Social media tools are artifacts of an ideological position -- and we should not be compelled to swallow that politics forcibly just to use the tools. Technologists serve humanity best when they leave their religion out of the tools, as Jaron Lanier put it so wonderfully in a recent essay about artificial intelligence. I don't have to look far to illustrate my thesis that geeks build ideology into tools -- they tell you so themselves, for example this classic evangelist's text about Drupal as "software that powers the Left" (and to get an idea of why that's a problem, read the ridiculously arrogant and insular comments on a thread like this one at Personal Democracy crowing about the White House opting to use Drupal).
Open-source cheerleader and progressive Nancy Scola explains the plot:
Let's really try to extract the last drop of possible meaning from a choice over a CMS. Squint a bit, and it's possible to see the White House's move to open-source software as a move towards the idea that collaborative programming can inspire -- or at least, support -- a more distributed politics. That idea bubbled up in 2004, when young programmers experimented with using Drupal itself to turn the Howard Dean campaign into the Howard Dean network. This idea, that a politics crafted by the people could be a powerful thing indeed, emerged in a slightly mutated way during the Obama presidential campaign, but has arguably receded below the surface during the first nine months of the Obama Administration. First the WhiteHouse.gov CMS gets more open, then the White House OS? Perhaps.
1. Open source software is not necessarily the best; sometimes it is the worst, and it's ok to say that, even if you are typing that statement on a blog run by OS software.
Yeah, we get it that the Internet runs on Apache and our very participation in the new and shiny Civ Soc 2.0 is because Gov 2.0 goverati got there first, and imposed the dreadful Drupal on many sites. Lots of consultants have sure gotten rich off this "free" and easy "solution". Beware of gurus that tell you that proprietary software is more expensive, more buggy, or somehow politically incorrect in some other way. The true open mind is willing to tolerate both open and proprietary software "solutions" for a job and not do hysterically brittle things like...call for the government not even to fund healthcare software upgrades unless it can all be open source. Open source cultism runs very, very deep and there is an enormous amount of hoopla around it. Chip away at it and learn the hidden costs and vexations -- and don't bring in a consultant that is unwilling to hear criticism about OS cultism.
2. Open source projects usually have an all-powerful tribal leader, even nick-named "Benevolent Dictator for Life".
Such a personality, like the famous Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds of Linux, can be so rigid and so severe and so certain of their rectitude that people have no choice but to "fork". But "forking" means splitting and confusion, and there is little tolerance for compromise to prevent such splits. The kind of dictator who compels people to volunteer hours of writing code for free isn't necessarily the kind of soul you want running a care-giving organization. The BD4L is the dirty little secret of "open" that makes it not open and is often the cause of the abject failure of software projects -- a failure they often can't admit.
3. Open-source coders don't tolerate criticism at all well.
See above. If you don't believe me, again, see the comments on a typical forum where somebody has the temerity to complain about Drupal (and watch them show up here) or Open ID. Among themselves, open source coders behave brutally to each other; people are told to "patch or GTFO", and warned that they cannot criticize even the most obvious things wrong with a program or platform without being scathingly derided that they "haven't contributed". You are told that if you won't contribute or be "constructive," "then you can leave." I call this the "forced migration" policy. This is not an attitude you want to port into an NGO or a government office. People can't or shouldn't leave *their jobs* in such a fashion; and you can't say this to customers, patients, citizens, clients. Criticism is ok, and NGOs need more, not less of it, as they can be insular and overly sensitive.
4. Open source usually comes hog-tied to an ideology of "free" or "gift economy"
Or "Creative Commons" or other such schemes that usually involve browbeating creators to yield their copyright's inherency with a "license to distribute" and decouple it from commerce in a program that has no obvious way to get them paid (there is a lot of fantasizing about this, mainly from people who make their livings from books on "free" as a model, not by actually running a business where this model is actually demonstrated to really work and make a profit. Take away Cory Doctorow's book and lecture fees -- where would his income from "free" get him? Just because you're in the non-profit business doesn't mean you shouldn't earn a living wage and charge for reports or membership or events -- you need to sustain your cause.
