All Things Too Open

Years ago, I saw Henry Zhou give a keynote speech at the All Things Open conference. I left his talk with a more acute understanding of just how hard it is to maintain an open source project that has become popular. Zhou, who is a humble and giving individual, spoke about the unreasonable demands of users who would get angry if their messages didn’t receive a response from the developer within 20 minutes. These developers are essentially volunteers, but they aren’t given the treatment you would expect for donating their time and effort to the common good.

It comes as no surprise then, as Clive Thompson reports, many open source developers are burning out and abandoning their projects. As he notes in his piece, open source projects were supposed to be like Amish barn raisings, where many hands make light work. For most projects, though, it hasn’t turned like that. He cites findings presented in Nadia Eghbal’s book Working In Public.

Twenty years into the open-source era, it hasn’t worked out that way. Eghbal found that only a minority of projects, perhaps 3%, resemble true barn-raisings — or “federations”, as she dubbed them — with lots and lots of contributors pitching in. (Some examples are Linux, Node, or Rust.)

In contrast, the great majority of open source projects are run by tiny teams, and often only one lone person. Outside contributions are pretty minor, and limited to a tiny one-line syntatic bug fix. That’s not nothing! Those little contributions are great.

But the upshot is, those lone coders wind up doing the lion’s share of the work. “Open source inexplicably skewed from a collaborative to a solo endeavor” as Eghbal writes.

Thompson likens coders working on a project that suddenly gets popular to an solo entertainer who finds themselves playing to stadiums full of fans.

But if a developer suddenly finds themselves playing to a stadium — and swallowed up by the time-sucking demands thereof — then not getting paid can become a serious problem. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Plus, watching wildly profitable and highly-funded tech firms use their code without contributing anything back: That can just feel like a moral insult.

This trend should be worrying enterprises that rely heavily on open source software. A lot of big companies are using source software in order to reduce their expenses. Once the open source components are integrated, they can sometimes be hard to extract.

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Robert Rackley @frostedechoes
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