Working in public

Published 2021-01-26

Working in Public is a book about how open source projects work. It reminds me strongly of Governing the Commons - rather than rely on ambient mythology, Eghbal actually went and looked at how open source projects work and found that much of the mythology is outdated.

The vast majority of open source projects today are developed by a small team of core developers with a much larger community of non- or barely- contributing users. The core developers are typically the only ones willing and able to do maintenance work, refactor code and develop major features. Outside contributions are typically shallow. Contra Cathedral and Bazaar, many developers find that dealing with community contributions is often more work than just writing the code themselves, and that most contributors are just drive-bys who have no intention of becoming regular committers.

It's commonly accepted that because the marginal cost of distributing code is near-zero, this should drive the cost of software to zero. Eghbal observes that this is only true when considering code as a static artefact. The marginal cost of maintaining code is far from zero. In economic terms, while a single release of a project is a public good and can be shared with everyone without cost, a living project is a common pool resource because maintainer time is limited. Only so many new features, only so much support.

This motivates a new way of structuring projects - release the code for free as a public good, but charge for access to the developers time and attention. This in itself isn't a new idea - it's how sqlite is funded for example - but it's one that I think is hard for people to see because it's so counter to the open source mythology of a crowd of equal contributors.

There is a great deal more in the book and I highly recommend it.