Free Culture Advocacy: A General Strategy and Some Examples Involving Social Movement Groups and Community Universities

Presented at Wikimania 2007

slides; discussions


For the free culture communities to better promote their ideals and practices, it is useful to look for arenas where the "cost" factor of the economical incentives is amplified and where certain groups of audience have "marketing" needs. Community universities fit the first criterion, plus they are a good channel for dissemination of our agenda. Social movement groups fit the second criterion. Together the three different fields of organizations may benefit each other and improve the society as a whole.

The Quest

In the past decade or two we have seen fast advances in the digital technologies as well as the their amazing effects on the societies when information is allowed to flow freely. An online encyclopedia is collectively written, enabling people to share knowledge. An entire operating system and countless application programs are cooperatively created by people around the world and freely shared, challenging the global software company that manages to monitor the majority of consumer PCs from afar with their monopoly position. Bloggers expose injustice that would otherwise be covered by governments, which are sometimes pressured to correct their behaviors by the ensuing international public opinions.

The free software community, the wikimedia projects, and many other groups of people who agree to the values of free culture as proposed by Lawrence Lessig constitute the free culture communities. We ask, "What else can we do to improve the society?" "Who will most readily share our ideas of collaborative creation of digital information and disseminating it freely (as in 'free speech', not 'free beer') to the general public?" As a long time FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) advocate, the author has seen advocacy efforts directed towards the "profit" factor of the economical incentives, e.g. "why a business should open source its software". Such efforts are laudable but may not be most efficient and effective. This article proposes that instead we spend more efforts in arenas

  1. where the "cost" factor of the economical incentives is amplified, and
  2. where certain groups of audience have "marketing" needs

In such arenas we can more easily align our rationales with the motivations of the audience, invoking better resonance and more active participation.

The Key Ideas

Who would benefit most from the free flow of information, one of the key strengths of the free culture? Obviously most people would, except perhaps the few media and international corporations that push DRM (Digital Rights Management) in order to monitor and control every transaction of digital copying. The society as a whole benefits from the free culture. That's why we are devoted to promoting it.

Of all the beneficiaries, the importance of free information can probably be best grasped by organizations for which digital contents are a heavy cost for their operation and/or for their "clients". Universities, schools, community universities, and other educational institutes are good examples. The new form of entertainment industry such as internet radio stations can also best grasp our ideas (in fact they are among us). But the educational institutes are in a better position to support and spread free culture because they are (largely) not for profit and their objectives do not have a direct conflict of interest with the DRM camp. Thus it is not surprising that the use of FLOSS has originated mostly from university departments with heavy scientific computing needs, that the educational environment is the major target of high profile projects such as guadalinex and OLPC, and that UNESCO's FOSS portal seems to be most visible and long lasting of all efforts within the United Nations to promote FLOSS. (And we expect the still-young UNESCO's open training platform to be similarly successful.)

On the other hand, who would readily agree to produce and provide information for the public to freely distribute? People and/or organizations that seek to popularize their viewpoints, identities, and/or products may best grasp the benefit of free flow of their agenda. These include political parties, social movement groups, and future entertainment celebrities. Local stores and business may also love to see their information publicized. Thus on the production side, the free culture advocates may find the best allies by appealing to the "marketing" needs of the audience, where the term "marketing" is used in a very broad sense including activities such as the advocacy of the animal rights. An immediate corollary is that NGO/NPO groups which support some social movement may be among our best friends to provide free information.

The Big Picture

a possible ecology of the free culture advocates, the social movement groups, and the community universities

So we arrive at the big picture at the right.

Many social movement groups have become aware of the power of the digital technology and its potential application to spreading their causes and rationales to the public, but do not have sufficient mastery over its use. They may not even know that the use of open file formats and standard-compliant web servers and web pages better suit their interest than the proprietary technologies that try to force the visitors to use the vendors' viewers before allowing them to read the social movement groups agenda. For example, OO.o, Apache, and nvu or mozilla composer can be best accepted here if we emphasize their inclusion of every visitor, appealing to the social movement groups' need to reach the largest audience. Invitation to contribute materials to one or several of the wikimedia projects may be best accepted with the same advocacy strategy. For example, it will be in the interest of the ape right advocates to release the informative and thoughtful book The Great Ape Project and more videos like the audio/video clips of the Great Ape Trust in some form of creative commons license. More people will awake to the injustice we have done to the apes when it becomes legal for teachers at school to freely show students that Koko the gorilla seems to understand spoken English.

