I will refrain from doing any greeting whatsoever to obvious parties, in order to keep all limbs intact from certain people. Right to the gist, ho! No apologies for the length - deal with it or don't read it. There are a few people here and there that have requested this.

Also - lots of generalizations are made for simplicity's sake. It's intentional.

Since becoming involved in Debian Women, I've been asked a lot "how do we make Linux appealing to teenagers?" or "how do we make Linux appealing to teenage girls" or "how do we grab the attention of teenage[rs/ girls] without creating boredom?" and (more recently), "what's your favourite thing about Linux|Debian|GNOME?" None of these are really easy questions to answer, however, in this and a couple future posts, I'm going to do my best. (As I seem to hold position of teenage celebrity among a few people, heh. Beats me.)

First of all, I'm going to give you all some background about myself and how I discovered Linux and Debian, which will help with any referencing in the future. Yes, this is long, and seemingly has no point whatsoever. There is a point.

In November of 2003, I was sitting around my computer, bored, looking for something to do. In this way, I stumbled across Shadows of Isildur RPI MUD, which quickly became the passion of my free time. At this point, I was a fairly happy Windows user - in fact, I didn't even own my own computer. (My twin brother, however, did. I was not happy about this.) Before this, I had been entertaining myself with things such as old classic games released as freeware like Betrayal at Krondor, games that the family owned such as Sim City 2000 and Privateer (I love that game). My brother was always the handy guy that could help me out when I needed it, though I generally avoided having to ask for help at all costs.

A little over five months later, two things happened: my mother came home with a brand spanking new Compaq for me, and I got invited onto staff at Shadows of Isildur. This had many, many consequences. First of all, I now had complete control over my own computer. Thanks to this and tips from mudders various and sundry, open source started to worm its way onto my desktop, starting with Mozilla Firefox. Also, I gained an eye into more of the inner workings of what went on behind that MUD engine - of course, it runs on Linux )among other variants of UNIX, actually), coded in C and using MySQL. (Fedora Core Linux at the moment, but that's not the point.) At the time, we were facing something of a dilemma: our current coder was going to retire, and we needed a replacement. Although I never ended up working on that part of the game (I was/am a builder/roleplay enforcer/general staff member), the curiosity that this sparked was what caused me to have my brother install Linux on my computer. I wasn't a distro expert. I ended up with Debian because that's what he installed - he uses Debian because my uncle had introduced him to Linux, and Debian is what he uses (hurray for ambiguous pronouns).

Even then, Debian remained unused on my dual-booting computer for a few months, due to not having a supported wireless adaptor. No Internet, no fun. It was only after September, when my brother hacked together a short script that allowed a relatively new Linksys WUSB adaptor to limp along (I've since switched to an older model, which works perfectly). He tossed his O'Reilly Linux newbie book off to me, which basically beat into your head "DO NOT USE THE ROOT USER EXCEPT WHEN ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED, YOU ASSHOLE", and a few basic commands to navigate around the command line. Then I was off on my own for the most part.

Since then, things have snowballed. I've continued to expand my knowledge about Debian and GNU/Linux, dabbling here and there while focusing on other things. I once subscribed to the debian-user mailing list, but quickly unsubscribed due to the massive volume going through it (and managed to screw up while doing so, as is now permanently archived for all to see). I eventually subscribed to planet.debian.org, though I can't really remember for what reason. Not too long after that, I stumbled across Hanna Wallach's blog post about Debian Women. And soon got minorly involved with that, though limited by class time restraints at the time. It's continued from there to full-fledged involvement. I seem to have an aversion to leeching off the work of others without contributing, or something. Strange.

So, what exactly was the point of that long-winded story? Well, what caused me to start using Linux? Basically, I vaguely knew that it could accomplish a particular function better than Windows could, something that I needed/wanted to be able to do. It's as simple as that.

And the topic at hand: teenagers and Linux, Open Source, et al. First of all, everyone needs to understand that kids aren't going to randomly get up and decide that they want to switch to Linux for no particular reason at all. Teenagers share a lot of needs/wants/values with adults, though with some differences. Philosophical issues with the production of software will generally be a non-issue, unless the teenagers in question were brought up under open source. Most teens don't really care about the difference between "free beer" and "free speech" (this analogy doesn't work particularly well when you're underage/don't drink - free soda?). No, I'm not bashing my own age denomination here. Most teens probably won't even understand the difference. I knew that many Linuxes were "free" when I started using Debian, but I didn't understand the philosophy. It's only through months of use and cultural immersion that I've earned an appreciation for the non-monetary values of open source. It's just a question of exposure. At any rate, either teens will have someone they trust encouraging them/forcing them to look into Linux, or they will have a practical reason to want to switch, based off some exposure or information. For girls in particular, due to environmental conditions and stereotypes, it's really very unlikely that they want to use Linux to become l337 h4x0rz. (That usually comes afterward. :-P)

