Open source makes you bolder

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A sprout in a forest

I earn a living at a public library in the Washington, DC area. About a year ago I was trying to explain Twitter to someone for the fifth time that week. The person listening to me just wasn't getting it. "I need to give a public talk about Twitter here at this library," I muttered to myself. "That way I won't have to explain Twitter to every person who doesn't get it."

I could have gone straight to the library managers and made arrangements for giving such a talk. If I had gone that route, an event date a month away would be chosen, and then flyers would need to be made. I wasn't ready to wait a month. I wanted to give the Twitter talk that coming weekend when my mind was still clearly focused on the topic.

I put on my open source hat and asked myself these question:

  1. Do I have the skills and know how to put on a good explanatory talk about Twitter?
  2. Do I know how to record such a talk to video?
  3. Do I know how to edit that video and upload it to the web?

For each of these questions I answered yes. Then I asked myself the crucial fourth question: Is there anything stopping me giving this talk this weekend in this library? The answer to that question was no. Nothing would stop me from coming into the empty library on a Sunday, setting up my camcorder and tripod, and videotaping myself giving a talk to an imaginary audience.

Along with my public library job, I also teach a graduate educational technology class from time to time, so I'm quite comfortable giving a lecture to a room full of students or to an empty room. So I did just that and created this 10-minute video in an empty library on a Sunday. For added amusement, I threw in an applause track from a TED talk. (Geeks cannot resist pranks. It's a genetic disposition.)

You see, FOSS makes people bolder. Once the idea for this Twitter talk entered my mind, I was ready to give the talk then and there. FOSS programmers live in a world with few boundaries. You don't need to ask permission to improve a FOSS software program. You just go ahead and do it. That ethic of just-do-it can spill over in a positive way to other parts of your life.

In our society we often teach children that patience is a virtue, but impatience can also be a virtue. FOSS enthusiasts are often impatient in a very constructive way. When FOSS programmers decide upon a programming goal, they'll often throw themselves completely into reaching that goal. If you're a strong programmer, sometimes you can crank out the first version of a program in just a few hours. I recall twenty years ago when I ran my own educational software development company, I'd sometimes come up with a good idea in the shower and later that same day I was enjoying the first version of the educational game I'd just invented.

That rapid iteration development cycle is common in the world of FOSS. FOSS enthusiasts know that there are few barriers that can stop a good idea from coming to life. That knowledge makes you bolder.

If you visit any makerspace, you'll see a few people sitting around discussing a possible group project. And then at a certain point you'll hear someone say confidently and joyfully, "Let's do it. Let's just do it." This joyful process is the exact opposite of a lethargic bureaucratic process. This is spontaneous, fast-moving small group action.

As the astute anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world." That's how we do things in the FOSS world. We assemble a small group of committed people (and sometimes just a single person) and act upon a good idea, giving it life much faster than anyone would expect. Why do we do that? Because life is fleeting, and velocity matters. Patience is often a virtue, but there are times when impatience is the higher virtue. Find those moments in your life when impatience is the higher virtue, and then just do it.

"What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

--John Anster  (often misattributed to Goethe)

Phil Shapiro

(The blogger is an educator and maker at a public library in the Washington DC-area. In his free time he enjoys creating video book reviews for books on He is inspired by the inventiveness and humility of the Wright Brothers, the prankishness and wit of Steve Wozniak and Linus Torvalds and the thoughtful decency of Tim O'Reilly.  He can be reached at and  Follow his creative projects on this new blog. Many, but not all, projects are open source.)

Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations.


Hi Phil,
Congratulations on your blog and your great idea of explaining Twitter in an educational video.
I completely agree with you that impatience is a higher virtue for an open source community. So much so, it pushes members to become much more competitive, self-demanding and critical. But working always in a collaborative manner. These two -apparently- opposite qualities merge and great products and services are the outcome. That's the beauty in all of it.

I invite you to visit where you will find many reflections on the "open phenomenon" (open science, open culture...etc.). Our last articles precisely describes Twitter's last movements and it's implications.

Best regards and congrats once again.

Paulo, thanks for that great tip. I enjoyed reading the blog posts at and I'm now following on Twitter (and liked on Facebook).

Phil - I thought you listened on Twitter? :)

I hear what you are saying, but changing that one word on twitter will cause detrimental issues to those that have widgets on their sites. Twitter will have to change the API, which in turn affect those sites using the older coded.

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