Open Source and the Power User Fallacy

It wasn't that long ago that the free and open source (FOSS) world wasn't a pleasant place to be in. If you were someone who lacked technical skills and posted for help in a forum, you were as liable to get belittled as you were to get help.

And woe betide you if you wrote or said something that didn't mesh with the ideas or beliefs of some corner or the other of the FOSS world. Yeah, fun times.

Thankfully, things have changed. For the most part. The free and open source software world is now a lot more open, accepting, giving, and tolerant. There are still pockets like the ones I just described, but they're fewer and smaller now. But the attitude that you need deep technical skills to be involved in or use FOSS persists.

That was brought home to me a month or so ago. That's when secure device maker Purism announced their Librem One suite of secure, open source web apps. I heard more than a few people say Why would you need that?

Their argument was that you could host and maintain the same, or similar, apps yourself. All you had to do, one person said, was hop over to a company called Digital Ocean, sign up for an account, create something called a dropplet, and install Nextcloud (an open source file syncing and storage tool), or some other app.

The people I heard saying that? They were coders, system administrators, and DevOps people. Folks with more than just a little technical nous. Folks who had fallen for the power user fallacy.

What's the power user fallacy? That's what I call the belief that if you can do something or something's easy for you, then anyone can do it or it's easy for anyone.

The Reality

As Jules Winnfield said in Pulp Fiction: “That sh*t ain't the truth”. Not everyone has the skills to set up and administer their own apps. Not everyone is interested in technology beyond being able to use it. Not everyone wants to learn how to.

They just want something that works out of the box, that they can easily connect to using a smartphone app or a web browser. Which explains the popularity of Google's suite of applications, of Evernote, of Dropbox. Of pre-packaged web applications that someone else runs and maintains.

I'm all for people taking control of their data. I use as many open source web applications that I can — really, there are only two or three that aren't FOSS, but those are run by small outfits I feel I can trust.

Let's go back to Digital Ocean, shall we? The contention that it's easy to set up a web application on Digital Ocean is true. In theory, at least.

In practice? Not so much. Take a look at these instructions for installing Nextcloud. Many people I know would get past the first few steps. They don't have the basic chops, and confidence in their chops, that system administrators, coders, or DevOps people take for granted.

Even before they get to that step, the Digital Ocean website will quickly make them want to turn back. Why? The terminology will scare them off. They won't understand what a virtual machine or a vCPU is. They won't know, or care, what Kubernetes is. And the slogan Welcome to the developer cloud ... well, that's not going to entice most computer users to stick around.

FOSS is for Everyone

Not just the techies. I know. I have almost no technical skills, and yet I live my life in free and open source software. I have since around 1999.

But I don't want to get one or more Raspberry Pis and turn them into my servers. I don't want to have to sweat and strain to get everything to work for me. I don't want to have to worry about updating and maintaining everything. And on my desktop, I have no interesting in compiling kernels, scripting, or compiling every application that I use.

I know ... in some FOSS circles, that's blasphemy. That's how it is.

I have no problems tossing some cash at people like Matt Baer of Write.as, Mo Bitar of Standard Notes, or Nicolas Lœuillet of Wallabag. I have no problems turning to companies like System76, ZaReason, or Slimbook for a laptop with Linux pre-installed.

The money I send their way not only supports services and businesses that I respect, but also buys me time. Time to write, to read, to cook. Time to spend with my family and friends. Time to enjoy life.

If having a pre-packaged FOSS suite like Librem One or Framasoft or Sandstorm Oasis or Disroot brings free and open source software into the lives or more people, then I'm all for them. Paying for them isn't evil, either. They need to keep their servers running, and that's never cheap.

The next time you're about to tell someone that some technical task is easy, take a moment to consider the power user fallacy. Are you falling into its trap? And does the person you're talking to have the same skills and knowledge you do? Are they interested in acquiring them? If they aren't, then either hold your tongue or point them to an alternative.

Doing that will help spread FOSS further and more widely than assuming everyone has an inner techie they want to embrace.

Scott Nesbitt

#FOSS #opinion