tool in the modern philosophical toolkit.
Fast forward again, another 100 years. Our scene moves down the street, to Harvard. Perhaps the two most important works of political philosophy of the 20th century are written and published within four years of each other, further up Mass Avenue from MIT.
John Rawls publishes his Theory of Justice in 1971; Robert Nozick follows up with his Anarchy, the State, and Utopia in 1974.
Rawls and Nozick, and their most famous books, differ radically in what they think of as justice, and what systems they think lead to the greatest justice. (Nozick is the libertarian’s libertarian; Rawls more of a welfare-state type.) Their systems, and the differences between them, are out of our scope today (though both are fascinating!).
However, both agree, in their ways, that any theory of a just world must grapple with the core fact that modern societies have a variety of different people, with different skills, interests, backgrounds, etc. (This shouldn’t be surprising, given that both were writing in the aftermath of the 60s, which had made so clear to many that our societies were pretty deeply unjust to a lot of people.)
This marks the beginning of the modern age of political philosophy: Locke didn’t care much about differences between people; Marx assumed it away. Nozick and Rawls can be said, effectively, to mark the point when political philosophy starts taking difference seriously.
But that was 40 years ago – what has happened since then?
So that brings us to the 1990s, and also to 2016. (If you haven’t already figured it out, political philosophy tends to move pretty slowly.)
The new-ish hotness in political philosophy is something called capability theory. The first work is put forward by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist working with (among others) the United Nations on how to focus their development work. Martha Nussbaum then picked up the ball, putting in a great deal of work to systematize it.
When Sen starts working on what became capability theory, he’s a development economist trying to help understand how to help improve the lives of his fellow Indian citizens. And he’s worried that a huge focus on GDP is not leading to very good outcomes. He turns to political theory, and it doesn’t help him: it is focused on very abstract systems. John Locke saying “life, liberty, property” and “sometimes monarchs are OK” doesn’t help him target the UN’s investment dollars.
So his question becomes: how do I create a theory of What is Just that actually helps guide decisions in the real world? Capability theory, in other words, is ultimately pragmatic.
To put it another way, you can think of the capability approach as an attempt to figure out what effective freedom is: how do we take freedom out of textbooks and into something that really empowers people?
One of the key flaws for Sen of existing theories was that they talked about giving people at worst, negative rights (protecting their rights to retain property they didn’t have) and at best, giving them resources (giving them things or training they couldn’t take advantage of). He found this unconvincing, because in his experience India’s constitution gave all citizens those formal rights, but often denied them those rights in practice, through poverty, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc.
And so from this observation we have the name of the approach: it focuses on what, pragmatically, people need to be capable of acting freely.
Some examples may be helpful here to explain what Sen and Nussbaum are getting at.
For example, if all men and women have the same formal access to education, but women get fewer job callbacks after college than men with identical resumes, or men refuse to care for children and aging parents, then it seems unlikely that we can really claim to have a just society.
Somalia, circa 1995-2000, was, on the face of it, a libertarian paradise: it gave you a lot of freedom to start businesses! No minimum wage, no EPA.
But it turns out you need more than “freedom from government interference” to run a business: you have to have a lot of other infrastructure as well. (Remember, here, Locke’s “negative” rights: government not stopping you, v. government supporting you.)
These examples suggest that answering political philosopher question #1 (“what is justice?”) requires more than just measuring access to resources. What you want to know to understand whether a system is just, you have to measure whether all people have the opportunity to get to the important goals.
In other words, do they have the capability to act?
This is the core insight that the capabilities approach is grounded in: it is helpful, but not enough, to say “someone has the natural rights” (Locke) or “some time in the future everyone will have the same opportunity” (Marx).
(Is any of this starting to ring a bell?)
Capability approach is, again, very pragmatic, and comes from a background of trying to allocate scarce development resources in the real world, rather than a philosopher’s cozy university office. So if you’re trying to answer the political philosopher’s question (“what system”), you need to pick and choose a few capabilities to focus on, and figure out what system will support those capabilities.
Again, an example might be helpful here to show how picking the right things to focus on can be important when you’re aiming to build a system that supports human capability.
If you focus on only one dimension, you’re going to get things confused. When Sen was beginning his work, the development community tended to focus exclusively on GDP. Comparing the Phillippines and South Africa by this number would have told you to focus your efforts on the Philippines.
