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You are here: Home Blogs Community Support the Freedom Ladder campaign: Lessons we learned so far and what's next

Support the Freedom Ladder campaign: Lessons we learned so far and what's next

by Zoë Kooyman Contributions Published on Dec 21, 2021 07:00 PM

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This year, we launched the "Freedom Ladder" campaign. Rather than presenting a finished campaign right out of the gate, the Freedom Ladder is a work in progress, and will always be one. It is also the first and only campaign in which the Free Software Foundation (FSF) will engage with the nuances of the strict standards for software freedom that we ourselves adhere to fully. The ultimate goal of this campaign is for everyone to reach full freedom, as defined by the FSF's unflinching standard: all software anyone uses on any computer must be under terms that respect four key freedoms. To reach this goal, everyone has to climb a sort of ladder, working over time toward a freer existence. We want to support each and every choice they make to use free software or refuse proprietary software, because each such choice is a step in the right direction.

The more members we can count, the better we can build the ladder for others, and this starts with achieving our fall goal of 500 new members before December 31. Can you join this effort as an FSF associate member, or by making a donation? You can start for as little as $10 per month ($5 for students), or $120 per year. Your membership will help the FSF give more people the tools they need to continue to take steps forward to software freedom. It will enable us to continue to create new resources, and to lead much needed initiatives like the Freedom Ladder campaign for the community.

Plus, associate members can select a special gift during this fundraiser, and enjoy all the member benefits, which include merchandise discounts, a 16GB bootable membership card, and use of our videoconferencing server.

Two people with computers sitting on a ladder

Since we recognized the need for community input at every step of the way, we started off the campaign by holding four interactive Internet Relay Chat (IRC) community meetings. We want to thank everyone involved in these discussions, because they helped us identify important points to address, and assisted us in getting an idea of the work that still needs to be done. They also informed this article, which is an attempt at highlighting some of the most important aspects we will be keeping in mind while developing the Freedom Ladder further. The detailed notes of the meetings are available on the LibrePlanet wiki.

Purpose of the Freedom Ladder

Free software can only be a sustainable idea if we are continuously bringing new people into the free software community. For a freer future, we need to guarantee that free software continues to be developed, that interest in it continues to grow, and that activism for its use spreads. Since most people are not taught to be aware of the technological tools that are so deeply integrated into their lives, the idea of software freedom is not one that is typically as valued as it should be, and as it would be if people understood the snowball effect that software freedom can have on our day to day lives. Software is the language of the world we live in, but unlike learning how to read, which is considered a priority in life, it is not something that is taught at a general level. Rather, the understanding of software is reserved for the "highly specialized."

With this campaign, we want to have supportive conversations about the challenges this lack of technical knowledge poses to bringing new people into the fold, and we want to accommodate the fact that most people do not step into full software freedom in the span of a single day. It takes one step at a time. And like every other climb in life, we want to help people to appreciate where they find themselves, as much as their destination.

The typical free software user

In the community meetings, we once again confirmed that the "typical" free software user does not exist. It's not "one size fits all," and there are as many particular use cases as there are free software users. How do you create one single message for people that range from absolute beginners to lifelong programmers, and who span all walks of life? The answer is: you don't.

Imagine all the different kinds of people we here at the FSF aim to address on a daily basis, and the goals that we have to help these people move forward on the Freedom Ladder:

  • People who aren't especially technical and who remain in the periphery of our activism -- we want to show these people that even through proprietary software is often presented as a requirement, they do have a choice. Then, we can help them recognize when they can find or demand freedom.

  • People who are frustrated with some aspects of nonfree computing, and understand that they don't need to accept the status quo -- we need to give these people the tools to make changes that last their entire lives.

  • People with programming experience or technical aptitude who aren't already in the free software development community -- can we bring these people in to be valuable contributors?

  • People who want to increase the amount of freedom in their lives -- this can be any kind of person, and every bit of information they can learn or free software program they can use is a move in the right direction.

These are by no means all the options there are, but just take a moment to think about the range of conversations to be had with everyone, and the amount of information we therefore need to deliver. As everyone's steps will be different, we need to meet people where they are. Our goal, and something important to keep in mind, is to explain the steps on the path forward in a way that allows one to step in from anywhere. We want to recognize the progress they've made so far, while still motivating them to strive towards full freedom.

Motivations for moving forward on the Freedom Ladder

Lack of control over your devices, frustration with other systems, convenience, price, privacy, or overlap with other kinds of activism, like avoiding hardware obsolescence and protecting the environment, or empowering the historically disempowered -- these are just a sample of great conversation starters that came up when discussing this campaign. Any of these can be great motivators for new free software users to explore further, and can convince them to advocate with us.