For many, I believe that people in general don't quite understand just how complete an operating system Linux is, with complex GUIs, eye candy, and the like. Many, if they know much about it at all, may think that Linux is some ancient OS that is only useful for servers, and has no desktop whatsoever. What I remembered were the images of XDM, the terminal, and IceWM from my uncle's network of PCs at his house years ago. And ASCII banners printed from the shell. And of course, there is the general FUD spread about by big corporations such as MS, though I think this affects business more than home users. This can only be combatted by trusted information from trusted sources. Open Source is a community - our biggest asset is that community, which makes word of mouth and person-to-person contact essential. Get out that marketing for the desktop environment, because it's what people are comfortable with and are looking for.

So, how then can we get teenagers interested in Linux? Keep in mind that most teenagers don't work, or are at least not in a position where they would need Linux because of its flexibility for scientific computing, etc. However, it's not as easy to amuse us with simple things and programs that reek of "How do you like your 1995?" as it would be for smaller children. There are reasons why nearly every kid between 13 and 20 wants or owns an iPod. We do often own our own computers, and often have control over what goes on them.

So, what do most teenagers do on their computers? From my experience (most of my current friends are not heavily computer literate, and hopefully represent a decent average):

  • instant message
  • surf the web
  • on this note, being capable of accessing embedded media, java, flash, etc. on the web
  • multimedia - video, digital music, the like
  • on this note, downloading music - legally and/or illegally
  • gaming
  • e-mail, to a limited extent, though many teens use free web-based mail services such as Hotmail or Gmail
  • manage and manipulate digital photos
  • blog - in the Livejournal and MySpace sense
  • word process
  • school projects, which include presentations (sometimes necessarily powerpoint, due to school computers), posters, just general printing, etc.
  • CD burning - mostly audio, but some data
  • iPod syncing

Mainstream teens and computing are all about the desktop, period. And gaming. Things that aren't likely to be as big issues: security, productivity stuff, hobby-centric apps for things like sewing machines (I'm not crazy, that's my mother), etc.

Given this, a teenager would probably be using the following (also, I should note that I'm a GNOME user, so I really don't have enough experience with KDE apps to include any) (this is the specifics, not the generic desktop stuff that will be there too):

  • GAIM, or another multi-protocol messenger. Most teens are on either AIM or MSN for communication, at least from what I've seen
  • Firefox as the browser of choice, most likely. I like Epiphany, personally, but there are a few things that at least I would miss from FF, namely: gmail notifier, selective cookie blocking, session saver. Might not be an issue for the everyday user, though.
  • F-Spot for photo cataloguing. This app rocks.
  • GIMP, for image manipulation
  • gtkam or another gphoto2 frontend for getting photos off a digital camera, though there may be other solutions for this - and F-Spot will download off a camera too I believe, though I've never used this feature
  • There are fugly legal issues involved with multimedia, which for at least the present are an obstacle to multimedia and Linux. Most every teenager will want compatibility with Windows sound and video, which usually means MPlayer (and mplayerplug-in for Mozilla). MPlayer's (valid) non-inclusion in distros like Debian makes this also more difficult.
  • OpenOffice.org and probably Abiword too.
  • the OpenClipart library - nothing like some stock images to quickly spice up a slide. Searching for clipart on the web is a pain in the ass.
  • Either Thunderbird or Evolution.
  • gtk-gnutella, as a drop-in for winMX
  • Lots of people use iTunes, but I'm not really that familiar with it. Rhythmbox for an iTunes-like UI, and there are plenty of options for iPods. iTunes music store users are out of luck, afaik, though. I'd rather throw in Muine or Beep Media Player for music.
  • WINE, optionally Crossover or winex - for games, mostly, and anything else that there's just no substitute for
  • Drivel or another journal editor
  • Either graveman! or GnomeBaker, though neither is really up to snuff right now. K3b is supposed to be good. And Serpentine looks like a nice audio burning app, though I haven't tried it either.
  • GNOME Photo Printer for easily printing photos

On Debian, concisely: gaim, mozilla-firefox, f-spot, gimp, gtkam, openoffice, evolution | mozilla-thunderbird, gtk-gnutella, rhythmbox | muine | beep-media-player, abiword, wine, drivel, graveman | gnomebaker, gnome-photo-printer, (mplayer && mplayerplug-in && libdvdcss2)

So, what's missing? There are a few small things: GIMP can be used for picture-editing, but it's really too complex for simple tasks for most people - cropping, adjusting exposure/contrast/brightness, scaling, rotating for the most part. Just looking at it for the first time can be mind boggling. However, most "simple" Windows bundled-with-camera photo apps that include editing capabilities have been pretty shitty imo. Might as well just go for the Photoshop-drop-in and learn to do things the right way. Also, usability is still an issue in some places: some stuff just *doesn't* work. We have people working on this. (I've never personally used Photoshop, heh. Damn, my Windows app experience sucks.)