But one of the most basic requirements to effective freedom – to supporting people’s capability to act – is being alive! When we look at it through that lens, we pretty quickly see that South Africa is worth more energy. It’s critical to look through that broader lens to figure out whether your work is actually building human freedom.
This is, perhaps, the most contentious area of capability theory – it’s where writing is being done across a variety of disciplines, including economics, political philosophy, sociology, and development. This writing has split into two main areas: the pragmatists, who just want to figure out useful tools that help them improve the world, and the theorists, who want to ground the theory in philosophy (sometimes as far back as Aristotle).
This is a great place to raise Martha Nussbaum again: she’s done the most to bring theoretical rigor to the capability approach. (Some people call Sen’s work the “capability approach”, to show that it is just a way of thinking about the problem; and Nussbaum’s work “capability theory”, to show that it is a more rigorous approach.)
I have bad news: there is no one way of doing this. Some approaches can include:
- Local nuance: What is valued and important in one culture may not be in another; or different obstacles may exist in different places and times. Nussbaum’s work particularly focuses on this, interviewing people both to find criteria that are particularly relevant to them, but also to attempt to identify global values.
- Democracy: Some of Sen’s early research showed that democracies were better at getting people food than non-democracies of similar levels of economic development, leading to avoidance of famines. So “what people prioritize based on their votes” is a legitimate way to understand the right capabilities to focus on.
- Data: you’ll almost never see a table like the one I just showed you in most political philosophy! The capability approach embraces the use of data to supplement our intuitions and research.
- Old-fashioned philosophizing: it can be perfectly appropriate to sit down, as Richard did, and noodle over our problems. I tend to think that this is particularly important when we’re identifying future capabilities – which is of course our focus here.
Each of these can be seen as overlapping ways of identifying the best issues to identify – all of them will be useful and valid in different domains.
Shared theme of that last slide? Thinking primarily about people. Things are always a means to an end in the capability approach – you might still want to measure them as an important stepping stone to helping people (like GDP!) but they’re never why you do something.
There is no one right way to pick which capabilities to focus on, which drives lots of philosophers mad. We’ll get into this in more detail soon – when I talk about applying this to software.
Probably the bottom line: if you want to know how to get to a more just system, you want to ask about the capabilitiesof the humans who are participating in that system. Freedom is likely to be one of the top things people want – but it’s a means, not the end.
So now we’ve come to the end of the philosophy lecture. What does this mean for those of us who care about software?
So, again, what do political philosophers care about?
The FSF’s four freedoms try to do the right thing and help build a more just world.
If you don’t have some combination of time, money, or programming skills, it isn’t entirely clear the four freedoms do a lot for you.
The four freedoms are negative rights: things no one can take away from you. And that has been terrific for our elites: Locke’s landed aristocracy is our Software as a Service provider, glad the King can’t take away his right to run MySQL. But maybe not so much for most human beings.
This brings us to our second question – what system?
Inspired by the capability approach, what I would argue that we need is a focus on effective freedom. And that will need not just a change to our focus, but to our systems as well – we need to be pragmatic and inclusive.
So let me offer four suggestions for free software inspired by the capability approach.
We need to start by having empathy for all our users, since our goal should be software that liberates all people.
Like the bureaucrat who increases GDP while his people die young, if we write billions of lines of code, but people are not empowered, we’ve failed. Empathy for others will help us remember that.
Sen, Nussbaum, and the capability approach also remind us that to effectively provide freedom to people we need to draw opinions and information from the broadest possible number of people. That can simply take the form of going and listening regularly to why your friends like the proprietary software they use, or ideally listening to people who aren’t like you about why they don’t use free software. Or it can take the form of surveys or even data-driven research. But it must start with listening to others. Scratching our own itch is not enough if we want to claim we’re providing freedom.
Or to put it another way: our communities need to be as empowering as our licenses. There are lots of great talks this weekend on how to do that – you should go to them, and we should treat that as philosophically as important as our licenses.
I think it is important to point out that I think the FSF is doing a lot of great work in this area – this is the most diversity I’ve seen at Libre Planet, and the new priorities list covers a lot of great ground here.
