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Today, I received the following e-mail. At the sender’s request, I have removed any personal details:

I was wondering if you had any advice for me about how to perform some marketing/pr for my Linux [project]. I’ve started doing interviews with developers and I have created a community news site.

But is there anyway I could possibly get [my project] mentioned in a
magazine like Linux Journal? Is there any free advertising I could take advantage of on certain web sites? I thought you may have some ideas for me because you have experience with this kind of thing. Any help you
could provide me would be appreciated.

I generally receive about 3-4 requests of this sort a year, so I decided to post my reply here, so I can refer others to it:

You’re not likely to find free advertising on sites that will do you any good, so your best bet is to try to get on the various sites as a contributor. Linux.com only takes original material for its main features, but it does have the NewsVac items, the three or four line link summaries on the right of the page that are very popular. And, of course, sites like Slashdot, Digg, and Linux Today are all about links to already published material.

If you have a solid piece of news — which for a piece of free software usually means new releases and unique features — at Linux.com you can pitch a story and write it yourself. However, you’ll be asked to include a disclaimer
that explains your connection with your subject matter, and the article will be rejected if you are being a fanboy. That means you can’t review your own distro, but you might be able to do a tutorial on a distribution’s packaging system, for instance.

Alternatively, you can send news releases in the hopes of convincing either an editor or a writer to cover your news. However, don’t be pushy. Submitting a news release once is enough, and popping back several times to ask if it was received or whether anyone is interested will probably only guarantee that you’ll annoy people so that they won’t cover your news no matter how big it is.

The ideal is to build up an ongoing relation with a few writers, in which you give them stories to write about — we’re always looking — and they give you the coverage you want when you have news that readers might want to hear.

Of course, you open yourself up to negative comments if the software deserves them, but that’s the chance you have to take. However, for the most part, both commercial companies and large community projects find the
risk well worth taking. It’s not as though any of the regular writers deliberately sit down to review with a determination to be negative (although, conversely, they don’t set out to praise, either: We’re not just fans, either).

This process doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient. But, in the long run, you should get some of the publicity you seek.

I don’t know whether this information is useful to others. To me, it seems that I’m saying the obvious, but part of that reaction is undoubtedly due to the fact that I deal with these things daily. Perhaps to others, these thoughts aren’t obvious, so I’m hoping that someone will find them useful

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My review of the latest release of Ubuntu was picked up by Slashdot this week, releasing a flood of criticism.

Although the article praised Ubuntu, it was also one of the first to mention some of its shortcomings, so it probably provoked more reaction than the average review. Much of the criticism was by people who didn’t know as much about a subject as they think they do, and even more was by people who had either misread the article or not read it at all. But the comments I thought most interesting were those who criticized me for suggesting that in some cases Ubuntu made things too simple, and didn’t provide any means for people to learn more about what they were doing. Didn’t I realize, the commenters asked, that the average person just wanted to get things done? That few people wanted to learn more about their computers?

Well, maybe. But as a former teacher, I can’t help thinking that people deserve the chance to learn if they want. More – if you know more than somebody, as Ubuntu’s developers obviously do, you have an obligation to give them the opportunity. To do otherwise is to dismiss the average person as willfully ignorant. Possibly, I’m naive, but I’m not quite ready to regard others that way.

Anyway, which came first: operating systems like Windows that prevent people from learning about their computers, or users who were fixated on accomplishing immediate tasks? If computer users are task-oriented, at least some of the time, the reason could be that they’re conditioned to be so. Perhaps they’ve learned from Windows that prying into the inner workings of their computer is awkward and difficult. We don’t really know how many users will want to learn more, given the opportunity.

Nor will we, until we design graphical interfaces that give users the chance to learn when they want to. Contrary to one or two commenters, I’m not suggesting that every user will always want to do things the hard way and use the command line – I don’t always want to myself, although I gladly do so when typing commands is the most efficient way to do the task at hand.

But where did so many people get the assumption that there’s such a contradiction between ease of use and complexity, that choosing one means that you forgo the other? It’s mostly a matter of tidying advanced features into a separate tab, or perhaps a pane that opens to reveal features that a basic user doesn’t want.

However, when so many people believe in the contradiction, we’re not likely to see graphical interfaces that are as useful to demanding users as basic ones.

Even more importantly, I suggest that giving users the chance to educate themselves is a corollary of free software principles. If free software is only going to empower users theoretically, then it might as well not do so at all. To help that empowerment along, free software has to provide the opportunity for users to learn, even though few may take the opportunity. Yet, so long as the chance exists that any users want the opportunity, it needs to be offered.

Moreover, I believe that, given the chance, many people will eventually embrace that opportunity. The first time that they use a free software interface, they may be focusing mainly on adjusting to so much that’s new.

However, eventually, many of them will learn that they can do things their own way and take more control. And eventually, surrounded by such choice, many may take advantage of it. If they don’t know the choices are available because their desktop has been simplified until the choices are obscured, then the developers are doing them a dis-service.

Some might say that simplification is needed to attract people to GNU/Linux. Personally, though, I doubt that exactly the same thing they can get on Windows is likely to attract anyone. If free operating systems are going to get a larger market share, then it will most likely be by providing a new perspective on computing. I like to think that new perspective should be attempting to accommodate everyone, not just beginners.

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