Free. From an early age we all know what it means. It means that you can obtain something at no cost to you. Mostly anyway. In the past few years, some businesses and people have tried to tempt us with a "free offer", only to demand a credit card number in order to qualify. Then you have to jump through a bazillion hoops to cancel the "free" offering, before the small print and the automatic bank drafts kick in. Free credit report anyone?
But in a simpler day and much simpler time, free was a good thing. We all want something for free. And me, being no exception, discovered in 2002 that there was indeed free software. However, I discovered that in the free software world, the term "free" has multiple meanings. How so? Let's see, channeling W.C. Fields as the carny barker.
"Step right up folks. We got'cher Open Source software… free as in beer
Wait…did he say free as in beer? What the heck does than mean? That phrase has always irritated me, and for reasons I cannot readily explain. Is beer the ultimate thing we all want to be free? Apparently so. How about free as in mortgage payments? How about free as in a brand new car? (Tell the folks what they've won Bob). No, those don't really work in the end either. It turns out that maybe the analogy of free as in beer is the best choice. Go figure.
However, the deeper meaning of free is what is important here. It always has been the most important thing. Getting the everyday computer user to understand the whole GPL thing can be a challenge. In my experience, if we get one out of ten to understand the concept and become interested, we are doing good. The whole "free as in freedom" thing? Most people don't know how their software works.
"Computer code? Universal access? Sure. Great. Now can I go back to my leased copy of Windows solitaire?"
Sigh. Another day, another dollar, right? When I finally did grasp the immensity of Free Open Source Software, I wanted to announce it from the mountain tops. The revelation hit me deep, and it dawned on me just how important this whole FOSS thing is.
And that's when it all started going south on me.
From there, I got the free fever. If it came to Linux or anything even nibbling around the edges of Linux, it had to be free or I was walking away. Some of the best software I have ever used didn't cost me a dime. it literally changed my life. And at that time, I couldn't code a lick. Well…I still can't but that's not important now…
There was a huge disconnect within me regarding all the hard work the FOSS community or individuals put into a FOSS project and and that overall effect it had on the community. That didn't come close to entering my awareness. All I knew was that FOSS was indeed free and screw paying for anything when it came to software. Or anything within the FOSS community or Linuxsphere at large. If it was in the Linux Community or within the community purview, it had to be free. As in beer. Yeah, as in beer. It had to be free as in beer.
This is a good time to pay attention. This particular span of time can be the moment for many of us when the FOSS well becomes poisoned.
I try to stay active in the Google Plus community. You know…that huge fail that was supposed to compete with f̶a̶c̶e̶p̶l̶a̶n̶t̶ Facebook? That "ghost town" that shows 5 million page views in my profile? Yeah, that "ghost town". There isn't a day goes by, that I am not spending time with astrophysicists, engineers, professors, artists, actors, scientists, political leaders or friends that span the globe. The one thing that many of the people in my circles share, is our involvement and use of FOSS. It has indeed a global reach and impact.
In the beginning, at least for me, it was these protracted spans of time when I grew aggravated at the amount of advertising that actively found a way to get in between my line of sight and the things I was trying to read or see. I mean, like some 300 pound drunk that crashes in between you and another person at a party having a discussion, just to tell you that his car is for sale and would you like to come outside to look at it?
Uh, no. I would not like to come outside and "look at it". I'm not in the market for a car, and even if I was, I sure as shipping ain't gonna buy one from you, the rude, unaware jerk that you are.
However, in the realm of ones and zeros, I can do something about the rude, line-of-sight-blocking advertisements that pop up on many pages when I am trying to read something. You know…those ads that follow the track of your mouse? The ads that defeat every attempt you make in pushing it out of the way or closing it. Some of those ads open anyway when you click the x mark on the top right. But let me tell you something that you may know, or may not. That ad that opens does not have the decency to open another tab. It over-writes the page you are on and no amount of clicking the back button or machine-gun clicking the X at the top of the browser does a bit of good. Finally, you go all nuclear on it and drop to terminal with the command killall firefox. That's how competitive things have become, vying for eyes on web pages, multiple click-throughs that rack up stats to impress firms to advertise on your website.
