In the twenty-five years since the appearance of the phrase “Open Source”, many authors have tried to explain this simple fact: why do software developers willingly and spontaneously collaborate, often on a pro bono basis, to the creation of open-source software? And most importantly, how does this even happen? Many books have been written around this seemingly illogical fact.
Come to mind three major examples: the practical, freely available, and updated in 2020 “Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project” by Karl Fogel; the historical in-depth analysis of “The Success of Open Source” (2005) by Steven Weber, political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley; “The Open Source Way” online guidebook; and “Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software” (2020) by Nadia Eghbal, also known as Nadia Asparouhova, the subject of this month’s Library section and arguably the most important voice in the world of open-source community management and governance of this decade.
Let us talk about credentials. Nadia is a Harvard Kennedy School fellow, a researcher specialized in digital infrastructure and community governance, and more to the point, an ex-GitHub employee, as explained on her personal website. Most importantly, she is the author of “Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure”, a freely available ground-breaking report published with support from the Ford Foundation in 2016, where Nadia proposes the notion that open-source code is akin to public infrastructure, highlighting the urgent need for creators to be supported in their work:
The decentralized, non-hierarchical nature of the public coding community makes it difficult to secure pay for coders, yet the work that emerges from it is the foundation for a digital capitalist economy. Increasingly, developers are using shared code without contributing to its maintenance, leaving this infrastructure strained and vulnerable to security breaches.
Her 2020 book “Working in Public” builds upon these ideas, bringing quite a few more to the table. Let us enumerate a few: source code features, in its static form, zero marginal distribution costs, but non-zero marginal maintenance costs; each new contributor adds a non-negligible burden to maintainers.
Another interesting idea: GitHub is akin to Instagram, particularly in terms of the impact of celebrity status for a few developers on the platform. Not only that, but their reputation also decreases with a “half-life” like that of a battery or a radioactive component.
And finally, the idea that open-source code is consumed as a public good, but produced as a commons, where the attention of the maintainers is the limited resource. Most importantly, she makes a clear distinction between the words “public” and “participatory;” both are commonly confused in the minds of open-source zealots, on both sides of the contributor-maintainer dichotomy.
As an example of the tone of the book, Nadia provides in chapter 2 a colorful analogy to understand the attention economy created by open-source projects: depending on their contributor and user growth patterns, said projects can be classified as either federations, clubs, toys, or stadiums. She also defines and builds upon the notions of excludable, non-excludable, rivalrous, and non-rivalrous goods, directly taken from the world of economics, providing a solid theoretical foundation underpinning her own conclusions.
Her book is filled with useful references, including screenshots of pull requests taken verbatim from GitHub, and quoting major voices in the open-source community.
She is probably the only person today that dares to mention the “money” word in the dynamics of open-source projects. Chapter 5 of her book has a full section dedicated to this, discussing both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for software developers to create their projects and for collaborators to join said communities. This discussion involves the role of major corporations, more and more interested in funding that work, and how those contributions align with their market strategies.
Nadia Asparouhova has definitely become a voice to follow closely in the next few years. As much as developers tend to hate politics, both Steve Weber and Nadia Asparouhova have highlighted the increasingly important political perspective to understand how an open-source project is made, and even more important, maintained.
If you would like to know more about Nadia Asparouhova, subscribe to her newsletter; check out “Where Money meets Open Source”, a talk at JupyterCon 2017; watch “The Making and Maintenance of our Open Source Infrastructure”, a 2020 web seminar sponsored by the Long Now Foundation; read the Wired article she recently wrote about GitHub’s office; and read this 2020 interview published at The Pull Request newsletter.
The book “Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software” is available on Stripe Press, and is a required read by anyone interested in the dynamics of open-source communities today.
Cover photo by the author.