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The cataloging of free software

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Apr 03, 2020 02:28 PM
Contributors: Lorenzo L. Ancora
Collaborate with the Free Software Directory

The original version of this blog is in Italian, here.

The principles of the Free Software Directory

The Free Software Directory is a collaborative catalog of software aimed to be the primary source for representing all free software. Each free program has its own page in the Directory from which it is possible to study the evolution it has undergone in both technological and legal terms through a chronological system similar to that of Wikipedia. Each catalogued program is distinguished by one or more aliases, and accompanied by a huge amount of information, which goes beyond the pure needs of the end user. Snapshots of the graphic interface, detailed descriptions, change logs, links to social pages, and lists of licenses and dependencies are examples of all the useful information which can be carefully attached by users to each page.

Everyone can freely subscribe to the Directory and create new pages, but only the pages reviewed and approved by administrators become visible and indexable. Administrative approvals are always made according to strict rules aimed at preventing the spread of proprietary content. As on Wikipedia, each user can have a self-approved personal page, where they can define their identity and discuss with other users. Users can also include sub-pages on which to publish their thematic articles, and any tools useful for the daily life of the Directory. User access rights are assigned to active users, and all those who demonstrate that they have the necessary technical skills and wish to devote themselves daily to the care of the pages have a chance to be welcomed onto the staff. This serene and flexible organization, based on bonds of trust built on facts and adherence to well-defined common ideals, guarantees that the technological and social development produced by the project is gradual but unstoppable. Thus, any investment of time by volunteers is amply repaid.

The project has proved to be a clear success, so much that over the years it has received funding from UNESCO, and is still supported by the Free Software Foundation. The portal boasts the participation of more than 3,000 users from all over the world. Since its creation, it has accumulated more than 80,000 verified and recorded revisions for posterity in the chronology of the MediaWiki pages, all of which are dedicated to facilitating the essential freedoms in more than 16,000 free programs.

The portal's ability to adapt and survive was possible not only because of the technical creativity of the staff, but also by the solid ideal at its base. By guaranteeing maximum visibility to free software, it has thus rewarded developers who freely employ their knowledge for the good of humanity. The transition to free licenses is indeed a moral duty of every developer, and the Free Software Directory is deployed at the forefront to facilitate it with great benefit to the world's cultural heritage.

My experience as an administrator of the Free Software Directory

I am Lorenzo L. Ancora, an Italian citizen born in Calabria. I have been part of the administration of the Free Software Directory since 2018, when I started collaborating with the staff and volunteers of the Free Software Foundation. Below, I will describe what I've learned during my participation in the administrative life of the Directory, while omitting the overly technical and boring details.

Over the years, I've developed the belief that the Internet was created to preserve and spread knowledge, and that this must remain its primary use. The Directory can be compared to a social network, and therefore needs constant moderation to avoid the irrational behaviors of a few that could damage the common cultural heritage. Hatred and discrimination must not find a place in the chronology of the pages, nor in any related communications, without exceptions. In fact, the first quality required to be an administrator is to self-moderate, and be able to moderate others, in order to preserve the existing order and ensure long-term efficiency.

While end users can afford to make mistakes because changes are not immediately visible, those with administrative privileges do not have this comfort. It is never recommended to act without careful planning. Contrary to what most think, it is better to spend more time in planning before making any changes, regardless of your level of competence. The same applies to acts of moderation and for the publication of new content, because any superficial behavior leaves permanent traces, whether they are physical (the chronology of the pages, designed to be permanent) or psychological (users collaborate only when there is a serene environment). Every time we carry out revisions with the utmost care, we leave a good example for those who come after us. Every time we treat others with respect and humanity, we distinguish ourselves from the crowd, and establish a pretext for such courtesy to be repeated.

Going down in the details, officially, my role as administrator is to solve the most serious problems affecting the Web portal. We call this activity "Backlog Management." In addition to doing this, I often validate the pages, manage online meetings, or publish new software. Flexibility is essential, because sooner or later all administrators must go beyond their pre-established role. Due to time zone differences, disasters affecting various areas of the world, or personal commitments, sometimes volunteers cannot fulfill their duties, and neglecting tasks can introduce weeks of delay, or, worse, result in an injustice towards end users. You can participate by writing markup and style sheets, scripting and graphic design, reviewing documentation, and assistance via email and chat. Regardless of what you do, you need to make improvements until it is totally sure that the final result is more than adequate.

As is well known by now, the Directory is a community work, and even many administrative decisions are made democratically, with participation from not only other administrators, but also with the bureaucrats and users present. There are many ways to face even the simplest tasks. For this reason, behind every decision, there is first of all the need to find the best workflow through common consensus. Thanks to the trust built through mutual collaboration, the administrators have the luxury of being able to ask for a common opinion. This proves to be fundamental during the approval and revision of the pages, because each published software program is unique, and is based on heterogeneous technologies and licenses.

By sharing their knowledge and cooperating with each other, all those who participate in the life of the Free Software Directory choose to follow the hard path to extend their cultural background and discover new strategies to creatively reuse what they already know. If we think that the product of our efforts is a catalog of free code, which everyone can execute, study, modify, improve and re-share freely, then it is easy to deduce that there is no more noble use of the network of networks.

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