But it is also a bad sign that at the new “Open Source and Feelings” conference, which is specifically aimed at building a more diverse FOSS movement, they chose to use the apolitical “open” rather than “free”. That suggests the FSF and free software more generally still have a lot of work to do to shed their reputation as being dogmatic and unwelcoming.
Which brings me to #2: just as we have to listen to others, we have to be self-critical about our own shortcomings, in order to grapple with the broad range of interests those users might have.
At the begining of this talk, I talked about my last visit to Libre Planet, and how hard it was to have a conversation about the disempowerment I felt when Libre Office crashed. The assumption of the very well-intentioned young man I was talking to was that of course I was more free when I had access to code. And in a very real way, that wasn’t actually true – proprietary software that didn’t crash was actually more empowering to me than libre software that did crash. And this isn’t just about crashing/not-crashing.
Ed Snowden reminded us this morning that Android is freely-licensed, but that doesn’t mean it gives them the capability to live a secure life.
Again, here, FSF has always done some of the right thing! You all recognize this quote: it’s from freedom zero. We often take pride in this, and we should!
But we also often say “we care about users” but only test what the license is. I’ve never seen someone say “this is not free, because it is impossible to use” – it is too easy, and too frequent, to say “well, the license says you can run the program as you wish, so it passes freedom zero”. We should treat that as a failure to be humble about.
Humility means admitting our current. unidimensional systems aren’t great at empowering people. The sooner we admit that freedom is complex, and goes beyond licensing, the quicker we can build better systems.
The third theme of advice I’d give is to think about impact. Again, this stems from the fundamental pragmatism of the capability approach. A philosophy that is internally consistent, but doesn’t make a difference for people, is not a useful philosophy. We need to take that message to heart.
Mako Hill’s quantitative research has shown us that libre code doesn’t necessarily mean quality code, or sucessful projects. If we want to impact users, we have to understand why our core development tools are no longer best-in-class, and fix them, or develop new models to replace them.
We built CVS, SVN, and git, and we used those tools to build some of the most widely-used pieces of software on earth. But it took the ease of use of github to make this accessible to millions of developers.
Netsplit.de is a search engine for IRC services. Even if both of these numbers are off by a factor of two (say, because of private networks missing from the IRC count, and if Slack is inflating user counts), it still suggests Slack will have more users than IRC this year. We need to think about why that is, and why free software like IRC hasn’t had the impact we’d like it to.
If we’re serious about spreading freedom, this sort of “post-mortem” of our successes and failures is not optional – it is a mandatory part of our commitment to freedom.
I’ve mentioned that democracy is one way of choosing what capabilities to focus on, and is typically presumed in serious analyses of the capability approach – the mix of human empowerment and (in Sen’s analysis) better pragmatic impact make it a no-brainer.
A free software focused on impact could make free licensing a similar no-brainer in the software world.
Dan Gillmor told us this morning that “I came for the technical excellence and stayed for the freedom”: as both he and Edward Snowden said this morning, we have to have broaden our definition of technical excellence to include usability and pragmatic empowerment. When we do that, our system – the underlying technology of freedom – can lead to real change.
This is the last, and hardest, takeaway I’ll have for the day.
We’ve learned from the capability approach that freedom is nuanced, complex, and human-focused. The four freedoms, while are brief, straightforward, and easy to apply, but those may not be virtues if our goal is to increase user freedom.
As I’ve said a few times, the four freedoms are like telling you the king can’t take your property: it’s not a bad thing, but it also isn’t very helpful if you don’t have any property.
We need to re-interpret “run the program as you wish” in a more positive light, expanding our definitions to speak to the concerns about usability and security that users have.
The capability approach provides us with questions – where do we focus? – but not answers. So it suggests we need to go past licensing, but doesn’t say where those other areas of focus might be. Here are some suggestions for what directions we might evolve free software in.
Learning from Martha Nussbaum and usability researchers, we could work with the next generation of software users to understand what they want, need, and deserve from effective software freedom.
We could learn from other organizations, like UNICEF, who have built design and development principles. The graphic here is from UNICEF’s design principles, where they talk about how they will build software that improves freedom for their audience.
It includes talk about source code – as part of a coherent whole of ten principles, not an end in and of itself.
Many parts of our community (including FSF!) have adopted codes of conduct or similar policies. We could draw on the consistent themes in these documents to identify key values that should take their place alongside the four freedoms.
