Why I’m not an open source person any more

I’ve been having this conversation a bit lately so I just wanted to put it out there.

From 1998-2007 I worked full time in open source software. I considered myself a member of the open source community. Open source was kind of my “thing”.

This is no longer true.

I still use open source software extensively (I’m writing this in WordPress, using Mozilla on Gnome on Ubuntu), but then, so does everyone, whether they know it or not. Sometime around the early 2000s, Linux and other open source software stopped being a fringe, weirdo thing and started just being a sensible choice for most Internet projects. And since almost everything’s on the Internet these days, well, open source is just something that is.

To put it another way: if the open source movement were a software project, I’d say that software project is in maintenance mode. It’s out there, it has widespread adoption, and while there’s still work to be done, it’s more the ongoing work of keeping things going than the initial big push to get it launched. And I’m not much good at maintenance projects.

So what am I doing these days? When people ask me I usually say, “Open… stuff.” And then I wave my hands a bit. In my day job with Freebase I mostly work with open data. But I’m also interested in those sort of open principles as they’re applied to other aspects of our lives.

A short list of things I consider to fall under the umbrella of “open stuff”:

  • Intellectual property reform and alternatives to the current copyright system (eg. Creative Commons, anti-DMCA efforts, etc.)
  • Increased access to knowledge, information, and art (Wikipedia, open access journals, Scarleteen)
  • Decentralised social networking platforms (StatusNet, Diaspora)
  • Radical online collaboration and novel ways for groups to work together online (Wikipedia, of course, but also Anonymous, which I think is fascinating and important even if I mostly disagree with them)
  • Using technology to connect and empower members of marginalised groups (Genderplayful Marketplace, disability hacking)
  • Using the Internet for social change and grassroots political activism (too many to list, but #jan25 seems timely)
  • Non-traditional, non-hierarchical ways of working on projects (Agile, consensus-driven, anarchic)
  • Grass-roots, community-run, egalitarian events (unconferences and the like)
  • Unofficial/unlicensed fan activities, especially creative/critical/transformative fanworks and the communities around them (Organization for Transformative Works, vidding, scanlation)
  • Small-business and micro-entrepreneurial activities on the Internet, especially as they enable independent artists/writers/musicians/creators (Etsy, Kickstarter, Bandcamp)

There’s more, of course, but all those are things that excite me. It feels like there’s something broader there — not just software, but a whole cluster of Internet-related things that are about giving people more options, more ways to express themselves, more ways to make a difference, more ways to (at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo) realise their potential. Ideally while not being beholden to, or at the risk of being shut down by, any one corporation or government or institution.

Of course open source software is a part of this, but I don’t think it’s the only part, and it’s definitely not the leading or most important part for me any more. So, if you invite me to speak or write or come to an open source event or whatever, and I say “I don’t really work in open source any more,” this is what I’m talking about. Hope that makes sense.

(That said, if you read this and you’d still like me to speak/write/attend your open source thing and talk about “open stuff” in a more general sense, let me know.)

Dolores Park mural

Random pic is random: Dolores Park mural, at the corner of 18th and Guerrero, San Francisco. In the style of Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.


Still backfilling, to some extent. This happened in December, but I waited a while to get a pic of it once it had healed.

Compass rose tattoo

Compass rose tattoo, by Kim at Black and Blue Tattoo in SF

It was my first tattoo, at age 35. I have no idea why I waited so long, other than that it took me a while to find a compass rose I really liked, and I’m also bad at making appointments. In the end, once I found my compass rose, I printed it out and walked into the tattoo parlour on a weekday afternoon when they were quiet, and got it done more or less on the spot.

The source is this 1550 map by Pierre Desceliers. It’s one of the “Dieppe Maps”, purported to show early indications of European exploration of the coast of Australia.

Desceliers' 1550 map of Australia(?)

Desceliers' 1550 map, showing what might be north-western Australia

I’m told that people with tattoos fall into two categories: either they have one and only one tattoo, or they wind up with many. Few people have exactly two tattoos. This afternoon I’m about to enter that set of two-tattooed people — probably temporarily. Kim at Black and Blue Tattoo (who did my compass rose, and lives on a boat, and seems like exactly the right person for this) is going to give me a wristband in the style of a traditional turk’s head knot. Ever since I learned how to tie turk’s heads I started wearing them as wristbands, making them out of nylon cord or whatever was close to hand. Now I’m going to have one that doesn’t get wet in the shower and freeze my wrist in cold weather. I’ll post a picture in due course.

Pardon my dust…

I just set up crossposting/archiving between my Infotrope blog and Dreamwidth (skud.dreamwidth.org), and this is a test to make sure it worked.

(If anyone’s interested… Dreamwidth is a journalling site based on the LiveJournal codebase, but run according to more user-centric principles. It has an excellent community, a commitment to diversity and accessibility, and a developer team that is mostly women. If you would like an invite code to sign up there, let me know.)

You may also notice that I’ve moved my blog to the root directory on my server. Hopefully the rewrite rules are doing all the right things, but if you see any dead links or general brokenness (probably resulting in a 404 error) please drop me a note and let me know.

Me and live music

I used to go see the odd band play when I was at university, but I never really got into the scene. There were a bunch of reasons, all minor, but taken in combination they made the whole thing kind of “meh” for me. Since then, I’ve probably gone to see a couple of live shows a year, at most.

