Advocacy doesn't work if you tell someone they're wrong

I originally wrote this for my FSFE blog.

Generally it isn’t a good idea to offend someone you’re trying to convince. This is sounding almost too obvious, but offending someone we are trying to get to free software is a tactic we often use unconsciously. Instead of getting your point across it will likely lead the other to strengthen or adopt a contrary believe. There’s much we can learn from social psychology in advocating free software.

I recently joined the fellowship of the FSFE and decided to read the wiki pages on advocacy. The part about how you should characterize a company like Microsoft immediately grabbed my attention. Instead of characterizing them as evil it states you should try to talk about non-free software companies in general as bad examples of how they treat their customers, forcing upgrades or taking away their data in unknown formats. I would like to take this careful approach even further and say that it’s best not to mention them at all, or only sparsely. You might think I’m insane, but bear with me, as there is a lot of science on my side.

The FSFE’s FAQ on advocacy reminds me of my wifes master thesis in which she studied face threatening acts in anti-obesity messages. Governments around the world are trying to convince their citizens of a healthier lifestyle. Here in the Netherlands they can be quite fierce in their persuasion with TV commercials which makes the intended audience (i.e. people with obesity, or smokers) feel uncomfortable. There’s been quite a lot of research on the effect of these campaigns and it turns out that most of them didn’t work at all. Scientists have studied which kind of messages have the best effect and which don’t work.

It appears that one kind of messages never work and that’s the messages that result in reactance. Reactance (in psychology) is an emotional reaction to pressure or persuasion that results in strengthening or adoption of a contrary belief. It is reactance which can cause a Windows user to dig their heels in, even after trying to convince them with your best arguments of why Windows is bad.

When you tell a proprietary software user why proprietary software harms their freedom, you are essentially telling them they are doing something wrong. Psychologically they interpret this: “He is telling me I’m wrong”, essentially threatening their face good about themselves and likes to believe that what they are doing is right. To impede that feeling is generally a very bad idea when you want someone to lend an ear.

So instead of another round of bashing Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and so on, I think it’s best we should advocate free software on its own merit. There are a truckload of arguments that speak in favor of free software, without even mentioning proprietary software and I think it’s best we use those. I honestly believe negative campaigning (aka mudslinging) is a bad idea and will most likely only convince those who are already on our side.