5. Open source is anti-commerce - and even exploitative.
Open source believers have a decided alergy to capitalism and even self-supporting commerce -- although they will often tell you "I am not a communist!". They believe fervently that "business models" are to involve free or at best freemium and tend to never charge for content, saying that everyone should be always volunteering their content -- especially the informal, amateur content of status updates, pictures, comments, and the other grease that keeps the social media wheels turning -- for free. Only attention is "paid" -- and all these systems are deliberately intended to try to keep people as addicted as possible to the exposure/attention-seeking/popularity/ratings cycle as much as possible so that they produce for free.
So much of the *work* of social media is going unpaid, and filling the spaces of time that used to go to other things -- like going to your child's basketball game or sleep. It's typical that the platform Kickstarters involves people giving up money to others' projects -- but not getting any equity. Non-profit workers are tasked now to blog and Twitter and Facebook for many more hours a day -- but often without any extra compensation. By giving them a little scope to "express themselves" and succeed at the game of collecting followers, they are enticed into the anti-commerce no-pay cycle. Jobs like translation become collectivized wikis instead of a paid professional task -- with only the platform owners and ad sellers benefiting ultimately, even though others get a lot of "free stuff".
Among the most nasty of the exploitative collectivizing software cult spillovers to online media is gawker.com and similar Nick Denton properties that involve pitting all the writers against each other. They are in a mad scrum daily to throw up content and be first, be best, and have the most hits. If they don't get as many unique visitors as the person in the next cubicle or seat in the "open plan" barn-like loft, they move down the food chain. It's hideous, and it doesn't make for quality, it makes for that strange melange of sycophancy, impudence and extremism that you find on techcrunch.com
6. Open source often demands the creation of a "wiki", and these are generally unproductive and misleading in their claims.
The wiki is usually wonky and not user-friendly, with arcane editing procedures. It usually winds up being "populated" with content by only a few people, who then ride herd over the device. Just try and object to something on a wiki that some geek wikitarian has set up -- you'll be cut off, and lose your privileges. The wiki merely becomes a way of empowering coders and the power-curve content makers, not the rest of everybody in a company or movement. Wikipedia is the worst example of fake openness and ease of contribution in fact devolving to a rigid and arcane editing cult, with only a tiny number of editor-cult leaders cleared and allowed to ajudicate disputes.
7. Software production norms can't -- and shouldn't! -- be adapted to every other complex organic human endeavour.
The latest software cults like "scrum" or "agile" demand Stakhanovite-like scrambles to complete a job under stress, with an all-powerful leader holding the whip, and a person designated as "product owner" with all the authoritarianism that implies. Criticism is managed away rapidly. The forced-marches, the stark schematics, the task lists, the artificial "user stories" woven from the geeks' narrative (because they run the scrum, not real users) -- all of these forms of soft-waring-making cultism should be dropped in using the end product of the software -- except you need to know about this to try to run the gauntlet of the coders when the software isn't usable. Good luck.
You'd be surprised how many social media tools today are scrubbing out the right to vote "no" -- and when their makers are confronted with this gasping Orwellianism, they retort that it is "too negative" or not "collaborative". This is dangerous, and awful, and is poised to bleed into the entire political system unless we put our foots down *now* when these are merely wikis and nerdy platforms, and not our entire formal political system.
A key feature of the geek religion is that you create "open systems" to merge people toward a consensus of "yes," not the management and protection of a dissent of "no". That's why you see so many lefty columns this week calling for unity, ending division, blah blah. Maybe this is "necessary" in coding the software that runs a dialysis machine or a steering wheel, but in real human organic life, it's messier -- and that's ok. It's ok to have "no" and "negativity" because people don't like everything -- and shouldn't have to be frog-marched into being positive when they don't. You are either for gay marriage; or you are not. Propositions in real life on gay marriage and term limits and such on real ballots are YES or NO. And that's a *good* thing.
The same should be true of democratic procedures and policies in an organization, whether an NGO or a government. It's ok to say NO, and the means for the "no" shouldn't be scrubbed out of the software (as it is on the JIRA bug-tracking tool, for instance, due to the framers' ardent "consensus-building to yes" theory. Beware of wikis, devices, interfaces that don't let you vote NO and don't let you DISLIKE.
