Freeside, The Obituary.
The obituary for Freeside, a former student run group at the University of Hull sadly no longer active after 25 years worth of history.
Established in the 1990s as an adhoc student run organisation focusing on Linux and Open-source technologies under the legendary Eur Ing Brian Tompsett, Freeside's legacy has sadly come to an end just short of 25 years worth of heritage.
In the early days, Freeside members mentored each other on linux administration, advanced computer science skills, led hackathons (for example HackHull) and engaged with what could be considered "hacking" activities well beyond the scope of a computer science degree. It was on this legacy which Freesides name was built as its members could have been considered to exceptional technical talent beyond the oridinary CS student. To compond this, Alumni usually remained on Freesides IRC channels to continue mentoring and developing younger talent, although many did drop out over the years as platforms swapped, changed or careers advanced.
Despite the prosperous years leading up to the 2010s; Freeside failed to adapt to the needs of students. This could be attributed to a lack of understanding that Linux and Open Source are no longer a niche topic. Many students coming to study computer science will have used Linux in a virtual machine, have used WSL or have at least a baseline knowledge of Linux owing to endless hours of tutorials freely available. The same could be said for command line use and scripting; but also for open source. Open source is cool now so it's likely most, if not all have used and/or contributed to projects, even if it was writing a Wordpress plugin, theme or similar.
There's also an argument to be made about the relevance of Linux User Groups as industry and technology moved on. For instance, there is no linux experience required to deploy a functions or serverless app, nor to deploy an 11ty site nor indeed to deploy and maintain cross platform applications - though I don't deny it helps. Looking at the job market, it's true that Linux admins get paid a lot more, but these jobs usually require several years experience - so they're not entry level positions - and most employers are not exclusively interested in Linux. They want people with diverse skillsets.
By 2017, Membership of Freeside had dwindled to a singular admin with alumni in the wings. There were no active projects to attract students, there were no regular events nor ideas to attract money from sponsors - not even a hackathon as previous iterations of Freeside had done. In some ways, it looked more like a friendship group for old uni friends than a proper group that was delivering value to students or the department.
When I joined later that year, I made concerted efforts to attract people to Freeside. I began emailing lecturers, asking for announcements on Canvas and highlighting the benefits the University could reap by collaborating with Freeside. It seemed like a win-win; Freeside could do outreach into the community and promote the University, and the Unviersity could help Freeside by handling any admin, income and resources needed. We even developed Linux 101 classes to show willing which seemed to win some favour.
It has been asked why Freeside wasn't a society, and perhaps that would have helped; but that wouldn't have been the purpose of Freeside in my view. Freeside would have been a bolt-on to the department, free of society beaucracy and able to generate income through sponsors, aiding the department to increase student numbers and contributing to external (and internal) projects; I would expect that there would be acts of goodwill as well, like helping out charities by providing technical skills; this would work in much the same way that the Law School provides free legal advice to the community. The free services are provided because it serves University public relations, but also helps students develop "hands on" experience in a real environment.
The issue wasn't with the Department who were more than willing to engage with me to build Freeside. Although I had tried multiple times to get collaborations off the ground, there was one time I had the opportunity to create a partnership between UoH, Humberside Police and Freeside in the palm of my hands. The idea would have been to provide student volunteers to give advice to Humberside Police and where viable, assistance and technical expertise. We had also discussed running hackathons alongside Humberside Police in schools and colleges, as part of a wider strategy on engaging younger people to become cyber security literate and "find the next generation of hackers". Of course, the Department loved the idea, despite being cautious given Humberside Police are a big partner - the partnership was under such scrutiny that the very senior level management were involved.
Despite all of this, it was struck down by Freesiders who didn't think that Freeside should be doing voluntary work and suggested they weren't going to offer their professional experience for nothing. Personally, I think that it's more likely they just didn't like the idea of someone else succeeding in making a success of Freeside; nor did they like the idea of change. There was nothing wrong with the project and it's a shame it was shot down because it could have benefited countless hundreds of children throughout the region; alongside maybe catching a few criminals.
This also came at a time when the department were looking favourably on Freeside. Freesiders had invested more than £1000 into pop-up banners, hoodies, stickers, pins and posters. The Freeside brand was really starting to gain traction. From the perspective of the department, it must have seemed like, what had been a chaotic group in previous years, was getting its act together and trying to professionalise and generate value.
It's worth noting that although Freesiders will happily laugh about pigeons in racks rooms and throwing buckets of water from third story windows or sleeping in the racks room for weeks; all of those things did considerable damage to Freeside in the view of staff members so this willingness to engage was enormous. The opportunity Freeside had to grow, develop and contribute to impactful projects was simply wasted and further led to its decline - maybe even hastened it.
Freesides inability to see beyond being a "LUG" (Linux User Group), which are inevitably small, cliquey and often closed environments wasn't just restricted to the incident above; prior to 2017, there had been another effort to make Freeside bigger, more valuable and irremovable from the computer science department.
That effort is now called HullCSS. There is no disputing that HullCSS is the biggest computer science society on campus and has trampled over 25~ years worth of heritage within a few short years because it listened to students, adapted with the times, put on events and engaged with its audience.
Of course, I also started the Freeside Student Resource list. I can't be exactly sure how popular this was on campus, but I've seen it bookmarked, starred and listed on CVs so far - and that's by people in years above and below; so I'll consider it a success. Perhaps the only success Freeside had for a while; unless you consider Hullblogs.com, which was another idea I proposed - I also gifted the domain. None of those things were really meaningful though if Freeside didn't continue to develop and push beyond what it was - or attract new members every year.
Freeside had the ability, it had the opportunity and it had Alumni willing to offer sponsorship for Hackathons (especially given they run their own). Unfortunately, there seems to have been some acceptance that it's now consigned to the dustbin of history. I'd say I'm surprised but I'm not; not really. It's difficult to imagine the survival of a sysadmin/linux/hacker group where nobody is at the helm and changes are impossible. A good example being that the website remains down weeks after I first got a downtime notification. Why is that the case? It's sad that nobody is stepping up to the plate and getting it sorted - like predecessors would have done.
I built freesides website back in 2021 (admittedly, it was my first time trying 11ty, so don't judge the code); it really should be as simple as a DNS change and using the repo to rebuild the site, either on github pages or another platform. 30 min job, tops - if the DNS is kind.
It's also notable that there's been no updates to any projects for 3 weeks at the time of writing. I know it's exam season at UoH, but come on? Nobody has any time to contribute anything for 3 weeks?
Personally, I'd love to remember Freeside for the friendships I made and endless hours of laughter I had because of Freeside during a dark period in my life; but sadly; the one thing I can't escape is how Freesiders ignored abusive, privacy invading and concerning behaviour/messages from another member towards me alongside a clear link to serious mental health conditions that put members at risk, as well as posing a cyber security risk; instead people I considered friends thought it more appropriate to blame me for having emotions, as if it is totally bizzare for a person to have emotions, subsequently having me banned from HullCSS and allowing said abuser to rejoin Freesides ranks in September 2022.
So that'll be how I remember Freeside -
- As a group who dwindled to irrelevancy owing to their lack of ability to change.
- As a group who stooped to kicking out a member after they were abused for months and subsequently got "emotional".
- As a group who sided with an abuser.
- As a group who couldn't fix a website despite claiming to be a linux user group.
RIP Freeside, 1998 - 2023.
P.S. Development of the Resources List continues over at The Codhead Club, a new community setup by me last year. If any Hull Students/Alumni want to get involved or contribute, they are welcome too. Discord here.