Unfortunately, a lot of what is lacking in Linux for teens (and others, for that matter) is caused by proprietary suckage. iTunes. Multimedia codecs. Flash. What is really going to solve this in the long run is Linux and open formats becoming more mainstream. (And hopefully Flash will die a quick death in the near future. C'mon, Adobe.) Websites are slowly becoming more compatible with Firefox as it gains marketshare. Hopefully this will continue to improve. When more people, even proprietary OS-users, adopt open formats, it will clear up a hell of a lot of ugliness with whose codec is whose, etc. (Yes, I'm going to be optimistic on this.) For gaming, a lot can be solved using WINE for now. To get big games natively on Linux, we need to show the world that there is a market for them. Yes, there are open source games. Some of them are really good. However, the big names need companies with the resources to build them and sell them.

Also unfortunate is that teens are probably less likely to make allowances when making a switch. We want our gain to be larger than our loss, period. If it's not better, why switch? We follow what is new, exciting, and cool. We want to be able to do what our friends are doing, without a ton of effort like making everyone else switch too. On the flip side, we're less likely to resist a switch because something is unfamiliar or new.

Flip side: What advantages does Linux and OSS offer for teens?

  • Well, most of us are poor bastards. I don't have a real job, and neither do a lot of other kids. Saving money is always good.
  • Viruses! Woe to the tales of trashed and hijacked Windows boxes, IM worms, etc. Teens are a huge group that is likely to be into the sort of things that bring along unwanted baggage. I have seen this many times.
  • More functionality. Lots of people don't know exactly how much they can do with their computer.
  • Easier access to programming environments, webservers, etc. Smaller audience of those who will actively look for this here.

So then, what can we do?

  • Usability. This is going to be huge. Getting people to try things doesn't work if they're turned off right away. This is one of my main apprehensions with pushing for others to try Linux.
  • Marketing, marketing, marketing. Teens gobble up ads. Without the money muscle of big companies, though, person-to-person and smaller events that reach out to kids have to step up to take the place of TV. I've never really seen much OSS marketing targeted toward teens or younger people. Most of what I see is corporate or adult-targeted.
  • Push for the adoption of open formats everywhere. So we don't need to cry about leaving our Windows Media behind. The road is long and rocky. If Norway can do it, so can everyone else.
  • Port apps to Windows. It's not evil, it's PR.
  • Ubuntu may be controversial as to how much of a positive it is to the community in general, but I believe that it is a net positive for Linux PR in the world at large. It does what we want: provides us with a functional desktop with as little fuss as possible. Make this better! Rock those lofty goals!

What's the biggest attention-grabber, right off the bat? MULTIMEDIA. Make it flashy, make it novel, make it new, make it useful. Last one is optional. Show off that hardware-accelerated 3D graphic rendering, whatever. This is also one of the areas with the biggest obstacles for open source. Show teens what these babies can do, and then get down to the nitty gritty details. Get a reason to want it, then a reason to use it. Details are boring. Ask kids about something that they think that Linux can't do, and then show them that it can. For teenage girls, I really can't say that there is much of a difference, except perhaps breaking down stereotypes. I probably need to talk to other people to get a better handle here, because I seriously can't remember. I am very happy with my computer. I'm not a pink flowers sort of person, though, so I don't know.

In terms of teens contributing to open source: take us seriously, and we will love you forever. We hate being overlooked or underestimated on account of age. Give us a little extra mentoring nudge, and our skills will give back for years to come. There are some immature asshats, but the same can be said of adults. The trick is to catch our attention in the first place.

I'm really excited about what we have so far, and what is in the works for the future. What's happening in the tech world is crazy and awesome, and will continue to change dramatically for years. I can't wait. I'm also going to post this thing before it gets any longer than it is.

To come: I'm thinking about writing something about girls and games, which seems to be a pretty hot topic lately. And someone asked me what my favourite thing about Linux/GNOME is. Also, I have pondered surveying some fellow teen friends nearby for outside opinions from the darkside, if anyone wants to start a list of possible questions/topics. I don't really have an agenda.

(Flames to the bit bucket, feedback in comments or your own blog - not quite used to this planet ping pong yet. And no, not everything will be quite this long.)