Involving the community: my podcast experience

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I recently started a new podcast where people like you and me have the chance to put questions to key people in our community. While doing that I discovered some aspects of our community that I feel are often over looked in the drive to find new users.

Why I did it

For those of you who don’t know, I recently put together a new podcast where people like you and me had the chance to put questions to a panel of key players from the world of free software. I’m afraid I can’t claim to know where the idea came from anymore, but what I do know is that after having the idea, and seeing it to fruition, I’m really pleased I had it!

To be honest, however, it was one of those things that occurs to you and you think “yeah, great" but never really believe it will happen; this time, I thought the idea was a good one and decided to give it a shot. So, I went about finding the email addresses of some people I thought would be interesting to hear speak and dropped them a note explaining my idea. Something surprising happened too: they replied. More than that, they were happy to take part!

Something surprising happened too: they replied. More than that, they were happy to take part!

Initially, I thought it was a good idea simply because I always enjoy reading interviews and hearing people talk passionately (and knowledgeably!) about a subject I’m interested in. Add to that, the format of ordinary people asking the questions works really well on the BBC radio show Any Questions. After getting the replies, though, and reading some of their comments in the messages I started to realise that it could be more than just an interesting listen.

It was an opportunity for those of us who usually struggle to make contributions elsewhere in the community—whether due to a lack of time, lack of technical knowledge (as is often my situation!), lack of confidence or any other reason from a myriad of possibilities—to ask a quick question and get some feedback from those right at the centre of our community. It was also an opportunity to rediscover the principles that underlie everything we do in the free software world: to rediscover the importance of freedom.

The good times...

There is, in my opinion, something special about free software: I started using GNU/Linux about a year ago now and all the way through my transition from proprietary software there has been a huge number of people willing to support me however they could. I saw this attitude reflected once again in the generous responses from the guests, who, despite busy schedules, family commitments and, in one case, a hangover, gave up their time to talk on a show being put together by a gap year student with no previous experience! This sense of community is, in actual fact, only half of why I think free software to be special; I had only considered the other half, until recently, marginally important. This “other half" is freedom.

I’d always thought the terms “open source software" and “free software" to be interchangeable, but while in the initial stages of preparation Richard Stallman pointed out to me the difference between these two terms. “OK" I thought, and I investigated a little and found that this is the case. I still failed, however, to see why the difference is important—why freedom is important.

Figure 1: GNU’s headFigure 1: GNU’s head

While making the actual recording, though, this began to change: Richard Stallman’s suggestion that he was influenced by growing up in the United States in the ’60s demonstrated to me how free software links so strongly with values of fundamental importance to us all; Jeremy Allison’s door handle analogy is a clear practical example of why these freedoms are important; also, Jeff Waugh’s comments that he loved having a community out there “creating fantastic stuff" with free tools highlighted, for me, how freedom is at the very centre of our community.

...and the bad

Of course, in putting this together it wasn’t all generous responses and grand realisations of the importance of freedom: I had my fair share of times when I panicked about getting enough questions to ask the guests; fears that nobody would know about it, or that nobody would want to listen. On a few occasions, I blamed the community for these moments, but in all honesty, it was me who was responsible.

I thought it would be easy: I would post to Digg and Slashdot, lots of traffic would be driven to me and questions would be plentiful! I was wrong. The internet is a very big place and starting something new on it was never going to be easy. The free software community, though, came through for me once again (as it had all those other times when I needed to set up printer networking, figure out how to record a VoIP conversation etc etc!). Free Software Magazine put up a blog post about it, Linux Format put it on their front page news section, people responded in forums, mailing lists and IRC, and, in the end, we got some great questions to make, in my opinion, a great show.

The moments when I did blame the community, though, opened my eyes to some things, which I don’t think I’d ever have considered otherwise. All that I know about the ideals and philosophy behind free software—until recently—had been based on hearsay, on piecing together little bits of information I found here and there. This had on some occasions resulted in misconceptions. More importantly, however, it had prevented me from gaining a deeper appreciation of why free software is so important, about why the community is the way it is and about how freedom is at the core of everything we do.

