Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software
Until recently, information was good, and more information was better.
Then we hit a snag. Suddenly, there was too much information. Too many notifications made us want to check them less.
There’s a similar story playing out in the world of open source software: a term that’s nearly synonymous with public collaboration, but whose developers—who write and publish code that anybody can use—often report feeling overwhelmed by the volume of inbound requests.
I summarized this problem in a 2016 report for the Ford Foundation, titled “Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure.”2 Then I set out to try to address it.
The hard part was identifying what they actually needed.
The cycle looks something like this: Open source developers write and publish their code in public. They enjoy months, maybe years, in the spotlight. But, eventually, popularity offers diminishing returns. If the value of maintaining code fails to outpace the rewards, many of these developers quietly retreat to the shadows.
The lack of financial reward is a symptom, perhaps, of misaligned incentives, but this inevitable cycle of churn seems to hint at something deeper.
If a lone maintainer feels exhausted by their volume of work, they should just bring more developers on board.
However, in speaking to maintainers privately, I learned that these initiatives frequently cause them to seize with anxiety, because such initiatives often attract low-quality contributions.
in a sample of 275 popular GitHub projects across various programming languages, nearly half of all contributors only contributed once. These contributors accounted for less than 2% of total commits, or overall contributions.
Bootstrap, a popular design framework used by an estimated 20% of all websites,4 where three developers have authored over 73% of commits.
While these numbers might seem alarming, it’s only because they don’t match popular expectations.
what if we start from the premise that things are as they should be? I decided to revisit the diagnosis,
Code, like any other type of content available online today, is trending toward modularity:
In contrast to big, monolithic software projects that give rise to persistent communities, npm packages are designed to be small and modular, which leads to fewer maintainers per project and a transitory relationship with the code they write.
Given limited time and attention, solo maintainers need to balance reactive tasks (community interactions) with proactive ones (writing code).
These developers aren’t building communities; they’re directing air traffic.
it’s not the excessive consumption of code but the excessive participation from users vying for a maintainer’s attention that has made the work untenable for maintainers today.
Instead of facing one another, as pop culture critic Mark Fisher allegedly once put it, a creator’s audience now faces the stage.
Like other creators, open source developers make things for general public consumption.
Within the world of creators, open source developers are an unusually interesting subset to look at.
its role as a utility is more explicit.
In the late 1990s, open source was the poster child for a hopeful vision of widespread public collaboration, then dubbed “peer production.”
As the internet floated peacefully in its embryonic state, it really did seem possible that the world might eventually be powered by the efforts of self-organized communities.
But over the last twenty years, open source inexplicably skewed from a collaborative to a solo endeavor. And while more people use open source code than ever before, its developers failed to capture the economic value they created: a paradox that makes them just as interesting to reexamine today.
Our online social spaces are littered with the artifacts of our creative endeavors.
In the twentieth century, code was bundled into physical formats—a book, a floppy disk, a CD—which made it easier to price and sell. As code became liberated from these formats, and eventually distributed under open source licenses, it became harder to directly charge for. With millions of lines of code freely available today, the focus has shifted from what developers make to who they are.
By reducing the costs of production and distribution, they’ve made it easier for creators to function as one-man operations.
“atomized content creators,
How, then, should we think about the production of content today, in light of platform-creator relationships? How does the “atomization” of production affect prior theories about how people produce, whether Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm, Elinor Ostrom’s common pool resources, or Yochai Benkler’s peer production?
I suggested that one-to-many models, typical among online creators, are centralized communities, with hidden roles played by both platforms and the creator’s audience; these communities stand in contrast to the distributed, many-to-many online communities we’re used to.
Chapter 4 revisited the question of marginal cost.
A creator’s reputation also requires a certain type of maintenance.
Finally, in Chapter 5 I suggested that there are two economic goods in open source masquerading as one. Open source code is consumed like a public good,
But open source code is produced like a commons, where a maintainer’s attention is the limited resource.
Creators face a problem of over-participation, not under-participation, in managing expectations from their audience.
I’ll spend the final pages zooming out in order to explore how what we’ve learned can be applied not just to open source developers but other online creators.
When people talk about the “attention economy,” they’re usually referring to the consumer’s limited attention, as when multiple apps compete for a user’s time. But a producer’s limited attention is just as important to consider.
A tragedy of the commons occurs not from consumers over-appropriating the content itself, but from consumers over-appropriating a creator’s attention.
Our social platforms were built for distributed, small-scale, many-to-many use cases: the quaint social world of yesteryear.
When a thousand people are gathered, they divide into two types of interaction. There’s the broadcasting effect, when someone climbs onstage to control the crowd and everyone turns to watch. And then there’s the small-group effect, when people strike up side conversations with their neighbors, ignoring the main stage.
Yancey Strickler, who cofounded Kickstarter, calls this the “dark forest theory” of the internet: “an increasing number of the population has scurried into their dark forests” to avoid the mainstream web,
The public stage increasingly reflects a one-way mirror pattern, where anybody can consume content but interactions with its creator are limited.
In the private sphere, small group chats are having a moment on messaging apps. (Social Warrens)
One problem is that these platforms assume that all users are interchangeable, whereas in a one-to-many broadcasting format creators are a particular, non-fungible type of user.
While creators are the focus of attention, they don’t do it all alone. There are a number of supporting roles that enable them to do their work,
Another helpful approach is to encourage the role of curators, who can serve as highly complementary and beneficial counterparts to creators,
The “like” was an adaptive mechanism to reduce the attention cost of comments.
Emoji, which took off in the 2010s, are another example of social micro-interactions that helped meet growing demand for people’s attention.
The first wave of monetization was about making meaning of the big.
seeing renewed interest in subscription models, sponsorships, and merchandise, all of which operate as a function of parasocial, or one-sided, intimacy.
As for subscriptions, paywalls might seem like a way to monetize content, but, really, what creators are monetizing is their community, whether by offering a closer connection to the creator,
only paying members could post.
Micropayments make the transaction about content, rather than about creators, but because there is so much freely available, highly substitutable content they create decision fatigue for consumers.
Subscription models can operate like a freemium model, but they get even more interesting as a two-sided market.
In a two-sided market, paying subscribers subsidize all of the content for nonpaying readers, under the assumption that creators aren’t actually selling content but a sense of membership and identity.
Journalist Tim Carmody, for example, subsidizes his newsletter Amazon Chronicles this way.
Matthew Butterick, who wrote the popular book Practical Typography, also found success by targeting a subset of his readers.
Finally, the news industry is a useful case study to demonstrate how different funding models might apply to different types of content creators.
The New York Times can chase scale for profit, The Centre Daily Times can’t. Because what the New York Times has is an audience. In College Park, they have a community.”
Social media is arguably supplanting the need for “breaking news” reporters. Breaking news is the equivalent of casual contributions in open source: those who are closest to the problem have an intrinsic desire to “contribute” with no expectation of financial reward, but also have no desire to stick around after making their contribution.
For news reporting that focuses on a specific vertical, we’ll see a shift that looks like the shift from “funding projects” to “funding people,” which we explored in Chapter 5.
Overall, I’d expect to see in the news industry something similar to what happened in open source: a “dumbbell”-shaped distribution of contributors.
An interesting implication here is that a creator’s relevance (to some niche audience) matters more than quality or trust on a global scale.
- see later (2021-11-18) Eghbal The Creator Economy
Transitions are hard, but when it comes to making money as a creator online, I feel more optimistic about these opportunities than ever. We’re moving toward a future where rewards are heavily influenced by the quality of one’s audience more than its size.