Just recently I realised that most of my reasons for not going to see many bands were no longer applicable. The result? I’ve been going to see bands almost weekly. It seems almost life-changing.

My reasons for not seeing bands, and how things changed:

It used to be time-consuming and difficult to keep up with who was playing where and find out about shows. You’d have to listen to local radio with a pen ready, or pick up weekly free newspapers from record stores and scour through the gig listings. This is no longer the case. A friend at work put me on to SonicLiving, a site which not only lists live music events, but also scours your iTunes, last.fm, or pandora playlists to determine what you’d be interested in seeing. The first email it sends you is a revelation. I was amazed, and I’ve seen at least three friends have the same “wow” moment of realising that a bunch of bands they’re interested are playing nearby in the near future. Right now I have dozens of shows on my wishlist, all exported to my Google Calendar, and the site sends me email reminders as well.

TurbonegrA playing at The Bottom of the Hill

TurbonegrA playing at The Bottom of the Hill, December 2010

It used to be hard to research bands you didn’t know well. Perhaps you’d heard a couple of songs on the radio and liked them, but you didn’t know any of their other stuff, nor have any idea what they were like live. Well, now I have iTunes, Youtube, and plenty of other mechanisms to find this stuff out. Half an hour online and I can have a good idea of whether I want to see the band perform. An hour or more, and perhaps a little money spent, and I can have the band’s albums, listen to them, and even find the lyrics so I can sing along at the show. All without leaving my house.

I didn’t used to be able to afford shows. Or rather, the shows I could afford were not very good ones. I’m no longer as impoverished as I used to be, so that’s not a problem any more.

Venues were smoky. I don’t really mind it all that much, but it was one little thing to add to all the rest. Now, of course, most cities (or at least those I’ve lived in) don’t allow smoking in venues.

Black Fag playing at 924 Gilman St

Black Fag playing at 924 Gilman St, December 2010

Things always ran really late, and I had work in the morning. San Francisco’s a pretty early city, and most venues only have 2am licenses at the latest. Plus I can go to work late, or work from home when I want to. No longer a problem!

I hate all the waiting around. Why do they say “doors at 8, show at 9″ when the first opener’s not going to come on until 10:30? And why all the long waits between sets? (Yes, I know it’s so you buy more drinks. It still annoys me.) But this is one area where I’ve found the iPhone to be a really life-changing technology. The knowledge that I have the Internet in my pocket — even if I don’t take it out — makes the wait more bearable. And as one astute friend said to me, a phone is like a portable bubble of introversion. When you pull it out, you’re in your own world, and can ignore the crowd. As a borderline introvert/extrovert, sometimes I need that.

All this is to say, I’ve been going to see live music lately and loving it. And I highly recommend SonicLiving. If you sign up and would like to go see shows with me, I’m on there under my infotrope email address.

Keeping the Internet weird (and pseudonymous)

I’m at ThatCampSoCal this week, and over dinner last night I found myself in an interesting discussion with Alexis Lothian (@alothian) and Amanda French (@amandafrench) about social networking, pseudonymity, and creativity.

I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a while and not sure how to do it, but I’ll try and just do it in point form.

1. Some internet communities support pseudonymity, some don’t. Facebook is the classic example of a site that requires you to use your legal name and only have one account strongly linked to your own identity. On the opposite side are sites like Twitter and LiveJournal (and its clones and forks) which implicitly or explicitly encourage people to sign up with pseudonyms and/or hold multiple accounts.

2. Many recent attempts at social networking privacy seem to be focused around single accounts and multiple groups/filters for posting and reading. For instance, Facebook and Diaspora both let you create groups of friends, post items for just that group to see, or filter your reading using those groups. The idea is that you create a group for family, one for friends, one for work colleagues, and so on, the interact with each of those groups under the banner of your single identity.

3. However, pseudonymity is well established as an alternative way of doing privacy. Many people have two Twitter accounts, one for work and one for play, or multiple accounts for multiple (real or fictional) personas. Managing privacy with multiple accounts becomes an exercise in logging in and out and acting “as” a persona, rather than choosing which group or filter to use while logged in to the one identity account.

4. Pseudonymous and multiple accounts encourage creativity. I’ve noticed that there’s a correlation between pseudonymous/multiple accounts and sites/communities that have the most fun, creative, and weird stuff going on. Or, as I put it last night: Feminist Hulk would never exist on Facebook — it’s against Facebook’s Terms of Service. To me, the best stuff about the Internet (from old-school Usenet humour to remix video) is produced by people not operating under their legal names. It’s no surprise to me that sites like Archive Of Our Own explicitly support pseudonyms, and that the folks at Dreamwidth, which aims to be a community for creative people, are working on tools to make it easier to manage multiple accounts/personas.

One of the things I dislike about Facebook and similar sites is the expectation that everyone has one true self, and that they always relate to other people in that persona. To me, that feels both false and unpleasant. I don’t want to be like that — I want to be able to wear different hats (or masks) at different times, and present myself completely differently depending on context: professional, artistic, intimate, whatever.

So, I guess this is request for people to think about the idea of pseudonymity and its effect on personal expression and creativity online, and think about what sort of Internet you want to be using.

(Related: people often claim that lack of real names leads to incivility online. I wrote a criticism of that last year, which you should probably read if you feel the urge to make that argument.)