Finally, we can vote with our code: we should be contributing where we feel we can have the most impact on user freedom, not just code freedom. That is a way of giving our impact: we can give our time only to projects that empower all users. In my ideal world, you come away determined to focus on projects that empower all people, not just programmers.
Ultimately, this is my vision, and why I remain involved in free software – I want to see people who are liberated. I hope after this talk you all understand why, and are motivated to help it happen.
Thanks for listening.
- The Individual and the Political Order is a good brief intro to political philosophy, suitable for those with no philosophy background.
- Capability approach:
- UNICEF’s Digital Principles (seen above) are a great, pragmatic approach to values-centered software design.
Image sources and licenses (deck itself is CC BY-SA 4.0):
- School of the Philosophers, public domain
- John Locke, public domain
- Karl Marx, public domain
- Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia covers: fair use
- Martha Nussbaum, Robin Holland, CC BY-SA 3.0
- Amartya Sen, no known restrictions
- Experiments in physiology. Facial expressions; Terror, Wellcome Trust, CC BY 4.0
- Larry Ellison on Stage, Oracle Corporate Communications, CC BY 2.0
- Graph from Wall Street Journal, fair use
- Development Principles, UNICEF, CC BY-SA 4.0
Legal friends! The world needs you. Here’s the graph of readership of All Writs Act on Wikipedia:
That’s 45,035 reads yesterday (by humans, not bots).((Big thanks to the tech team for figuring out how to differentiate – not something we could do until fairly recently, at least for public stats!)) That would put it 5th on SSRN’s all-time legal download list, right between William Landes and Cass Sunstein. Not bad company! Or in other words: anything you fix in this article in the next day or two is likely to be the most-read thing you ever write.
The article has been edited 39 times since the Apple letter was published. So it is a lot better than two days ago. But it could still use a lot of love – history, applicability outside of the Apple situation, etc. Contribute!
Since lawyers are particularly concerned about citation, it is worth mentioning that the editing experience especially when adding citations has become vastly better in the past year – in most cases for articles on SSRN, simply dropping the link into our citation editor will get you a fully-fleshed out and formatted citation (with thanks to our friends at Zotero!)
There is a small genre of posts around re-inventing the interfaces of popular open source software; I thought I’d collect some of them for future reference:
- Firefox: 0.1 release notes
- Visual Editor: first blog post I can find (though I’m sure there are many emails), Economist
The first two (Drupal, WordPress) are particularly strong examples of the genre because they directly grapple with the difficulty of change for open source projects. I’m sure that early Firefox and VE discussions also did that, but I can’t find them easily – pointers welcome.
Other suggestions welcome in comments.
tl;dr: I want to liberate people; software is a (critical) tool to that end. There is a conference this weekend that understands that, but I worry it isn’t FSF’s.
This morning, social network chatter reminded me of FSF‘s 30th birthday celebration. These travel messages were from friends who I have a great deal of love and respect for, and represent a movement to which I essentially owe my adult life.
Despite that, I had lots of mixed feels about the event. I had a hard time capturing why, though.
While I was still processing these feelings, late tonight, Twitter reminded me of a new conference also going on this weekend, appropriately called Open Source and Feelings. (I badly wanted to submit a talk for it, but a prior commitment kept me from both it and FSF@30.)
I saw the OSFeels agenda for the first time tonight. It includes:
- Design and empathy (learning to build open software that empowers all users, not just the technically sophisticated)
- Inclusive development (multiple talks about this, including non-English, family, and people of color) (so that the whole planet can access, and participate in developing, open software)
- Documentation (so that users understand open software)
- Communications skills (so that people feel welcome and engaged to help develop open software)
This is an agenda focused on liberating human beings by developing software that serves their needs, and engaging them in the creation of that software. That is incredibly exciting. I’ve long thought (following Sen and Nussbaum’s capability approach) that it is not sufficient to free people; they must be empowered to actually enjoy the benefits of that freedom. This is a conference that seems to get that, and I can’t wait to go (and hopefully speak!) next year.
The Free Software Foundation event’s agenda:
- boot firmware
These are important topics. But there is clearly a difference in focus here — technology first, not people. No mention of community, or of design.
