Thoughts on the mainstreaming of openness

Disclaimer: I’m strongly biased towards openness. I prefer free and open software over closed systems, I prefer an open and decentralized web over a closed and centralized one. I prefer transparency over obscurity.

That said, I’d also consider myself a pragmatic idealist (thanks for the hint, Igor) in the sense that I think to reach certain idealistic goals it’s sometimes necessary (or even ok) to make compromises.

Examples: I use a Mac (closed) to feed my WordPress blog (open); I use Twitter (kinda closed) to promote open web ideals (open: duh!); my phone is powered by Android (open) but uses HTC’s Sense UI (closed).

So when we were about to announce an event that’s promoting the ideals of an open web (Drumbeat), we discussed how to best promote the event. We decided to complement the “official” event page on the Drumbeat site with a Facebook event page.

I insisted on having this second option, and for several reasons. One of those reasons is merely of the practical kind: it’s much easier to organize an event if you have any idea how many people are coming, and Facebook is very, very convenient to use that way. The other reason is more philosophical: I believe to reach out to new people, i.e. if you want to mainstream the discussion and get more people involved, you have to reach out to them where they mostly communicate. Facebook is an obvious choice, as you get access to a whole lot of people.

Like we almost expected, we got into a little flame war over this decision, including all the all-so-common personal attacks and insults. (My favorite being the statement that it’s “people like [me] who destroy the open web”, and that we’re “riff-raff”. I was surprised not to see Godwin’s Law invoked, but maybe that will happen in the next few mails?) To put one thing straight: I’m not even insulted, I find it very amusing to read a lengthy, hand-crafted personal attack. I appreciate, one could say, the effort people like this invest in personal trolling. (As long as – like in this case – it doesn’t even hit the mark and stays within certain boundaries.)

But it did get me thinking, and we discussed this a lot afterwards: To which degree is it ok to use a closed platform to promote an open web? And I stand by my decision, and would like to re-iterate: it’s not only ok, but necessary not to insist on personal moral high ground and being the true believer that knows everything better; but to go where the people you’d like to get involved really are and discuss with them. It’s not ok, and most likely damaging, to just assume everybody on the planet is thinking about these issues all day, and if they don’t leave all their bad habits behind they don’t deserve any better.

This kind of thinking is, from my point of view, arrogant, hypocritical and damaging. It devalues the ideals these same people strive to promote.

(I’m sure many other professions have to make similar decisions every day, like international development aid workers, who buy building materials on local markets to strengthen the local economy, even though they know that a certain share of those revenues go back to funding the same groups that caused the underlying structural problems.)

Long story short: For the time being I’ll keep doing it the way I’ve done it so far. I’ll keep using Facebook to promote events, I’ll stick to Twitter if that’s where I reach new people. But I’d like to hear your take on this!