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The Open Source Community vs. The Mainstream Media, a panel report from The Bazaar

Dec 16, 1999, 21:47 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Emmett Plant)

By Emmett Plant
Editor, LinuxToday

This afternoon at The Bazaar, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel hosted by Robin 'roblimo' Miller from Andover. The panel was called 'The Open Source Community vs. The Mainstream Media' and brought in guests from the community like Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond.

The topic was an interesting one and inspired conversation and debate well beyond the time limit imposed by the conference schedule. Since Linux and the Open Source community have become big news in the online community and the stock market, the mainstream media has been chomping at the bit to provide their audience with an encapsulated view of the community. Unfortunately, the concepts of Open Source and Free Software are not served well by today's 'sound bite' media and this presents challenges to the community at large.

How do we remain true to our goals and inform people at the same time? This tends to be a problem on a number of different levels.

First of all, the hacker community is not known for its communications skills and we need to provide the community with something to help them deal with the media. Some attempts at this have already been implemented, such as the Linux Advocacy HOWTO.

Second, community members share the core beliefs but argue ferociously about details and minutiae. The online arguments between Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond serve as an example of these public disagreements. As one of the panel attendees pointed out: in a proprietary environment, if we have a disagreement, we would go to a separate office, close the door and have it out. The open nature of the community doesn't lend itself to private discussion.

One of the most interesting questions pointed at the audience was 'What do we, as a community, want from the mainstream media?' The answer came back solid as brick: We want the mainstream media to put in a fair share of research into the community and how it works and we want to deal with educated individuals. Unfortunately, this rarely happens and we need to act as diplomats and treat journalists with respect instead of contempt.

One example was cited of the behaviour we don't need to see: When one open source programmer was being interviewed by the press, they learned that the reporter was using Microsoft Word and terminated the interview immediately.

The topic of being misquoted for the sake of an article was also discussed. I was quick to point out that being misquoted isn't just a problem for the Open Source community. It happens all the time to people all over the world. We need to do what we can to keep things straight and realize that our words will be twisted to meet the needs of reporters who will not provide adequate research and show education. This is an unfortunate truth, but like everyone else, we need to do the best we can and keep tabs on the journalists that misquote us, and more importantly, keep tabs on the reliable journalists that will not misquote us.

Being an open community has its obvious advantages when it comes to providing the world with fantastic software and ideology, but another downside is that everyone on the planet has an equal opportunity to join the community. In other words, we don't have the ability to provide reporters and journalists with the slick public relations effort that the mainstream media is used to. If a reporter calls IBM, they will be speaking to someone who makes their living making IBM look good in the news. If a reporter calls some open source programmer who lives in a cave and has an acerbic attitude towards the media, they will end up with an article that has an unfavorable view towards the community.

In the end, efforts will be made to continue educating the community on the proper channels and methods to work with the mainstream media. With a little luck and patience, talented reporters and journalists will meet us half way.