This difference in focus is where this morning’s conflicted feels came from. On the one hand, I support FSF, because they’ve done an incredible amount to make the world a better place. (OSFeels can take open development for granted precisely because FSF fought so many battles about source code.) But precisely because I support FSF, I’d challenge it, in the next 15 years, to become more clearly and forcefully dedicated to liberating people. In this world, FSF would talk about design, accessibility, and inclusion as much as licensing, and talk about community-building protocols as much as communication protocols. This is not impossible: LibrePlanet had at least some people-focused talks (e.g.), and inclusion and accessibility are a genuine concern of staff, even if they didn’t rise to today’s agenda. But it would still be a big change, because at the deepest level, it would require FSF to see source code as just one of many requirements for freedom, rather than “the point of free software“.
At the same time, OSFeels is clearly filled with people who see the world through a broad, thoughtful ethical lens. It is a sad sign, both for FSF and how it is perceived, that such a group uses the deliberately apolitical language of openness rather than the language of a (hopefully) aligned ethical movement — free software. I’ll look forward to the day (maybe FSF’s 45th (or 31st!) birthday) that both groups can speak and work together about their real shared concern: software that liberates people. I’d certainly have no conflicted feelings about signing up for a conference on that :)
- Dancing: After five Wikimedia events (not counting WMF all-hands) I was finally dragged onto the dance floor on the last night. I’ll never be Garfield, but I had fun anyway. The amazing setting did not hurt.
- Our hosts: The conference was excellently organized and run. I’ve never had Mexico City high on my list of “places I must see” but it moved up many spots after this trip.
- First timers: I always enjoy talking to people who have never been to Wikimania before. They almost always seem to have enjoyed it, but of course the ones I talk to are typically the ones who are more outgoing and better equipped to enjoy things. I do hope we’re also being welcome to people who don’t already know folks, or who aren’t as outgoing.
- Luis von Ahn: Good to chat briefly with my long-ago classmate. I thought the Q&A section of his talk was one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. There were both good questions and interesting answers, which is more rare than it should be.
— Moiz Syed (@MoizSyed) July 18, 2015
- Keynotes: I’d love to have one keynote slot each year for a contributor to talk about their work within the movement. Finding the right person would be a challenge, of course, as could language barriers, but it seems like it should be doable.
- US English: I was corrected on my Americanisms and the occasional complexity of my sentence structure. It was a good reminder that even for fairly sophisticated speakers of English as a second language, California-English is not terribly clear. This is especially true when spoken. Verbose slides can help, which is a shame, since I usually prefer minimal slides. I will try to work on that in the future, and see how we can help other WMFers do the same.
- Mobile: Really hope someday we can figure out how to make the schedule legible on a mobile device :) Good reminder we’ve got a long way to go there.
- Community engagement: I enjoyed my departments “engage with” session, but I think next year we need to make it more interactive—probably with something like an introduction/overview followed by a World Cafe-style discussion. One thing we did right was to take questions on written cards. This helped indicate what the most important topics were (when questions were repeated), avoided the problem of lecture-by-question, and opened the floor to people who might otherwise be intimidated because of language barriers or personality. Our booth was also excellent and I’m excited to see some of the stories that came out of it.
- Technology and culture: After talking about how we’d used cards to change the atmosphere of a talk, someone deliberately provoked me: shouldn’t we address on-wiki cultural issues the same way, by changing the “technology” used for discussion? I agree that technology can help improve things, and we should think about it more than we do (e.g.) but ultimately it can only be part of the solution – our most difficult problems will definitely require work on culture as well as interfaces. (Surprisingly, my 2009 post on this topic holds up pretty well.)
- Who is this for? I’ve always felt there was some tension around whether the conference is for “us” or for the public, but never had language for it. An older gentleman who I spoke with for a while finally gave me the right term: is it an annual meeting or is it a public conference? Nothing I saw here changed my position, which is that it is more annual meeting than public conference, at least until we get much better at turning new users into long-term users.
- Esino Lario looks like it will be a lot of fun. I strongly support the organizing committee’s decision to focus less on brief talks and more on longer, more interactive conversations. That is clearly the best use of our limited time together. I’m also excited that they’re looking into blind submissions (which I suggested in my Wikimania post from last year).
- Being an exec: I saw exactly one regular talk that was not by my department, though I did have lots and lots of conversations. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tradeoff, but I know it will become even harder if we truly do transition to a model with more workshops/conversations and fewer lectures, since those will be both more valuable and more time-consuming/less flexible.
