Collective Validation

ginger coons

A friend of mine—a multimedia artist and a community organizer—once referred to taking a job at a commercial software company as “becoming a civilian,” as something that might be a little more relaxing, a little lower pressure than what she was used to. What she meant was that by just taking a job, a normal job, with normal expectations, she was opting to get out of the public eye for a while, to stop doing work that could be seen, judged, and assessed by the whole world.

I know the feeling. In all of the free cultural work I’ve done over the last six years, one of my most pervasive anxieties has been the feeling that I work in public, that everyone is always looking over my shoulder—or could be if they wanted to. It’s a difficult feeling to come to terms with, even if it’s based on one of the most potent and valuable principles of free culture: transparency.

For the last five years, I’ve worked on a project called Libre Graphics magazine. The point of it—the whole point, to my mind—is to show off just how good graphic design and art done with Free/Libre and Open Source software, standards, licenses, and methods can be. It’s the whole package, and the whole package includes a kind of extreme transparency. For five years, my collaborators and I have stuck all of our working files into a public version control system. For five years, we’ve opened ourselves up to scrutiny and criticism not just when we put out an issue, but before, during our development process. As with free software, one of our goals has been to release early and often, to make our work public so it can become better. We don’t hide our production files and then release when they’re perfect. It’s nerve wracking to work in public like that, even if most people aren’t digging through the git repository and looking at our working files.

It’s nerve wracking and sometimes even scary to open yourself up to the potential for scrutiny all the time. But it’s still valuable. If the point of Libre Graphics magazine has been to show that F/LOSS and free cultural principles apply outside of software, then that potential for scrutiny has been essential. If the point is to show that designers can do high-quality work with F/LOSS, then the potential for scrutiny is also the opportunity for someone who’s feeling uncertain about even trying something new to come along and see how we did it. The publicness is a chance for others to follow in our footsteps and to use our mistakes to do things better in the future, or to skip over some of the tough bits. That publicness, in short, is worth something.

But on a personal level, it’s still nerve wracking. It can be frustrating to pour your heart—and worse, your time and your effort—into work that’s totally voluntary, with almost all rewards intrinsic. The freedom to create, to put something out, to experiment, to try, is also the freedom to be ignored, to be undervalued, and at worst, to be bashed or harassed for your efforts. You can’t rely on the positive feedback from others to keep you going. You have to enjoy and value what you’re doing for itself. And if you succeed, if what you make is something that others find valuable, that breeds the expectation that you’ll continue, even if the odds get long. It can feel as if you’ve gone from being ignored to being taken for granted.

And then there’s the old aphorism about free software being free like speech, not like beer—free as in freedom, not as in money. But the best variation I’ve seen is free like a puppy: if you adopt it, you become responsible for it. You care for it. By taking up the chance to do something, you take up the responsibility to keep doing it, often at personal expense. And it can get pretty expensive. It can be expensive in the normal ways, what we typically mean when we use the word “expense,” but more importantly, it can become emotionally expensive.

Celebrities and politicians get paid commensurate with the expectation that their work will be judged by the public. People working with F/LOSS and free culture generally don’t. We do it because we love it, or at the very least, because we believe in it. And we believe in currencies other than money, too. We often believe that the work is its own pay and that it doesn’t take money to be worth the occasional frustration of having others be demanding of our time and effort. But the costs are real.

One of the other costs of freedom—of the transparency I value so highly in free culture—is feeling as if you’re never allowed to get something right. When your work is done in public and when its success is often a matter of public opinion, it’s easy to feel as if every decision you make has the potential to be second-guessed. For every little snippet of positive feedback, for every bit of evidence you get that your work has made a difference, there’s a horde of people who are happy to tell you every little thing you’ve done wrong. That happens when you work in public, and it can be powerfully demoralizing.

Because it’s worse for ongoing projects, it can make you wish you hadn’t chosen to aim for continuity and accountability. A one-off, something you make because you feel like it, throw out into the world, and then don’t plan to invest in over the long-term, doesn’t need the ongoing commitment, the continued desire to engage. When you explicitly choose to do something in the long term, to commit to a project that lasts and grows, when you commit to becoming a fixture, the drip-erosion that comes from the second-guessing can be enough to scour away the desire that originally drove the project.

When we build free cultural projects, we try to enrich the world. We do things, not just for our own benefit, but because we think we can do something good for others. Releasing work under licenses that allow others to reproduce, to rethink, to remake and to re-release is an explicit commitment to the commons, and to the idea that we can build on the work of others, and that others can improve or change our work. When we undertake to do work in public, we commit to something similar. We commit to the idea that others can derive value from seeing our process and that we can grow and improve from having our process intervened in and commented upon. When we build collaborative projects, we make a commitment to inclusion, to allowing others to work with us if they share an interest in the project and willingness to contribute. These are valuable commitments, driven by a desire to help others and to enrich the commons. They’re important and they matter. These commitments are the foundation of free software and free culture.

Principles are important. Ideals are important. Sometimes, though, it feels as if we get crushed under the weight of their downsides. It can be profoundly demoralizing when it feels as if most of the feedback you get is negative. And that doesn’t need to happen. I long for the day when we all—even as strangers who only meet when judging each others’ work—think about how much effort, time and personal expense goes into the things we release. I long for the day when we decide that looking after other creators and contributors matters, even if we don’t really know each other. I long for the day when there’s more positive affirmation than judgement. And most of all, I long for the day when we recognize that we’re all mostly fighting for the same thing—for meaningful contributions to the commons, for a way to build culture together. I so look forward to the day when we can accept not just that others produce work we can judge, but that the people producing those works are humans, as fallible and delicate as we are, and that they deserve not just our feedback, but our praise and encouragement.