9. You can't be an individual, disagree, or persistently criticize without being called a "troll".
I personally repudiate the whole geeky concept of "the troll," as it is seldom used in the classic sense of someone deliberately pranking and harassing to irritate people, but is usually meant to describe ANYONE who is negative, especially if they criticize geeks and software itself.
A lot of the tools themselves, as well as the philosophy baggage we have to take with it, involve "networking" and that means collectivizing, not necessarily collaboration with the individual's integrity held in respect.I believe forums moderators should not even have a judgement of what is a "trool" or silly little nerdpack nostrums like "don't feed the trolls". Make a section of the forums for flames and vents, and direct people there, and move posts there, if your fragile irises can't be burned by such texts. Only actual incitement of imminent violence or a court-ordered removal for libel should be honored on a forums, in my book -- it's especially disgraceful for our U.S. government sites not to be tolerating the First Amendment in practice.
10. Everything is always in beta or always only an iteration to be changed
This facet of software is seldom studied as a social phenomenon in and of itself, and people aren't even conscious of it. Why must software always change or grow obsolete? Other simple tools in organic and industrial life doesn't require such constant reiteration. Even among geeks, basics like their beloved Python mailing list, which is clunky and stupid and looks like the 1990s, isn't changed "just because".
So why must everything move from 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0? What if there isn't a 3.0? What if there is only 2.x for ever and ever? And does it always really need a patch?
The problem with believing you are always in an eternal beta, or that you can always fix one more bug and add one more feature and release one more version is that you are never *done*. You are never accountable for the product in the *now*; you are always telling the customer or the user that you might fix that...some other day. In the next issue. The constant, daily grind of fixing bugs and upgrading becomes a permeated way of life that isn't questioned and it makes all reality fungible. Government is merely an operating system to be "fixed" because it is "buggy" or "broken," not an organic institution with procedures and historical memory built into it. It's always something subject to change by coders, *and never above them*. The eternal iteration process may be what undermines the rule of law the most -- and it's never questioned.
11. Collectivization -- everything is networked or a friendship list or interactive or mined.
Tekkies nowadays talk with horror and contempt about those who are in "silos". God forbid if you are in a "silo," a vertical structure that isn't horizontally connected to "everybody else" who you "should" be networking with. Sometimes this takes really course and gross forms of collectivizing, group dynamics merely for the sake of saying you have done the task of networking. But...why? Not everything is improved by networking.
Sometimes it's ok to be working in a silo; writers I know who get the most thoughtful books and blog posts done are those who don't gab on Twitter, Facebook and email all day, and who don't expend themselves answering every comment on every forums. I've seldom seen the really brilliant start-up ideas come as a result of some big public group grope -- they are usually conceived by one genius or tiny, secretive groups of geniuses who might be in a network among themselves, but are keeping YOU under an NDA so their big idea for something with a name like Bing or Ning or Ding will be able to attract VC money. *They* don't always network; why should you?!
The individual mind grappling with the text of another mind, or directly interacting with human speech in a private duo -- these are really quite fine as a learning "vehicle" and as a way of growing the mind. There's a creepy tendency to stamp on this with all the faddish educational theories now like "Connectivism" and with the basic tenet these days that "all knowledge is on the network" and can be merely put to Ask.com or Wikipedia and not "learned". This theory relies on the existence of vestiges of the past who still learn "the old-fashioned way" of course.
12. Open source cultism is the gateway to other cults like the Singularity (the Geek Rapture)
Open source fanaticism is usually co-morbid with other cultic ideas -- like "The Singularity". This notion that computers and the Internet will take over from humans some day and become more intelligent than they are, leaving behind the humans who won't "get with the program" literally and upload their brains to this new wired state -- is definitely a religious idea on par with the fundamentalist Rapture -- which is why I call it the Geek Rapture (as do others). On the one hand geeks tell you "the future is unevently distributed" -- especially to them and not to you -- but on the other hand, they think magically one day, all this distribution will sync up and put artificial intelligence in the driver's seat. Rather than questioning this or challenging the abuse of rights that would be entailed, they ridicule critics.