The Accidental Revolutionary

Planning this kind of strategy was relatively easy. The hard part (for me, anyway) was accepting what my own role had to be.

One thing I understood from the beginning is that the press almost completely tunes out abstractions. They won't write about ideas without larger-than-life personalities fronting them. Everything has to be story, drama, conflict, sound bites. Otherwise, most reporters will simply go to sleep—and even if they don't, their editors will.

Accordingly, I knew somebody with very particular characteristics would be needed to front the community's response to the Netscape opportunity. We needed a firebrand, a spin doctor, a propagandist, an ambassador, an evangelist—somebody who could dance and sing and shout from the housetops and seduce reporters and huggermug with CEOs and bang the media machine until its contrary gears ground out the message: the revolution is here!.

Unlike most hackers, I have the brain chemistry of an extrovert and had already had extensive experience at dealing with the press. Looking around me, I couldn't see anyone better qualified to play evangelist. But I didn't want the job, because I knew it would cost me my life for many months, maybe for years. My privacy would be destroyed. I'd probably end up both caricatured as a geek by the mainstream press and (worse) despised as a sell-out or glory-hog by a significant fraction of my own tribe. Worse than all the other bad consequences put together, I probably wouldn't have time to hack any more!

I had to ask myself: are you fed up enough with watching your tribe lose to do whatever it takes to win? I decided the answer was yes—and having so decided, threw myself into the dirty but necessary job of becoming a public figure and media personality.

I'd learned some basic media chops while editing The New Hacker's Dictionary. This time I took it much more seriously and developed an entire theory of media manipulation, which I then proceeded to apply. The theory centers around the use of what I call ``attractive dissonance'' to fan an itchy curiosity about the evangelist, and then exploiting that itch for all it's worth in promoting the ideas.

This is not the place for a detailed exposition of my theory. But intelligent readers can probably deduce much of it from the phrase ``optimal level of provocation'' and the fact that my interview technique involves cheerfully discussing my interests in guns, anarchism and witchcraft while looking as well-groomed, boyishly charming, and all-American wholesome as I can possibly manage. The trick is to sound challengingly weird but convey a reassuring aura of honesty and simplicity. (Note that to make the trick work, I think you have to genuinely be like that; faking either quality has a high risk of exposure and I don't recommend it.)

The combination of the ``open source'' label and deliberate promotion of myself as an evangelist turned out to have both the good and bad consequences that I expected. The ten months after the Netscape announcement featured a steady exponential increase in media coverage of Linux and the open-source world in general. Throughout this period, approximately a third of these articles quoted me directly; most of the other two thirds used me as a background source. At the same time, a vociferous minority of hackers declared me an evil egotist. I managed to preserve a sense of humor about both outcomes (though occasionally with some difficulty).

My plan from the beginning was that, eventually, I would hand off the evangelist role to some successor, either an individual or organization. There would come a time when charisma became less effective than broad-based institutional respectability (and, from my own point of view, the sooner the better!). I am attempting to transfer my personal connections and carefully built-up reputation with the press to the Open Source Initiative, an incorporated nonprofit formed specifically to manage the Open Source trademark. At time of writing I am still the president of this organization, but hope and expect not to remain so indefinitely.