[when i wrote this, i had no idea i’d be working for freshmeat later that year. 🙂]

before you become too confused, this has absolutely nothing to do with geocities or tripod or any such service. i’m thinking here about freedom, not price. if that phrase doesn’t ring a bell with you, run over and read about free software, then come back.

i made my way home from vacation today, and after spending a sufficient amount of time apologizing to the cat for my absence, i took a look around to see what had been happening while i’d been away. one place to which i went was freshmeat, where i was happy to see a new layout which appealed to me a great deal. i sent off a note to my lug commenting on the change.

but that was before i hit slashdot and linux today and found out about all the turmoil which had transpired. apparently, not everyone shared my appreciation of freshmeat’s new appearance, and scoop got hit with so much flame mail that he took freshmeat down. unfortunately, i haven’t seen the paragraph he put up explaining his decision, but it seems he was understandably upset that he was volunteering so much time to provide a service to people who were apparently ungrateful.

it’s certainly his ball, and he can take it and go home if people won’t play the game his way, but i wonder if that’s the right thing to do.

for as long as i’ve known it, linux gazette has displayed the quotation “one cannot unite a community without a newspaper or journal of some kind.” on its banner. [1] perhaps even more important are gathering places for discussion and means of distributing time-sensitive information. people need to get the word out on issues and be able to discuss them in order to do the things that need to be done before it’s too late. slashdot and freshmeat have become the de facto fillers of this need. when someone needs to get signatures on a petition, posting info about it on slashdot will get the word out to more people more quickly than any posts to mailing lists or newsgroups. when someone makes new software available, adding it to freshmeat’s appindex will get it to more eyeballs than any other means.

i don’t doubt that our information channels can route around problems. there was a time when there was no slashdot and no freshmeat, no kernel.org and no ldp. if they were all to disappear tomorrow, other resources would rise in their place and the word would spread until everyone knew about them. but i think what we’ve got is pretty damn good, and i’d hate to see energy expended on recreating sites that have gone under that could be put to more creative tasks.

according to the linux today coverage, scoop said:

“I still think this step was a necessary one just to remind people not to take freshmeat as given, no matter what happens.”

but perhaps freshmeat should be a given, just as open operating systems should be a given and open protocol specifications should be a given. i’m sure there are many people like me who rely on the nightly freshmeat newsletter to tell them about new software releases. perhaps there’s a point at which what you’ve created is important to so many people that it isn’t right for you to destroy it, and if at that point you don’t want to continue with it, you should turn it over to others and make it clear that you’re no longer responsible for its content. perhaps if you can’t continue doing it on a volunteer basis, you should find a way to make money with it or turn it over to others with the time available, or ask if a company wants to host it on its website and pay its employees to maintain it. perhaps information wants to be free, and not held hostage at the whim of its presenters.

we’ve seen that there are many reasons why important software needs to be free. if it becomes, or is perceived to have become, essential to a wide variety of endeavors, it needs to be the property of all so that its quality is maintained and it doesn’t become the stagnant, inadequate product of a single distributor which is influenced by goals other than absolute excellence of design.

just as we need free software, do we need free websites? are there sites that are so important to the community that they shouldn’t be entrusted to any one person or group’s hands? let’s take linux.org as an example. [2] there are millions of links from other sites to linux.org, and no doubt that a large number of people who hear of linux but don’t know where to go first to find out about it just type in http://www.linux.org/ and have that as the first port-of-call on their search for linux information.

as i look at linux.org tonight, i see that the “book of the week” hasn’t been changed in three months. no doubt someone had a good intention of putting up an introduction to a book each week, but it just hasn’t happened. this isn’t necessarily a big deal, and they do have a note on the front page apologizing that the next update has been delayed, but if the trend continues and spreads to other parts of the site, it will become frustrating when there are other people available who would gladly do the work but can’t get the people in charge to either do it or let them do it.

for example, if a year from now the list of available databases still doesn’t provide links to all of the companies who announced products in recent months, or the list of linux users groups is hopelessly out-of-date, the situation will have gone beyond annoying to intolerable; we simply can’t allow one of our most important sources of information for new users to be a fountain of misinformation.

so, what should webmasters do when they find themselves in possession of something much bigger than they had intended? here are three thoughts about guidelines they might follow, in order of increasing severity:

  1. i think it would be a good step if more webmasters placed their sites under the open content license or a similar arrangement so that if they gave up managing the site for whatever reason, others could step in and take it over. in the case of a dynamically-generated site, this would require making the code of any scripts available, as commander taco has done with the slash code.
    people making money off their sites might think this would make be giving away their livelihood, but i don’t think so. it’s like the formula for coca-cola; it doesn’t matter if they give it away and joe makes an exact replica of it, because people want to buy coke, not joeda. they want the product with the familiar name. if i make an exact mirror of slashdot, everyone’s still going to be going to slashdot instead of my site.
  2. people should be more vocal about when they need help. if working on the site has become a burden instead of a joy, it’s time to move on and hand it over to someone who will do it better than you will because he wants to do it, and you no longer do. if you’re volunteering your time, you can’t complain that it’s too much work. no one’s forcing you to do it; if it’s too much, ask for help, or just bow out gracefully and let someone else do it. if you just hang on and complain, it’s like going to work in a soup kitchen and bitching at the ho
    meless people all day about what a bother they are to you.

  3. last and most radical idea: if you’ve got an absolutely vital resource that means a great deal to everyone, consider placing it in the control of an independent organization that’s governed by the community — for example, the linux.org consortium. it could be in charge of the maintainers of the site, and if they didn’t do their jobs to the satisfaction of the community, there could be a general election to install a new team to take over. perhaps there would be a nomination period in which teams put together mock-ups of their candidate site designs, and a vote would be taken to decide which team would get the job.
    if that sounds too crazy, consider the analogy to software. what if one of the fundamental components of your computer, the operating system, wasn’t community property but was instead controlled by a single corporation that had no reason to be responsible to your needs instead of to its bottom line. i know it’s far-fetched, and it’s hard to imagine such a situation, but just as an operating system is at the foundation of a computer, important sites like these are at the foundation of the linux community. if they’re not in the community’s control, everyone suffers when one person decides that he’s tired of doing it or some people aren’t grateful enough to him or he wants to punish one of his ex-friends who enjoyed the site.

none of this can be enforced; if you’ve got a site, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what happens. but i’m not talking about your power over your site; i’m talking about the moral responsibilities that come with having power over a resource upon which the entire community depends. if you have control over such a resource now or ever do, i hope you’ll take a moment to consider how many people are depending on you before you make a decision that effects them all based on your personal feelings.

footnotes

1. and it’s always amused me that it’s attributed to “ben kingsley in gandhi”. anyone know whether this is something gandhi said, or something made up by a screenwriter?

2. an example chosen just because it’s as high-profile as you can get. however, you do have to wonder sometimes whether this vital resource is in the most capable hands… (sorry, folks.)

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