Today is Document Freedom Day, a promotion of non-proprietary standards like Open Document Format. Around the world, small groups of free and open source software (FOSS)users are holding events to educate others about the importance of this issue, and The Free Software Foundation has launched a campaign to encourage supporters to politely refuse attachments sent in proprietary formats like Microsoft Office’s. And, inevitably some people are saying these efforts are useless – and proving that they miss the point.
In circumstances like these, the critics’ usual argument goes something like this: Campaigning against something does nothing to stop people using it. They say that a street protest against Apple’s so-called Digital Rights Management technology will do nothing to stop the sales of iPads. Nor will promoting Open Document Format stop the majority from using Microsoft’s .docx format. So, they ask, why bother to take a stand?
Perhaps in the narrowest sense, they have a point. Document Freedom Day will not stop large number of users from entrusting their documents to Microsoft Office formats. Nor will very many switch to Koffice, OpenOffice.org, or any other office application that uses Open Document Format.
However, what the critics fail to appreciate is that ultimate success is not what these promotions and campaigns are really about. Yes, their organizers talk as though persuading everybody to their cause is the point, but they are neither stupid or naive. If you press them, they will admit that they do not really expect that millions of computer users will suddenly flock to their side.
So what is the point? I can think of at least three:
First, while such campaigns do not win millions of supporters, they can win dozens. Each time FOSS advocates staff a table on a university campus, or hand out pamphlets on the street, a few people stop to ask questions and become convinced. Others may not immediately support the cause, but they at least learn (often for the first time) that alternatives exist. Even if they are not ripe for switching to free software today, they may grow more critical of proprietary software and eventually start investigating free software some time in the future. These are the kinds of small victories by which FOSS has always spread, and they should not be overlooked.
Second, these campaigns are a way of encouraging existing supporters. When you hold a minority viewpoint, you get tired of seeing opposing views around you. You become accustomed to holding your tongue because you don’t want to bore your friends. You don’t want a reputation as an obsessive who is more concerned with what others consider side-issues than with getting on with the task at hand. When you are accustomed to restraining yourself, standing up and expressing what you actually think and feel is a refreshing relief. Doing so reaffirms your beliefs, and renews your commitment over the long-haul. In a sense, these campaigns are celebrations of the existing community – a way of keeping existing supporters as much as gaining new ones.
However, even if the campaigns had no other purpose, they would still be worthwhile in the same way that spoiling your ballot or voting for a minority party in an election is worthwhile.
In this sense, I am reminded how Tommy Douglas, the founder of universal medical coverage in Canada, explained why he stood by his social democratic beliefs when most of them had no chance of being widely accepted:
You say the little efforts that I make will do no good; they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in balance. I don’t think I ever thought they would, but I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
In other words, sometimes you need to stand up for what you know is right, regardless of consequences, simply out of self-respect. Campaigns like Document Freedom Day give the opportunity for such self-reaffirmation, and I would support them for that reason alone, even if more practical reasons did not exist as well.