- Some day: I wrote most of this post in the Mexico City airport, and saw that there are flights from there to La Habana. I hope someday we can do a Wikimania there.
Quick brain dump after a bike ride home: free software took a huge leap in the late 90s and early 00s in large part because of non-ideological advantages that the rest of the world is now competing with or surpassing:
- Collaboration tools: Because we got to the ‘net first, our tools for collaborating with each other were simply better than what proprietary developers were doing: cvs, mailman, wiki, etc., were all better than the silo’d old-school tools. Modern best-of-breed collaboration tools have all learned from what we did and added proprietary sauce on top: github, slack, Google Docs, etc. So our tools that are now (at best) as productive as our proprietary counterparts, and sometimes less productive but ideologically agreeable.
- Release processes: “Release early/release often” made us better partners for our users. We’re now actively behind here: compare how often a mobile app or web user gets updates, exactly as the author intended, relative to a user of a modern Linux distro.
- Zero cost: We did things for no (direct) cost by subsidizing our work through college, startups, or consulting gigs; now everyone has a subsidize-by-selling-something-else model (usually advertising, though sometimes freemium). Again, advantage (mostly?) lost.
- Knowing our users: We knew a lot about our users, because we were our biggest users, and we talked to other users a lot; this was more effective than what passed for software design in the late 90s. This has been eclipsed by extensive a/b testing throughout the industry, and (to a lesser extent) by more extensive usage of direct user testing and design-thinking.
None of these are terribly original observations – all of these have been remarked on before. But after playing some with Google Photos this weekend, I’m ready to add another one to the list:
- “big data”: It didn’t matter that neither libre nor proprietary developers had their user’s data, because no one could do much that was useful with it. Now, Gmail’s spam filtering is better than SpamAssassin precisely because of all the data they have. Google Photos is nearly magical, again because they’ve processed literally billions of photos. That’s going to be difficult (impossible?) for pure peer production models to match. (I didn’t list machine learning because the techniques there can literally be done by summer interns – the blocker is the training data, not the processes.)
Worth asking what your project is doing that could be radically changed if your competitors get access to new technology. For example, for Wikipedia:
- Collaborating: Wiki was best-of-breed (or close); it isn’t anymore. Visual Editor helps get editing back to par, but the social aspect of collaboration is still lacking relative to the expectations of many users.
- Knowledge creation: big groups of humans, working together wiki-style, is the state of the art for creating useful, non-BS knowledge at scale. With the aforementioned machine learning, I suspect this will no longer the case in a (growing) number of domains.
I’m sure there are others…
It has been a long time since I was able to say to developer friends “come work with me” in anything but the most abstract “come work under the same roof” kind of sense. But today I can say to developers “come work with me” and really mean it. Which is fun :)
Details: Wikimedia’s new community tech team is hiring for a community tech developer and a team lead. This will be extremely community-intensive work, so if you enjoy and get energy from working with a community and helping them achieve their goals, this could be a great role for you. This team will work intensely with my department to ensure that we’re correctly identifying and prioritizing the needs of our most active editors. If that sounds like fun, get in touch :)
[And I realize that I’ve been bad and not posted here, so here’s my new job announce: “my department” is the Foundation’s new Community Engagement department, where we work to support healthy contributor communities and help WMF-community collaboration. It is a detour from law, but I’ve always said law was just a way to help people do their thing — so in that sense is the same thing I’ve always been doing. It has been an intense roller coaster of a first two months, and I look forward to much more of the same.]
Flickr recently started selling prints of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike photos without sharing any of the revenue with the original photographers. When people were surprised, Flickr said “if you don’t want commercial use, switch the photo to CC non-commercial”.
This seems to have mostly caused two reactions:
- “This is horrible! Creative Commons is horrible!”
- “Commercial reuse is explicitly part of the license; I don’t understand the anger.”
I think it makes sense to examine some of the assumptions those users (and many license authors) may have had, and what that tells us about license choice and design going forward.