Freedom is at the core of everything we do

Moving on from here

I suppose my point is this: we want to expand the numbers of people using free software because the software itself is really good, but this isn’t our strongest selling point, nor our most significant. As much as we’d rather not admit it, proprietary software isn’t bad (in quality terms); where it fails is in the lack of freedoms it gives to its users, the very place we are strongest. The next time you’re trying to convince someone to try GNU/Linux, tell them the door handle story, tell them about DRM and point them in the direction of GNU’s philosophy links—help them to understand. In doing so, they’ll discover not just great software, but a welcoming and knowledgeable community, who care passionately (and with good reason too!) about freedom. Perhaps, even take the time to do these things yourself, or to listen to the discussion in the podcast and remember why we all love this community.



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Why don't you use a Creative Commons license? Of course, this holds for all articles of FSM.

guydjohnston's picture

Those are some good points Jonathan. I really liked your first podcast, and I'm really looking forward to the one with Mark Shuttleworth, especially to find out if my question is asked. That's a very good point that simply citing practical advantages of free (as in freedom) software isn't necessarily the best way to bring as many people as possible to using GNU/Linux, even if that's all you want. If the 'open source' development model was really that good, all free software would be much better than its proprietary counterparts. GNU/Linux would be a lot better for normal desktop users than Windows or OS X, and I'd say it's still lacking some features for them. Freedom is by far the most important aspect for me, and proprietary software can't compete in that respect, though it can easily compete technically. Freedom is also something everyone knows and cares about (at least to some extent), and having it as the focal point is more relevant to the general population and less geeky than talking specifically about 'source code' as the main point.

On a different note, in response to 'Anonymous coward''s point, I would recommend using a free licence such as the CC-by-sa, GNU FDL or CC-by for your podcasts and blog entries, so that people can quote them and use small parts in derivative works. I assume you use that 'verbatim copying only' licence because the FSF does that. RMS's reason for it seems to be that you shouldn't modify a work of opinion because it distorts their viewpoint. I don't agree with that, because I don't think it does that as long as you make it clear that you've modified it, and don't represent your derivative work as the original. I'm going to email him about that when I get round to it. Personally, I'd like to be able to quote works like yours without having to either include the whole work or risk breaking the law. I've seen at least one article before where they wanted to quote something RMS said, but they couldn't without including the whole of a long article, so they just linked to it. I also don't want to have to rely on 'fair use' or 'fair dealing' to avoid breaking the law.

However, 'Anonymous coward' has fallen into the common trap of treating all of the Creative Commons licences as one thing. I don't recommend you use "a Creative Commons license", because they don't have any particular freedom in common, and some of them are very restrictive. I definitely wouldn't like you to use the Developing Nations License, because I live in a 'developed country', so I wouldn't even have the freedom to distribute copies verbatim, commercially or noncommercially.

GNU - free as in freedom

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Could you provide a link to this door handle analogy as I cannot seem to find it?

Many Thanks

guydjohnston's picture

That analogy was used in the podcast. You can get the Ogg Vorbis file here: . As far as I know it hasn't been transcribed.

GNU - free as in freedom

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Always remember that "Laziness trumps everything". When people buy software, they're not looking for some ivory tower of intellectual purity, nor are they (really) looking for something that's visually appealing. First and foremost, they're looking for their problem to be solved...whatever problem it is. In the case of an OS, it's a matter of which one makes it easier to interact with their computer; in the case of digital media, which one allows them to enjoy their media experience without a lot of effort on their part. Once you've actually SOLVED their problem, then you can concern yourself with trying to be visually appealing.

Andrew Min's picture

I once made a podcast similar to yours. It interviewed software developers. The problem was, half of the people I emailed never wrote back. The other half wrote back once, and never responded again. I only got one show out (with Phil Crosby, author of InstallPad), and almost interviewed the creator of Babelgum (until I found he was in Italy. The costs of calling Italy would have been more than the income I would make).

Anyway, good luck on the show! May it not end like mine ;-)

Andrew Min

Author information

Jonathan Roberts's picture


Currently a gap year student! I have a huge interest in Free Software which seems to keep growing. I run the Questions Please... podcast which can be found at On an unrelated note I'm reading theology at Exeter next year.