What is open source again?

Julia Hildebrand
Dec 19, 2016 · 5 min read
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The internet must be free and open, right?

This starts with an email from a friend. Adam Hyde was asking me advice as a consultant on digital communication strategies and social media:

“How could I promote myself through social media channels while not actually being on social media? Does that sound like a good challenge?”

A challenge?

Reading this, my mind wandered back a few years when I started working on implementing the first social media strategy at Deutsche Welle.

The recurring conversation of that time still echoes in my head: Can’t we do something on social media without actually spending time on it? And after some back and forth, I always saw the same suggestion: Can’t we just set up an RSS feed? That explains why, for quite some time, our most important tool for Twitter was Twitterfeed.

No, that didn’t sound like a challenge, it just sounded like something I’d have to turn around quickly. My plan was different: show Adam how a time investment on Twitter, Medium et al. will pay off.

But I got it all totally wrong.

Though I knew Adam’s lifelong work on open source technology, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that his question was not about something about time commitment at all. This was about the internet he believes in. As he writes in his Wordpress Blog:

“The main issue is that I want to be back in a web I can respect. It is kind of a ethical issue for me, similar to what fuels my vegetarianism. I do actually see it very much like I am becoming a web vegetarian. I want to get out of all these platforms and put myself onto another dietary path and make it work for me.”

So what Adam was asking me for was basically helping him to not use any of the tools and strategies I know most about and that rule my life.

That really made me think…

Adam reminded me of some ideals that I once used to nourish as well and spent time thinking about. Somehow, Adam’s vision of what the internet could be as someone who has dedicated his life to innovating in the publishing sector with open source technology, is pretty much forgotten in the world that I work and live in. (Especially since I left Germany two years ago.)

I live in a world now where a good story starts like this: “How I grew a 1 billion dollar company on the back of Facebook.” Or like this: “How our Medium publication helped us grow our sales by 500%.” In the world I live in, open source is for grabbing some code on GitHub to build our software quicker and cheaper. It’s not about a chosen lifestyle like vegetarianism.

Open source once meant something to me.

At the same time that I was having discussions about the value of social media for journalism, I also used to be more keen on finding out about the alternatives to closed networks and giving them a chance.

Wordpress allowed me to set up my website and blog. I was excited when Diaspora came out, offering an alternative to Facebook, because I loved the way they were promising to give me control over my own database, as a user. I created an identi.ca account, wondering where that would go and hoping those platforms would attract enough users to be able to compete so that I could make the switch to the good side.

I was wondering what a future of social networks would look like where different services are open and connected and where I can choose, as a user, where I want to share, no matter which way my friends prefer.

I bought an Android phone when everyone was buying iPhones, because I knew it was open source, and I wanted to opt out of the closed Apple system of iTunes and Co.

I was imagining the internet as a place for us, the users.

Open source means nothing to me.

Now I’m sitting here, my three Apple devices in front of me, Facebook and Twitter open in the browser all day, publishing this post on Medium.

Why? Because I know where success happens on the internet. Where you promote your ideas and products. I know that this is how we stay part of the club of the internet connoisseurs, how we keep up with the Silicon Valley mentality of constant growth, may it be our personal or our organisation’s growth, right? This is how the internet works. This is what the internet is now: Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Medium, closed platforms. This is the internet we built and wanted.

So I’m a bit disappointed in myself right now, though at the same time I feel like the victim in this story. All I was doing was looking for innovations, for trends, for new ways to use the exciting new opportunities the internet has to offer that guarantee success for the companies I’ve worked for.

Now Adam Hyde got me thinking again with his call for help to get out of all of this (or rather not needing to get in in the first place). I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to help Adam with his ambitious plans, but he already raised a lot of questions for me, not being an expert on this topic, but just as a user. But also as someone who once was more idealistic about helping to create the internet of the people and who has lost touch with what that means.

  • What does Open Source actually mean today?
  • What’s the problem open source is solving?
  • Is open source still the answer to that problem?
  • Is this topic just like climate change and we already went too far and we need a much bigger movement than a so-called Open-Source-Community?
  • Why does the Open Source community feel so closed if it’s advocating for the opposite. Can it go beyond developers?
  • How do we make sure we invest (again?) in Open Source Technology
  • Why does Adam care enough to cut himself out and I don’t?
  • Why should people care more?

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