About coherence, Twitter, and the Free Software Foundation

The Free Software Foundation has a Twitter account. Surprised? So am I, in a negative way, of course. And I will explain why on this post.

You may not agree with me on everything I write here, and I am honestly expecting some opposition, but I would like to make it crystal clear that my purpose is to raise awareness for the most important “feature” an organization should have: coherence.

The shock

I first learned about the Twitter account on IRC. I was hanging around in the #fsf channel on Freenode, when someone mentioned that “… something has just been posted on FSF’s Twitter!” (yes, it was a happy announcement, not a complaint). I thought it was a joke, but before laughing I decided to confirm. And to my deepest sorrow, I was wrong. The Free Software Foundation has a Twitter account. The implications of this are mostly bad not only for the Foundation itself, but also for us, Free Software users and advocates.

Twitter uses Free Software to run its services. So does Facebook, and I would even bet that Microsoft runs some GNU/Linux machines serving intranet pages… But the thing is not about what a web service uses. It is about endorsement. And I will explain.

Free ads, anyone?

I remember having this crazy thought some years ago, when I saw some small company in Brazil putting the Facebook logo in their product’s box. What surprised me was that the Facebook logo was actually bigger than the company’s logo! What the heck?!?! This is “Marketing 101”: you are drawing attention to Facebook, not to your company who actually made the product. And from that moment on, every time I see Coca Cola putting a “Find us on http://facebook.com/cocacola” (don’t know if the URL is valid, it’s just an example) I have this strange feeling of how an internet company can twist the rules of marketing and get free ads everywhere…

My point is simple: when a company uses a web service, it is endorsing the use of this same web service, even if in an indirect way. And the same applies to organizations, or foundations, for that matter. So the question I had in my mind when I saw FSF’s Twitter account was: do we really want to endorse Twitter? So I sent them an e-mail…

Talking to the FSF - First message

I have exchanged some interesting messages with Kyra, FSF’s Campaign Organizer, and with John Sullivan, FSF’s Executive Director. I will not post the messages here because I don’t have their permission to do so, but I will try to summarize what we discussed, and the outcomings.

My first message was basically requiring some clarifications. I had read this interesting page about the presence of FSF on Twitter, and expressed my disagreement about the arguments used there.

They explicitly say that Twitter uses nonfree JavaScript, and suggest that the reader use a free client to access it. Yet, they still close their eyes to the fact that a big part of the Twitter community use it through the browser, or through some proprietary application.

They also acknowledge that Twitter accounts have privacy issues. This is obvious for anyone interested in privacy, and the FSF even provides a link to an interesting story about subpoenas during the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Nevertheless, the FSF still thinks it’s OK to have a Twitter account, because it uses Twitter via a bridge which connects FSF’s StatusNet instance to Twitter. Therefore, in their vision, they are not really using Twitter (at least, they are not using the proprietary JavaScript), and well, let the bridge do its job…

This is nonsense. Again: when a foundation uses a web service, it is endorsing it, even if indirectly! And that was the main argument I have used when I wrote to them. Let’s see how they replied…

FSF answers

The answer I’ve got to my first message was not very good (very weak arguments), so I won’t even bother talking about it here. I had to send another message to make it clear that I was interested in real answers.

After the second reply, it became clear to me that the main point of the FSF is to reach as many people as they can, and pass along the message of software user freedom. I have the impression that it doesn’t really matter the means they will use for that, as long as it is not Facebook (more on that latter). So if it takes using a web service that disrespects privacy and uses nonfree Javascript, so be it.

It also seems to me that the FSF believes in an illusion created by themselves. In some messages, they said that they would try to do a harder job at letting people know that using Twitter is not the solution, but part of the problem (the irony is that they would do that using Twitter). However, sometimes I look at FSF’s Twitter account, and so far nothing has been posted about this topic. Regular people just don’t know that there are alternatives to Twitter.

I will take the liberty to tell a little story now. I told the same story to them, to no avail. Let’s imagine the following scenario: John has just heard about Free Software and is beginning to study about it. He does not have a Twitter account, but one of the first things he finds when he looks for Free Software on the web is FSF’s Twitter. So, he thinks: “Hey, I would like to receive news about Free Software, and it’s just a Twitter account away! Neat!”. Then, he creates a Twitter account and starts following FSF there.

Can you imagine this happening in the real world? I definitely can.

The FSF is also mistaken when they think that they should go to Twitter in order to reach people. I wrote them, and I will say it again here, that I think we should create ways to reach those users “indirectly” (which, as it turns out, would be more direct!), trying to promote events, conferences, talks, face-to-face gatherings, etc. The LibrePlanet project, for example, is a great way of doing this job through local communities, and the FSF should pay a lot more attention to it in my opinion! These are “offline” alternatives, and I confess I think we should discuss the “online” ones with extra care, because we are in such a sad situation regarding the Internet now that I don’t even know where to start…

And last, but definitely not least, the FSF is being incoherent. When it says that “it is OK to use Twitter through a bridge in a StatusNet instance”, then it should also be coherent and do the same thing for Facebook. One can use Facebook through bridges connecting privacy-friendly services such as Diaspora and Friendica (the fact that Diaspora itself has a Facebook account for the project is a topic I won’t even start to discuss). And through those bridges, the FSF will be able to reach much more people than through Twitter.

I am not, in any way, comparing Twitter and Facebook. I am very much aware that Facebook has its own set of problems, which are bigger and worse than Twitter’s (in the most part). But last time I checked, we were not trying to find the best between both. They are both bad in their own ways, and the FSF should not be using either of them!

Conclusion

My conversation with the FSF ended after a few more messages. It was clear to me that they would not change anything (despite their promises to raise awareness to alternatives to Twitter, as I said above), and I don’t believe in infinite discussions about some topic, so I decided to step back. Now, this post is the only thing I can do to try to let people know and think about this subject. It may seem a small problem to solve, and I know that the Free Software community must be together in order to promote the ideas we share and appreciate, but that is precisely why I am writing this.

The Free Software movement was founded on top of ideas and coherence. In order to be successful, we must remain coherent to what we believe. This is not an option, there is no alternative. If we don’t defend our own beliefs, no one will.