De-Emphasising  ·  Foreground the Background

Open Source Ecology

Before I begin the article proper, I just want to note that it’s not my intention to conflate free with open source. Open source programs are often free, but not always (SuSE sells Linux); free programs are sometimes open source, but not always (Internet Explorer, Opera). That said, the open source software I’ll primarily be discussing—browsers and blogging software, because that’s what I have experience with—are generally both.

It’s a simple fact that most people who use open source browsers (such as Firefox, version 1.5 of which has just been released) and blogging software (WordPress, Textpattern) don’t give anything back to that project. In a sense, they—we—are parasitic on it, getting something for nothing.

Without getting heavily into the ethics of it, I think it’s reasonable to claim that some users of this software feel a sense of responsibility; that they should be “giving something back”. I do, at any rate. This raises a couple of questions: firstly, what should people who feel that sense of responsibility be doing in addition to what they’re doing already (using the software), and secondly, do users have a positive impact on that project simply by using the software? A supplementary question might then be, to what extent does the latter—if it exists—fulfill the perceived responsibility?

The obvious answer to the first question is “Help.” However, not everyone can help; we may not have the technical skills, or we may simply not have the time to contribute. Alternatively, one can donate to open source organisations. This is an entirely legitimate and important way to reciprocate, but it doesn’t quite have the appeal of actually improving the code.

Even if you can’t manage either of these things—and many can’t (more of us won’t)—I think you still make a contribution simply by, firstly, using the software, and secondly, by telling other people about it. The first is slightly trickier to make a case for, but only slightly (the benefits of increased publicity would, I hope, be obvious). For browsers, using a (free) open source program means that other browser makers can’t decide they want to start charging for their browsers. It provides competition to the bigger fish, forcing them to improve their programs or lose their customers (which has the knock-on effect of improving the development environment, something I personally have quite a big stake in). In a market, people vote with their feet. Using an open source browser has an effect on the market and, like it or not, it’s making a statement.

I suspect my supplementary question can only really be answered either by outlining a comprehensive theory of moral responsibility, or by saying that the extent to which simply using and advocating a program fulfills one’s responsibility varies from person to person. Having principled doubts about the former (and, more relevantly, being a lazy bugger) I’m going to go with the latter.

Not much left to say, although I will note that there have been some fascinating articles published on the subject of open source software over the years (if I had any links, they’d go here). I have no illusions about competing, but I think these things are worth reiterating and discussing. Hopefully work will slow down slightly at some point in the future and I can help out with something I’m interested in. Making a WordPress theme is probably about the level I’m on, not having any great programming skills; watch this space…

3 responses

Great article and something I was just discussing with a friend.

I switched from a custom-built blogging set-up to WordPress a while ago after considering the same things. I read a great post about it once that summed it up perfectly and nailed it directly. To paraphrase: Why spend your time building something just for yourself when you can contribute to a similar project that benefits others as well…

Currently I’m working on a few WP plug-ins but I have not contributed to the main code at all. However, I feel I should. But it’s a daunting task, weeding through larger projects. It’s possible that’s the reason most people, even those who can code, don’t get involved. The mentality that “Hey, it’s already working, what can I do?”

I think you’ve nailed a really important reason there, Kris; reflecting on my own experience, I’m fairly certain that’s what’s put me off on a number of occasions. For example, I was trying to use Textpattern on this site a year or so ago, and kept getting frustrated by how much was hardcoded, but instead of doing anything about it, I just stopped trying (and ended up using WordPress).

It’s a simple fact that most people who use open source browsers (such as Firefox, version 1.5 of which has just been released) and blogging software (WordPress, Textpattern) don’t give anything back to that project. In a sense, they–we–are parasitic on it, getting something for nothing.

Well while it would certainly be cool, if everyone using an open source project would honker down and write a piece of code for it, I don’t think that’s necessary at all. There mere fact that they’re using it, and thus most likely spreading the word about it, is already a benefit to the project.

9rules logo