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The Near Impossible Very Difficult Task of Free Software Techno-journo-marketing

Free software – everyone's a critic.

Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

I don't think many people get what I do for a living. The people outside the Free Software bubble don't get Free Software, period. And those within often complain about what I do because I'm loud in my writing. Everyone's a critic, it would seem.

I'm not alone. There are a few of us around: Bryan Lunduke, Rikki Endsley, Jono Bacon, Steven J Vaughan-Nichols… Although we wield different levels of brashness, we all walk the thin line between techno-journalism and Free Software marketing. It's perceived as a kind of grubby, morally ambiguous line to walk – especially distasteful for many straight-laced, prissy, Free Software prudes who work within the aseptic realm of pure code.

When we write, we use hyperbole and metaphor, we often sacrifice details for the sake of simplicity, we fret about catchy headlines and pretty graphics, and we often wallow for hours – nay, days – in the social sludge, wading through the streams of (*gasp*) Facebook and Twitter, trying to milk retweets, likes, shares, and the Holy Grail of blog page views out of our followers.

We don't do it because of our egos. We do it because Free Software developers suck at communicating with the outer world. When you only have developers on your team, I can guarantee your communication strategy is totally screwed. Pair this with a puritanical view of blogs and social media, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Take the GPG debacle. Here's a project that powers something like 90% of the privacy and signing frameworks in Open Source programs. It has been a cornerstone of security and open systems for years. But in late 2014, it was about to sink and disappear, underfunded and understaffed. Their funding campaign was failing miserably, and they hadn't reached even a quarter of what they needed to even keep the lights on.

And that's because their marketing campaign sucked. Beyond the few people who personally knew the developers, the message wasn't getting out. I wrote about it in late December, when things were still really bad. Unfortunately, OCSmag.com, the blog I was writing for, hadn't taken off yet, and my piece didn't help much, only garnering about 100 reads.

But then, in February, Julia Angwin published an article about the project's dire financial situation in ProPublica, someone posted it to Reddit, and the whole thing exploded.

In less than 24 hours, they had breezed past their target figure and had secured funding for life from companies such as Stripe and (*gasp*) Facebook. The feel-good, rags-to-economic sustainability story also went viral, and this time my piece on the subject, the one I wrote to report on GPG's success, was read over 3,000 times in 24 hours. This, in turn, brought more attention and more donations to the project.

The thing is, the person who posted the news to Reddit and saved GPG was not related to the project in any way beyond being a user of the software. He was just some third-party random dude who happened to read Angwin's piece. In retrospect, I see now it should've been me, or Rikki, or Bryan, or Steven, but at least yours truly learned the lesson. Or in this case, two lessons.

Lesson number 1 is that you cannot rely on the projects themselves to do their own promotion, even if their survival is at stake. Coders are in the Free Software business for the coding and that's it. If we are to judge by their "design," even many a project website would seem like an afterthought.

Lesson number 2 is that autopromotion is seen as tacky, and many Free Software developers prefer not to get into social media or icky, troll-ridden news aggregators at all.

That's where we, the FLOSS writers-cum-horn-tooters, come in. I'll write an aggrandizing headline, I'll wade into the rapids of mainstream social media, and I'll get a thrill out of doing so.

I'll do you one better: I'll post to non-FLOSS forums too, I'll send the news to general gamer subreddits, who are more into Battlefield than Battle for Wesnoth, or to designer forums were Photoshop rules supreme and nobody has even heard of GIMP. You don't get the word out there by preaching to the choir. Telling your friends and posting on the project mailing list is less effective than you think. If you really want to expand your user base, if you really want new users, you have to go where you don't have any users.

That requires something different from a changelog update. It'll probably require me to use some hyperbole and a couple of metaphors. I might need to sacrifice some details for the sake of simplicity. I'll have to build a catchy/click-baity headline and add some garish graphics. If your morals don't allow you to do that yourself, I insist, leave it up to me. Just please think twice before giving me crap when the headline and the post are not exactly as you would have written them.

If they were, we'd have solved nothing.

Paul C. Brown,

Editor in Chief

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