We also have to take into account what keeps people from moving towards freedom. There are plenty of reasons for people not to tinker with their machines, or even explore the ideas of freedom in technology. After all, proprietary corporations spend a lot of money telling people how "dangerous" it is to fix your own devices, or to install or adapt your own software. It is a multi-billion dollar effort that has had major success in keeping people dependent on companies like Apple and Microsoft.

In the course of our discussions, something else that stood out was the difficulty some people have in joining an unfamiliar online community. Feeling out of place in Internet forums or chat spaces is not uncommon, and it can hold people back from searching for the help they need to continue their journey forwards towards freedom. That is why in-person meeting is still one of our top priorities, and once it is safe to do so, we all need to work to reinvigorate or start new local free software advocacy groups in the vein of our local LibrePlanet groups.


A person sits behind a computer hosting an online meeting for the freedom ladder

A clear result from our first conversations about the new campaign was the need for educational resources. The resources the FSF produces itself are not the only valuable resources available to a budding free software user, so we aim to create a single space that will helpfully collect all that a person needs on their journey to freedom. Such a place would elaborate on the different choices a new free software user could make in their journey -- whether that's a comparison of free programs that can be used even on a proprietary operating system, or certain technical caveats in migrating from one program to another. We encourage everyone to add resources they think are helpful to the Ladder pages on the wiki as a starting point. Some types of resources that were identified as potentially very helpful are the following:

  • Stickers or other giveaways are great conversation starters;

  • A dictionary explaining terms and concepts of free software;

  • A table of starter "replacements" would be good to have, think of LibreOffice, VLC, etc. These are often the first free programs used that can help kickstart the journey forward;

  • Short how-to video tutorials for subjects like using free programs, installing software, common encounters of issues, and more to help people DIY (Do It Yourself) through some easy steps;

  • Graphic illustrations similar to the Email Self-Defense Guide that can help break down some more challenging steps for users;

  • An overview for budding free software enthusiasts on where they can get access to communities, mailing lists, forums, etc.;

  • Connections to other local free software hackers who can help them; as mentioned before, local LibrePlanet groups can be leveraged for this purpose.

Another resource worth highlighting, and something the FSF is interested in exploring as one of our first next Freedom Ladder campaign elements, are the situational stories that were proposed, and which would ideally provide very clear demonstrations of situations that call for a reference to the Freedom Ladder:

  • "X installed a freer OS because she had a graphic card that wasn't supported yet by fully free operating systems. She will get a Respects Your Freedoms (RYF) certified laptop later on."

  • "I got a relative to install LibreOffice and they loved it and told five of their friends who also did it."

  • "We refurbished an old computer too slow to run Windows 11, and installed a GNU/Linux distribution on it, avoiding its hardware obsolescence."

  • "X has just started activism and needs software to publish a politically-oriented zine and they used the Free Software Directory to help them find programs to be able to do that."

We believe people's stories about the use cases of free software, much like the free software stories we collected for the thirtieth birthday of the FSF about how people got into free software, as well as on the difficulties that sometimes need to be overcome, will help us better represent and address the multitude of audiences we want to speak to. It will show that free software really is for everyone, and for everyone there is a step forward.

Challenges and what comes next

The goal of the Freedom Ladder campaign is to deliver an ever-expanding journey towards free software. The ideal result would be a combination of resources, information, connections, and motivation for the future. This is a major undertaking and the campaigns team's main goal at present: delivering a framework we can accelerate building upon that will help people in their journey to freedom.

We need to help people identify with other members of the community by delivering these stories, and letting them know that it's more than acceptable to move towards freedom gradually and incrementally. We want to start with developing a blend of fictional / nonfictional "how I got into free software" stories sourced from the community, that can represent many of our most "typical" free software users.

We're interested in both written statements and videos, and we would love to receive yours. You can add them to the Freedom Ladder pages in the wiki, or you can email with your ideas. In the meantime, we will work on the infrastructure to start building this initiative and be able to integrate any information and resources we need. But we need your help.

These individual choices to use a little more free software, or say no to something proprietary, support and build on each other -- the more of them get made, the easier it is for others to make them too.

Can you join this effort this year-end as an FSF associate member or by making a donation? It will enable us to continue to create new resources, and continue bringing the Freedom Ladder campaign, and others like it, to the community.

Our work on the Freedom Ladder campaign so far has been inspiring; the community meetings were fun and everything in this post is a result of the interactive, open, and welcoming nature of those events. Building this tool that will help give people the steps they need to continue their journey forward to software freedom will be challenging, but with your help, your knowledge and your support, we cannot wait to take the next step!

Copyright © 2021 Free Software Foundation, Inc., licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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