Free riding is why we share-alike…
As I’ve explained before here, a major reason why people choose copyleft/share-alike licenses is to prevent free rider problems: they are OK with you using their thing, but they want the license to nudge (or push) you in the direction of sharing back/collaborating with them in the future. To quote Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research on how commons are managed in the wild, “[i]n all recorded, long surviving, self-organized resource governance regimes, participants invest resources in monitoring the actions of each other so as to reduce the probability of free riding.” (emphasis added)
… but share-alike is not always enough
Copyleft is one of our mechanisms for this in our commons, but it isn’t enough. I think experience in free/open/libre software shows that free rider problems are best prevented when three conditions are present:
- The work being created is genuinely collaborative — i.e., many authors who contribute similarly to the work. This reduces the cost of free riding to any one author. It also makes it more understandable/tolerable when a re-user fails to compensate specific authors, since there is so much practical difficulty for even a good-faith reuser to evaluate who should get paid and contact them.
- There is a long-term cost to not contributing back to the parent project. In the case of Linux and many large software projects, this long-term cost is about maintenance and security: if you’re not working with upstream, you’re not going to get the benefit of new fixes, and will pay a cost in backporting security fixes.
- The license triggers share-alike obligations for common use cases. The copyleft doesn’t need to perfectly capture all use cases. But if at least some high-profile use cases require sharing back, that helps discipline other users by making them think more carefully about their obligations (both legal and social/organizational).
Alternately, you may be able to avoid damage from free rider problems by taking the Apache/BSD approach: genuinely, deeply educating contributors, before they contribute, that they should only contribute if they are OK with a high level of free riding. It is hard to see how this can work in a situation like Flickr’s, because contributors don’t have extensive community contact.1
The most important takeaway from this list is that if you want to prevent free riding in a community-production project, the license can’t do all the work itself — other frictions that somewhat slow reuse should be present. (In fact, my first draft of this list didn’t mention the license at all — just the first two points.)
Flickr is practically designed for free riding
Flickr fails on all the points I’ve listed above — it has no frictions that might discourage free riding.
- The community doesn’t collaborate on the works. This makes the selling a deeply personal, “expensive” thing for any author who sees their photo for sale. It is very easy for each of them to find their specific materials being reused, and see a specific price being charged by Yahoo that they’d like to see a slice of.
- There is no cost to re-users who don’t contribute back to the author—the photo will never develop security problems, or get less useful with time.
- The share-alike doesn’t kick in for virtually any reuses, encouraging Yahoo to look at the relationship as a purely legal one, and encouraging them to forget about the other relationships they have with Flickr users.
- There is no community education about the expectations for commercial use, so many people don’t fully understand the licenses they’re using.
So what does this mean?
This has already gone on too long, but a quick thought: what this suggests is that if you have a community dedicated to creating a cultural commons, it needs some features that discourage free riding — and critically, mere copyleft licensing might not be good enough, because of the nature of most production of commons of cultural works. In Flickr’s case, maybe this should simply have included not doing this, or making some sort of financial arrangement despite what was legally permissible; for other communities and other circumstances other solutions to the free-rider problem may make sense too.
And I think this argues for consideration of non-commercial licenses in some circumstances as well. This doesn’t make non-commercial licenses more palatable, but since commercial free riding is typically people’s biggest concern, and other tools may not be available, it is entirely possible it should be considered more seriously than free and open source software dogma might have you believe.
- It is open to discussion, I think, whether this works in Wikimedia Commons, and how it can be scaled as Commons grows. [↩]
It has been nearly a full decade since Jon Udell’s classic screencast about Wikipedia’s article on the Heavy Metal Umlaut (current text; Jan. 2005). In this post, written for Paul Jones’ “living and working online” class, I’d like to use the last decade’s changes to the article to illustrate some points about the modern Wikipedia.1
At the end of 2004, the article had been edited 294 times. As we approach the end of 2014, it has now been edited 1,908 times by 1,174 editors.2
This graph shows the number of edits by year – the blue bar is the overall number of edits in each year; the dotted line is the overall length of the article (which has remained roughly constant since a large pruning of band examples in 2007).
The dropoff in edits is not unusual — it reflects both a mature article (there isn’t that much more you can write about metal umlauts!) and an overall slowing in edits in English Wikipedia (from a peak of about 300,000 edits/day in 2007 to about 150,000 edits/day now).3
The overall edit count — 2000 edits, 1000 editors — can be hard to get your head around, especially if you write for a living. Implications include:
- Style is hard. Getting this many authors on the same page, stylistically, is extremely difficult, and it shows in inconsistencies small and large. If not for the deeply acculturated Encyclopedic Style we all have in our heads, I suspect it would be borderline impossible.
