An ethical hacker changing the world.

The Role of the Fringe

I’m in the process of reading In The Land of Invented Languages– an excellent book I will write more about. For this post, I want to focus on how Esperanto’s community is like our Free Software/Free Culture community and the role of the fringe element.

Reading about Esperanto and the struggles it’s had over the years to be taken seriously in spite of a “fringe element” who are both exuberant in speech (and dress) as well as philosophically motivated reminded me of the struggles the Free Software movement. In fact these two movements are more similar than dissimilar in many ways. The answer to why this is this touches on the very core of both communities, which is the social cohesion between people who believe that they are changing the world.

The Free Software community has without a doubt changed the world. The Internet as we know it is built on and with Free Software. Billions of people use Free Software every day, either directly or indirectly, and Free Software has changed the dialog about the underlying assumptions our society holds about issues of morals and economics and how those underlying assumptions shape our actions and our laws, both as a group and as individuals.

Esperanto speakers set out to change the world by creating a unified language that cast off previous cultural influences. Esperantians wanted a neutral language in order to share their culture to the world using a dialect that wasn’t shaped by any particular kind of thinking.

Both movements have been shaped and proselytized by those espousing its practical benefits over its philosophical ones. In the Free Software community, we have the Open Source movement, which has arguably overshadowed the older Free Software movement. In the Esperanto community, similar arguments broke out amongst its members.

In both communities, community members and community leaders complained about “the fringe”, those members, often men, who didn’t take their grooming too seriously, who dressed in odd outfits (in the case of Esperanto, lined with green stars- the Esperanto symbol), etc. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in either community probably knows what I’m talking about, and have had the same thoughts along the lines of “How can we be taken seriously with these people?” If you haven’t had that thought, then you’re probably one of the people everyone else is thinking this about.

The answer is tricky. After seventeen years in the Free Software community, I know without a doubt that these people have scared others away. In particular they’ve scared away people who weren’t affluent, white, eccentric males. But on the other hand, they’re the ones who still come to all the events and who speak publicly about the Free Software movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

With any peaceful group that is trying to change the world, maybe these people are inevitable. The question for the rest of us is how to grow the community to be large enough that others aren’t scared off, and that everyone has a home.