In some countries, community universities could serve as a channel for the social movement groups to deliver their materials, assuming that the topics are of enough interest to certain portions of the general public that they can attract students to the classes. The advantages they have over the regular universities is the flexibility to teach less academic and more practical topics. Social movement groups will have great incentives to design classes and teaching materials for community universities and release these materials using a free license. The free culture communities such as those around the wikimedia projects can provide tools and experiences to facilitate this. In turn, the materials thus produced may well be included into the wikimedia projects, benefiting the students of community universities as well as the general public. [Nov 7, 2011 Update: For another example, Online College Classes is a compendium of educational multimedia content from around the web, organized by topic as well as by by the type of resource provided. It may benefit not only community universities but also other educational institutions.]

We can also look at ourselves, the free culture communities, as a subset of the social movement groups. In this regard, we may consider offering the following classes to the community universities:

The key is to think from the viewpoint of the potential students. They may not be interested in a single tool such as inkscape, nor may they be interested in a single project such as wikicommons, in any great depth. Yet they may be interested in creating advertisements for their own business without legal hassles, which can be offered by a well integrated class composed of a brief introduction of tools and repositories collected from various free culture projects. This kind of remix is a front where the proprietary world simply cannot compete with us. By the way, it may not be necessary, nor may it be efficient, to give classes for the sole purpose of recruiting free content providers (or free software coders) initially. When we have enough free content users, there will be more people interested in learning how to become free content contributors. The important thing is to build a self-sustaining ecology bottom up.

Now let's turn to the monetary supply aspect of this proposed architecture or ecology. The community universities receive funding from the government and collect tuition from the students. The free culture communities may not receive much direct funding in this picture (except perhaps lecturing fees paid by the community universities), but do receive content contributions to very specific subjects from the social movement groups, and can recruit new contributors through the community universities. At this point we bring the big businesses into the picture. Why will big businesses invest money to develop FLOSS, for example, or to encourage any free content project in general? More genarally, why will big businesses make donations to any social movement groups, again considering the free culture communities as special cases of the social movement groups? Likely not because they think the investment in FLOSS or any other social movement is profitable, but because it improves the public perception of their businesses and/or meets their bottom line. The health insurance businesses may be interested in sponsoring a wikibook on the health subject for use in community universities. The tourism businesses may be interested in sponsoring the wiktionary project. Of course the motivation may include profit as well. For example, an environment-friendly electronics manufacturer may be interested in making donations to projects that promote green electronics purchasing policies, but even in this case it is the "environment friendly" aspect that makes this donation less prone to abuses and attacks from competitors.

A note: Entities in this picture are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As we have repeated, the free culture communuties are a subset of the social movement groups. All of us are also the general public and may well benefit from a few classes in the community universities that are not our specialty.

The Prospects

In a way the free culture movement has already succeeded to some extent. There are more inventions and resources popping up on the internet than we as a society can make good use of. The bottleneck of the use of these resources is not lack of freely distributable inventions or open contents, but the slow speed of diffusion of innovations. Imagine how the society could improve if more people learn to join the efforts of the environment-watching web sites based on map mashup, or if metropolitan police officers begin to use flying webcams to patrol dark corners where the crime rate is high.

This article aims to stimulate the free culture communities to divert part of our attention away from developing new technologies and contents, and into spreading our present accomplishments to more people. Or put another way, this article emphasizes the need and techniques of "marketing" free culture, in the hope that the technologies and contents we build can be better utilized by the society at large to improve the life quality.


The author would like to thank S.T. Huang, C.C. Lin, C.P. Yang, and J.F. Wong for their helpful comments, and especially thank S.T. Huang for bringing him in contact with the community universities in Taiwan.