Freedombox’s pursuit of perfection undermines its goals

October 22, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom

A journalist covering Iran I saw speak last night that got me thinking critically about the Freedombox in a way the Freedombox community would benefit from, in my opinion.

Someone asked the journalist what people working for freedom in Iran did about governments having access to data on Facebook and similar tools. Being in the Freedombox community, I anticipated her saying something like it was a big problem and people had to avoid it. She didn’t. She extolled the benefits of social networking and described how people worked around problems and celebrated Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Since joining the Freedombox mailing list at its start, I’ve seen months of discussions on how to make it perfect. Pursuing theoretical ideals has some use, but I concluded the more meaningful comparison is not to ideals but to alternatives people today are using.

People in Iran don’t need perfection. They have imperfect tools like Facebook. They benefit from something better. Absent something better, they appreciate the best they have, which means the people our community wants to help end up supporting exactly the tools we want to leapfrog.

Does everyone see this irony? Until we create a device in any way better than Facebook, the people we say Facebook is putting at risk support Facebook! They don’t just use it, they promote it and associate it with freedom. Trying to perfect X or Y software component undermines support for our own project when it delays creating a Freedombox.

Want more irony? The people we want to perfect the Freedombox for — the ones at greatest risk — can best solve our challenges. How? By using Freedomboxes. They are now solving current social networking problems. They will solve shortcomings in Freedomboxes has better through experience than we will through speculation, as long as they have Freedomboxes to use.

Perhaps the worst thing we can do to support people working for Freedom today is to delay producing code or working devices since it leaves them vulnerable and gets them to use and support what we consider nonfree tools.

I believe the best thing we can do for them is to create a Freedombox of any sort, however imperfect, as long as the code is Free and it has any advantages over alternatives like Facebook. Yes, it will have problems that could put people at risk so we should publicize what problems we know of so free software users can do what they do best — improve the code themselves or report their problems so others can for them.

Without user input, we’re a rudderless ship. Without users, we can have no user input. Without a device, we have no users. I believe to support freedom through creating Freedomboxes, the best we can do is create any Freedombox at all, however imperfect, and get it and its code to users. Publicize the imperfections as loudly as possible so users at risk can avoid them.

In the worst case users can use non-free alternatives like Facebook, which is no worse than today’s situation.

In the best case they will solve the problems.

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13 responses on “Freedombox’s pursuit of perfection undermines its goals

  1. Hey Joshua,

    Thomas Ruddy pointed me to your article as we discussed a very similar topic yesterday. For instance, there are so many free software distributed social networks (and maybe even more lists and wikis collecting them) – but only a few of them actually working in an understandable, usable, accessible way with enough publicity and users. And top one is obviously Diaspora.

    By just getting some plug and putting on there Diaspora, http://diasporafoundation.org for communication and ownCloud, http://ownCloud.org for data storage & information management – so much would be won.

    »The perfect is the enemy of the good.« – Voltaire

    • Hey Jan-Christoph,

      I’m surprised at the difference between interest in alternatives to centralized social networks and actual practice of them as well. I use Diaspora, but it took forever to get an account and it’s not as easy to use as Facebook. Facebook’s own design changes and creepiness seem much more effective in pushing people away than the free software community. We can’t rely of Facebook to push people away. We have to provide alternatives.

      I agree with the effectiveness of a plug with Diaspora, even if little else. I hope people looking to solve all the problems at once realize an imperfect plug solution beats the alternative. For someone with no alternative now, a dream of a perfect solution does nothing, while Facebook does something.

      I also wish people would trust the users. If we have something imperfect, publicize the perfection. Call it beta. Tell them if their uses are sensitive don’t use it, but give them access and let them give feedback or solve problems themselves.

      Anyway, thanks for the feedback. I’m glad to hear the ideas are contributing to meaningful discussion.

      Josh

  2. In other words, “release early and release often.”

    I just hope Freedombox doesn’t follow in Hurd’s shoes. Though, if somebody else comes up with a working alternative to Freedombox which overshadows Freedombox, I suppose that would be ok as well.

    • The end result is to suggest releasing early and often. The middle step is to suggest why.

      Hurd is the natural comparison and lesson to learn from. I’d also be happy to see anything that functions just like a freedombox, independent of where it came from, as long as the software in it was Free. I’d prefer the hardware to be as Free as possible (not sure how “Free” applies to hardware), but I’m sure manufacturers will make the hardware once the software exists.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with the opinions stated in your post Joshua. Without feedback from real life users, we end up trying to solve *every* problem (and thus get none of them finished) rather than nailing the ones that really count in short order. I’m stunned that it has been so long since funding was raised with nothing to show, even something buggy, crashy and missing almost all features.

    My concern is that this idea is so good, that someone is going to do it… but it’s not going to be private / free / non-profit at all. I can just imagine Apple announcing iBox at their next summit with Google an Google Share shortly after. You know it would look similar on the surface to what we’re talking about, be shiny, take masses of load of their servers… and report all their doings straight to their respective companies and curious government agencies / commercial partners.

    Diaspora is a decent example. They released something buggy, with minimal functionality, reasonably early on… yes, they were criticized for it’s quality at the time, but it got people using it (those who could get an invite / understand they go go elsewhere, anyway) and today they’re by far the largest free socnet alternative. Now they’re building up to a beta, they’re getting new users by the boatload. (Check out #newhere anytime to see what I mean). This is despite the fact that their communications have been extremely poor / non-existent. With decent public communications, even many of the problems they had could have been avoided. In many ways, what carried them through was just releasing fairly early (I would have put up a git repo on day one, but whatever) and having Eben’s tireless and eloquent campaigning helping their cause (as he does even more with ours).

    We can do this, but you’re right. We need to get something in people’s hands that they’ll use about *now*, and then that builds a base to evangelize about the amazing new things we can bring further down the track (even if it requires some restructuring). Better yet, having real users will give the devs more direction and encouragement.

    The alternative is a future that none of us want to see.

    • Your reply got me thinking about what might help.

      I don’t know, but I think the Debian community is great at putting things together, maybe not so great at starting things from scratch. As much as all or most of the tools already exist, someone still has to assemble them before the community can start using and improving them. Eben inspired people, but maybe the community, however enthused, is still waiting for a catalyst.

      I think the root of the problem may be people, which suggests people are the root of the solution too. I have some ideas. I’ll post them soon.

      Thanks for the insightful comments, Tolstoy!

  4. You’re welcome!

    Nice to hear someone voice the frustrations I’d been thinking for a while. I think the scope of the project (complete potential replacement of the internet) is both what thrills people and intimidates into inaction and fractionating. I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas.

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