« MySpace friends Google | Main | Malware as a service »

Open source as metaphor

August 08, 2006

Ethan Zuckerman provides an extensive report on what seems to have been an extraordinarily illuminating Wikimania panel exploring the differences between the production of open source software and the production of Wikipedia. One thing that becomes clear from the discussion is how dangerous it is to use "open source" as a metaphor in describing other forms of participative production. Although common, the metaphor almost always ends up reducing the complex open-source model to a simplistic caricature.

The discussion also sheds light on a topic that I've been covering recently: Yochai Benkler's contention that we are today seeing the emergence of sustainable large-scale production projects that don't rely on either the pricing system or management structure. Benkler's primary example is open source software. But panelist Siobhan O’Mahony's description of the evolution of open source projects reveals that they have become increasingly interwoven with the pricing system and increasingly dependent on formal management structure:

She argues that the F/OSS [free/open source software] model has now matured, with formalized governance structures, and that it’s very useful to look at the non-profit foundations that have helped these projects deal with firms and a commercial ecosystem. Her interest comes in part from the “myth” of F/OSS - that we’re hackers, we don’t need marketing, we’re a meritocracy - that’s not what really happens, as most serious F/OSS contributors will tell you.

From 1993-2000, many F/OSS projects were self-governing, accepting volunteer contributions with most participants motivated by the cause, ideology and idealism. From 2000 - 2006, the majority of volunteers are sponsored by vendors, well-supported by in-kind donations of hardware, marketing and legal services. Most commercial-grade projects have incorporated as nonprofit foundations with formal governance structures. The foundations hold assets, protect projects from liability, and present project to the outside world, including brokering agreements with commercial firms.

Certainly, the idea of community is important to understanding the origins, structure, and development of the open source model, and many open source contributors are motivated by rewards that can't be measured in dollars and cents. But it's hard at this point to make the case that open source exists in some purified space outside the world of pricing and management.

UPDATE: Two excellent retorts to this post, one from Tim Bray, the other from Assaf at Labnotes. They argue, among other things, that in trying to counter an oversimplification about open source, I've made my own oversimplification. A point well taken.

Comments

But it's hard at this point to make the case that open source exists in some purified space outside the world of pricing and management.


.. and the law.

Posted by: eszter [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2006 06:12 AM

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


Remember me?


carrshot5.jpg Subscribe to Rough Type

Now in paperback:
shallowspbk2.jpg Pulitzer Prize Finalist

"Riveting" -San Francisco Chronicle

"Rewarding" -Financial Times

"Revelatory" -Booklist

Order from Amazon

Visit The Shallows site

The Cloud, demystified: bigswitchcover2thumb.jpg "Future Shock for the web-apps era" -Fast Company

"Ominously prescient" -Kirkus Reviews

"Riveting stuff" -New York Post

Order from Amazon

Visit Big Switch site

Greatest hits

The amorality of Web 2.0

Twitter dot dash

The engine of serendipity

The editor and the crowd

Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians

The great unread

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock's avatar

Flight of the wingless coffin fly

Sharecropping the long tail

The social graft

Steve's devices

MySpace's vacancy

The dingo stole my avatar

Excuse me while I blog

Other writing

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The ignorance of crowds

The recorded life

The end of corporate computing

IT doesn't matter

The parasitic blogger

The sixth force

Hypermediation

More

The limits of computers: Order from Amazon

Visit book site

Rough Type is:

Written and published by
Nicholas Carr

Designed by

JavaScript must be enabled to display this email address.

What?