We Have Met Linux, And It Is ... Us?

The Linux Foundation's "We're Linux" video contest is the newest attempt to get Linux a little airtime alongside both Windows and the Mac. A fine idea in theory, but I'd like to submit a few notes about why this sort of thing is a lot tougher than it looks.

The Linux Foundation's "We're Linux" video contest is the newest attempt to get Linux a little airtime alongside both Windows and the Mac. A fine idea in theory, but I'd like to submit a few notes about why this sort of thing is a lot tougher than it looks.

Software's hard. Advertising is at least as hard to get right as software -- viz., the recent dismal Microsoft ad campaign, or the not-so-recent but equally dismal Office 2007 ad campaign, or ... you get the idea. Even people with million-dollar ad budgets can't get it right. When was the last time an ad campaign of any kind really got your attention, or actually brought something useful and interesting to your attention?

The Make The Move campaign was well-intentioned, but got it all backwards. It started by trying to tell people about what was right with Linux (which nobody knows about, and therefore has no automatic interest in), instead of asking people if they wanted to do something about all that was wrong with Windows -- and, by extension, proprietary software. Talking first about free software being better, or about the superior ethics of open source, or any of that political or quasipolitical stuff, is only interesting to the people who are determined to get into discussions about them. All that guff is just going to be boring and irrelevant to people who only want to, you know, not have to reformat their computer every three months. And so again and again I see some very smart people trying to do the work of people who are not as smart as them but far more clever. Smart: The programmers who create Linux. Clever: Ad men and marketers.

"Linux" -- and by extension "open source" -- means nothing to most people not because there is no human face attached to it but because there's no set of specific experiences attached to it. It has no real-world connection to anything. The Mac was and still is an attempt to make computers into something artful and attractive -- something you'd actually want to sit in front of all day. (I know, irony of ironies.) Linux, and open source, is ... OK, now you fill in the rest of the sentence. Take that fill-in and you've got the start of an effective way to get people's attention. If Linux's very flexibility and adaptability also means it becomes that much more anonymous, not something you can automatically turn into a selling point or something you can hook back into an everyday thing, then we need to work with that and not against it.

What needs to be kept most firmly in mind is a crucial piece of user -- read: human -- psychology. People do not want to "run an operating system", or even run any particular program. They want to get work done. They want to write their reports or their articles or their novels, take photos and make cute slideshows out of them, crunch numbers, do their taxes, debate issues with people on the other side of the planet, blow up aliens, and watch funny videos of cats. The programs, the operating systems, the computers themselves, these are all just intermediaries. At best, they help out or make things possible that didn't exist before; at worst, they get in the way or wreck what you did.

All of us, I think, remember the single most successful computer-themed ad campaign ever created: Apple's "1984" commercial. It didn't tell you what the Macintosh was; it made you want to know what the Mac was. I'm not positive the exact same approach would work today, but the underlying point still seems valid: you have to work with people's hunger to want to know something.

I took a look at a couple of the ads already posted. One of the first ("I'm Linux, and I do not care what you are") isn't bad at getting people's attention, but I'm again worried that it will simply give way to a longer lecture about freedom and so on at the Freedom of Content site. Another ad ("Free Is Better") puts it this way: "Which would you rather have: expensive store-bought cookies or free homemade ones?" False dichotomy. I want good cookies. If they're free, great, but I've had some pretty disgusting free homemade cookies in my time.

Most people simply don't care about software, hardware, open source, or any of that -- and I'm also tired of the unspoken assumption that they should know all this because it's better for them, or some hackneyed variant of same. They care about their work and their play and their accomplishments, and that's all that really ought to matter. So help them ask the question "OK, how could I do all that better?" and you're onto something.

Put it this way: Don't sell "Linux". Don't even sell "FOSS", or "software / information freedom". Sell good computing, as made possible by Linux or FOSS. Anything less than that is chicanery. And any attempt to sell people on Linux or FOSS's advantages that doesn't keep this in mind is doomed to marginalize itself.

[Addendum: The folks at the Linux Foundation wanted to add a clarification about what their intentions are here: "The Foundation is not trying to run an ad campaign -- it's running a video contest. It wants to find the best illustrations of why people use Linux and inspire others to try it. No one else is providing a forum where these things can be shared with video online and it provides Linux users with a vehicle to express themselves instead of throwing their shoes at the TV when the Mac or Microsoft ads appear." I do think the best of the videos in question could easily be turned into an ad campaign, though.]

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