- Most people are good, most of the time. Something like 3% of edits are “reverted”; i.e., about 97% of edits are positive steps forward in some way, shape, or form, even if imperfect. This is, I think, perhaps the single most amazing fact to come out of the Wikimedia experiment. (We reflect and protect this behavior in one of our guidelines, where we recommend that all editors Assume Good Faith.)
The name change, tools, and norms
A few take aways:
- Talk pages: The screencast explained one key tool for understanding a Wikipedia article – the page history. This edit summary makes reference to another key tool – the talk page. Every Wikipedia article has a talk page, where people can discuss the article, propose changes, etc.. In this case, this user discussed the change (in November) and then made the change in December. If you’re reporting on an article for some reason, make sure to dig into the talk page to fully understand what is going on.
- Sources: The user justifies the name change by reference to sources. You’ll find little reference to them in 2005, but by 2008, finding an old source using a different term is now sufficient rationale to rename the entire page. Relatedly…
- Footnotes: In 2008, there was talk of sources, but still no footnotes. (Compare the story about Motley Crue in Germany in 2005 and now.) The emphasis on foonotes (and the ubiquitous “citation needed”) was still a growing thing. In fact, when Jon did his screencast in January 2005, the standardized/much-parodied way of saying “citation needed” did not yet exist, and would not until June of that year! (It is now used in a quarter of a million English Wikipedia pages.) Of course, the requirement to add footnotes (and our baroque way of doing so) may also explain some of the decline in editing in the graphs above.
Images, risk aversion, and boldness
Another highly visible change is to the Motörhead art, which was removed in November 2011 and replaced with a Mötley Crüe image in September 2013. The addition and removal present quite a contrast. The removal is explained like this:
This is clear as mud, combining legal issues (“no fair use rationale”) with Wikipedian jargon (“WP:NFCC content criteria 10c”). To translate it: the editor felt that the “non-free content” rules (abbreviated WP:NFCC) prohibited copyright content unless there was a strong explanation of why the content might be permitted under fair use.
This is both great, and sad: as a lawyer, I’m very happy that the community is pre-emptively trying to Do The Right Thing and take down content that could cause problems in the future. At the same time, it is sad that the editors involved did not try to provide the missing fair use rationale themselves. Worse, a rationale was added to the image shortly thereafter, but the image was never added back to the article.
So where did the new image come from? Simply:
boldly adding image to lead
“boldly” here links to another core guideline: “be bold”. Because we can always undo mistakes, as the original screencast showed about spam, it is best, on balance, to move forward quickly. This is in stark contrast to traditional publishing, which has to live with printed mistakes for a long time and so places heavy emphasis on Getting It Right The First Time.
There are a few other changes worth pointing out, even in a necessarily brief summary like this one.
- Wikipedia as a reference: At one point, in discussing whether or not to use the phrase “heavy metal umlaut” instead of “metal umlaut”, an editor makes the point that Google has many search results for “heavy metal umlaut”, and another editor points out that all of those search results refer to Wikipedia. In other words, unlike in 2005, Wikipedia is now so popular, and so widely referenced, that editors must be careful not to (indirectly) be citing Wikipedia itself as the source of a fact. This is a good problem to have—but a challenge for careful authors nevertheless.
- Bots: Careful readers of the revision history will note edits by “ClueBot NG“. Vandalism of the sort noted by Jon Udell has not gone away, but it now is often removed even faster with the aid of software tools developed by volunteers. This is part of a general trend towards software-assisted editing of the encyclopedia.
- Translations: The left hand side of the article shows that it is in something like 14 languages, including a few that use umlauts unironically. This is not useful for this article, but for more important topics, it is always interesting to compare the perspective of authors in different languages.
I look forward to discussing all of these with the class, and to any suggestions from more experienced Wikipedians for other lessons from this article that could be showcased, either in the class or (if I ever get to it) in a one-decade anniversary screencast. :)
- I still haven’t found a decent screencasting tool that I like, so I won’t do proper homage to the original—sorry Jon! [↩]
- Numbers courtesy X’s edit counter. [↩]
- It is important, when looking at Wikipedia statistics, to distinguish between stats about Wikipedia in English, and Wikipedia globally — numbers and trends will differ vastly between the two. [↩]