Open-Source is a Gift

The act of open-sourcing a piece of software you've been working on is a gift. You don't know who you're giving to. But people who use your open-source software are linked to you in a very special way. Recently, fabulous tools have emerged to facilitate open-source work and collaboration. Using them highlights the true nature of open-source, and that's nothing new. Since almost 90 years, sociologists know that giving is the best way to create a social bond.

Open-Source is a Gift

Giving, a Voluntary and Free Act With Nothing in Return

Sociologist Marcel Mauss theorized the motives and functions of the gift in 1923, in an essay called The Gift. Based on observations of "primitive" societies, Mauss decomposed the act of giving into three phases: giving, receiving, and reciprocating. Yes, gifts always imply a reciprocity. But most often, the reciprocity it not of material nature.

The gift has a particular function in primitive societies, which is to create a bond between tribes or families. A gift always reminds of the generosity of the giver, even if it belongs to the receiver. That's what Mauss calls an "inalienable object". And remembering the giver through the gift somehow links the receiver to the giver. Besides, after receiving, people usually feel obliged to give back, and this obligation is another bond. Finally, the gift exchange often leads to various degrees of celebration, to show the importance the receiver gives to this free and gratuitous act.

Developers Give You Software

If you're lost, think a minute about each time you lauch a phpUnit test suite. What do you see?

PHPUnit 3.5.14 by Sebastian Bergmann.

Besides the name of the library, you see the name of the lead developer, Sebastian Bergmann. Why is this name here? Out of pride, you may think. But Sebastian put a lot of time and work in this library, and he gave it for free, so he deserves some consideration in return. More than consideration, printing his name each time you run a unit test makes you know him. And you know him for giving you something of great use in your everyday work. You know him because you owe him a debt. By giving you the phpUnit software, Sebastian created a bond between you and him.

If you ever happen to be in the same room as Sebastian, will you ignore him, knowing that you use his software every day? I'm sure you won't. You'll probably cross the room, shake hands with him, and thank him for his gift. You'll even feel obliged to chat a little, ask him about his current job, or even buy him a coffee. That's for the celebration. If you're a good developer, you may even want to open issues on the phpUnit bug tracker. You may even suggest code changes, which is one of the best ways to reciprocate in the software development world.

Reciprocity is Not the Goal

Back to Mauss. He doesn't see the act of giving back as the most important function of the gift - even if there is a gift economy. The social bond between the giver and the receiver has a function of greater importance in the societies he observed.

In our societies, such a bond between developers can have an huge value. There is a twist about open-source though, because most of the time the giver doesn't know the receiver. It's more like philanthropists, who give a portion of their fortune to build a museum and allow the masses to share their passion for art. In that case, the bond is one way - you feel linked to open-source libraries even if they don't feel linked to you.

But you know how to reciprocate the social bond. Contributing to an open-source project is the first step. The second step is easy: open-source part of your personal work, and you'll become a member of this great philanthropic club. Of course, there are several levels, and you may need several years of hard work to get the same achievements as famous open-source software developers. But eventually, they'll know and appreciate you - even if they never met you in person.

Knowing Sebastian Bergmann, or Fabien Potencier, or Jonathan Wage, can greatly help you day-to-day work as a software developer. They can probably help you find good developers for your contracts. They may do paid work for when you need an expert. More simply, they can answer a question of yours in a mailing-list. And they will be more likely to do that once they know you. Here is the value of the bond.

A Social Network for Givers

Since 2004, social networking on the Internet has exploded. People share a lot of stuff on Facebook and Twitter, to name only a few social networks. Through this content, they create and maintain a social bond with people they study with, work with, live with.

There is such thing as a social network for open-source software developers. It's called GitHub, and if you are using even only a few open-source softwares nowadays, you're probably already a member. The funny thing is that most GitHub members don't realize it's a social network. Yet many developers spend more time on GitHub than on Facebook, sending messages, watching the work of fellow developers, asking questions, publishing their own work.

GitHub accelerates exchanges in the Open-Source community. GitHub makes it easy to open-source your work, to follow a person or a repository, to send and receive messages, issues and pull requests, and discover new projects. By facilitating free collaboration so much, GitHub is a social bond maker.

Do you follow people on GitHub that you've never met in real life? Do you feel obliged to open an issue on a library you've checked out, and where you've spotted a bug? Do you thank people for useful PRs they make to your own open-source libraries?

I do, all the time. For free. Open-source is my Gift. GitHub is my Facebook. Marcel Mauss can sleep peacefully, "modern" societies use gifts more than ever. Free and Open-source software have bright days ahead.

Published on 13 Nov 2011 with tags not technical open source

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