Why is this interesting? - The Open Source Edition

On technology, community, and the code that keeps things running

Nadia Eghbal (NE) is a writer and researcher who explores how the internet enables individual creators. From 2015 to 2019, she focused on the production of open source software, working independently and at GitHub to improve the open source developer experience. She’s just published a new book, Working in Public, which offers an inside look at modern open source software developers and their influence on our online social world. Nadia currently works at Substack, where she leads writer experience.

Nadia here. Everything you do online—every app on your phone, every smart device you use, and every website you visit, including this one—runs on open source software.

You're reading my words right now thanks to code that was written by software engineers who work at Substack. But most of their code was borrowed from the vast trove of free and public, or "open source," code that any software developer in the world can use. As much as 97% of the code in modern web applications originate from these public repositories.

If you try to figure out where this code comes from, you'll probably hear, as I did, that open source is a volunteer effort, the result of hundreds of strangers collaborating with each other around the world. Think Wikipedia, but for code.

The image that comes to mind is lively: it's pleasant to imagine a proverbial virtual room filled with lots of developers pitching in and working together. But if you look into the contribution data of many popular open source projects, it turns out that many are maintained by just one or a few developers. Bootstrap, for example, a pop­ular design framework used by an estimated 20% of all websites, has three developers who have authored over 73% of commits.

Why is that interesting?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, open source was the poster child for the emerging commercial web, which painted a utopian vision of collaboration at scale. Early internet advocates believed that if more people were connected to each other, we'd see more examples of decentralized "peer production"—like Wikipedia, or open source—all over the web. (By the way: even Wikipedia has single maintainers, like Steven Pruitt, a volunteer who’s edited one­-third of all the English language articles on the site.)

But those early promises didn't play out the way we thought they would. Once demand outpaced production—open source went from being a hobbyist effort to underpinning all of software that we use and rely on today—the pure collaboration model broke down.

Even Nobel-winning economist Jean Tirole, along with Josh Lerner, wondered in their seminal paper, "The Simple Economics of Open Source," published back in 2000, whether the early hype would actually be sustainable over time:

Can the management of open source projects accom­modate the increasing number of contributors? The fre­quency and quality of contributions to each of the open source projects studied appears to be highly skewed, with a few individuals (or at most a few dozen) accounting for a disproportionate amount of the contributions, with most programmers making just one or two submissions....If large numbers of low­ quality contributions are becoming increasingly common, there may be substantial manage­ment challenges in the future.

But if you spend enough time on the internet these days, you probably already could've guessed this was the case, because what's happening in open source is what’s currently happening to everyone online. Our understanding of "online communities"—the internet forums and message boards of yore—starts to look pretty wonky when you put, say, 2.6 billion people on one platform.

We're now seeing the rise of a parallel social web: one that's characterized by small group chats, like messaging apps, and one-to-many conversations, like podcasts and newsletters. The catch-all term "community" is giving way to a rich subset of different models and typologies.

I think of it as a tension between user growth and contributor growth. For any given community, how many people are viewing that community's output, versus how many people are actively participating? In the past, those two groups overlapped. Today, we're seeing the emergence of "stadium"-style communities: those with many viewers, but few contributors (think influencers and creators), which grow and are managed differently from, say, "clubs" which have many active contributors, but few outside viewers (think group chats).

We're still at the beginning of this social renaissance, but open source developers have been quietly adapting to these new rules for awhile now. After immersing myself in the world of open source and tracking how the norms of these developers have changed over the last two decades, I've realized that open source has a lot to teach us about where the world is going next. (NE)

Painting of the Day:

Detail of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (via @BoschBot). (NE)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Nadia (NE)

PS - Noah here. Variance, my new company, is just getting going with our Alpha. If you work in sales, services, marketing, or engineering and want to try out/give feedback on a tool to help your team work more effectively with their apps, please request an invite on the site. Thanks.

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