I put up with it long past the point of being a good netizen. Adblock Plus became my best online friend and from then on out…it didn't matter what advertising it was or how little real estate it took up on an unobtrusive part of the web page. If it was an ad, it was gone. That's how angry I was when it came to internet ads in my line of sight. Even on my blog site, I included a link on the side to allow visitors to temporarily turn off their ad blocking software. It would turn itself back on once you left my domain. My offer went largely ignored. over 80 percent of my visitors utilized ad blocking software of one sort or another.
Those checks from Google came fewer and far in between, not like they amounted to much but I donated any income from my blog to Reglue. But it was a recent event that prompted me to re-evaluate my iron-clad stance against advertising.
One of the good guys I associate with on Google Plus is Jake Weisz. Jake's a good enough sort. He's extremely good at what he does in the fields of technology and he's not shy about sharing his opinion. I posted an article that Forbes.com featured in their technology section. It asked a question.
"Should people who use ad blocking software be blocked from using that website"? That infuriated me. How dare they even suggest such a draconian measure. By Deity, it's my right to be able to visit any website I wish to visit and they can stuff their ad blocking policy into uncomfortably close quarters to their mid-bottom.
Jake took me to task on this stance fast. If I am offering interesting or important data and I choose to ask for a few cents to access that data, that is my right. As a producer of said data, if I plan my production carefully, I can at least impede the spread of that data to other web sites. I spent my time and my money in order to bring you this information. I should be able to gain a few cents from each person who accesses that data, even if it's in the form of allowed advertising.
As a culture, we've become all too accustomed to "free as in beer". Information flows in every direction and for the most part, that information can be accessed at no cost, but there is some data that took a lot of work to bring up and into the public awareness.
I spend my time and talent in investigating, writing and presenting this data to the world. Is disabling your ad blocking software for just a few minutes too much to ask? I thought so, screw advertising. It's a blight on the internet. Uh, no…it's not. Jake Weisz took me to school on this issue and he was right in doing so. Here. Let me show you. You see the web page presented a few paragraphs above?
Those are ads that the publisher of that site decided to make you look at. They purposely block your vision and impeded your ability to close that ad. That way, it extended the time that ad was active and in front of you, regardless of whether you read it or not. The obstacles the web master threw in front of you took just long enough for the statistics to show that you actually read the ad. Is that back-handed? Well sure it is, but keeping any website open costs money, and when the cost of maintaining the website becomes more than any incoming revenue, well…the website disappears into digital history. Now you see it, now you don't.
Now let's look at another picture. My friend and associate, Christine Hall is the publisher and maintainer of the excellent website fossforce.com. In the interest of disclosure, I contribute to FOSS Force on a weekly basis. Christine has spent years building her website from the ground up and she works 16 hour days to cover the news and do the interviews that are important in our world of FOSS. She is tireless in her pursuit of getting it right and getting it to you first. The only income Christine receives is via ad-based income. So, if the advertising on a website sits to the side or between the paragraphs of the text, it really does not stop me from reading the content that interests me.
Does it cause you not to be able to read the content? No, it does not. And sure, some will argue that having to jump over an ad in the middle of the page might be distracting, but for Pete's sake, it's not blocking your view. Fact is, an ad recently led me to purchase a particular stick of RAM that I had been looking for. So at times, it might be useful. Most times…? Probably not, but every now and then it can provide a service to you. Every now and then.
It's been an interesting few months, getting used to this whole advertising-among-the-stories thing. But in the end, I have come to realize that everything being free might be good, but there are times when all of that free stuff can bring an end to things we've come to count on. It was mentioned to me just a day ago, that if a news website like FOSS Force goes under, then there are a lot more to fill that space. I asked him what sites he was speaking of and he pointed out two of the biggest, those being LXer and LinuxToday.com. I then asked him just where he thought those two website got their news. He's probably standing just where I left him. The same deer-in-the-headlights look. Like I had explained quantum mechanics to him.
I might want to stop by there later today to make sure he at least has water when he comes around. All that confusion can be dehydrating.