Thu Mar 29 14:04:14 CEST 2018

Writing open source is not a good way to make lots of money.

Some people are trying to change that, like Kyle Mitchell’s License Zero.

Others are setting up Patreon or LibrePay pages and asking the community for donations to support their work: the time and effort that goes into building quality, free software. Feross wrote a beautiful tool called thanks for finding out who makes the node.js modules that power your software, and making donations to them.

I really admire the collective effort of the community in this. I know so many developers who work to create amazing things that anybody can use, without asking for a dime in return. This is the core of gift economics: giving freely without expectation of return.

But gift economics has a second half, that is equally important: receiving freely, without obligation of return.

Globalized society is driven by money: credit & debt, and precisely equal exchange. Coupled with a mindset of scarcity, it makes sense what happens when open source developers share their work online for free: they are pillaged. Not unlike a corporation finding a valuable natural resource (gas, oil, trees, hunter-gatherer peoples), interpreting natural as free, and proceeding to exploit it in order to convert that resource into profit.

A couple of months ago I was inspired by my peers asking for donations for their work, and decided to run an experiment by setting up a LibrePay page of my own. Only a small amount of money has come in, but I quickly felt like something wasn’t right. So I’m terminating the experiment.

I’m trying to figure out why. Maybe it’s because I already feel like I have enough? I’m privileged enough to work at a non-profit where I get to write open source software and get paid for it. I get by comfortably on what I make, though it is less than a third of what I once made at Google.

Another aspect is the problematicness of money itself. If someone were to be kind enough to give me a gift, I’d prefer something more real: a cooked meal shared; a skill shared; a pull request contributed back to one of my projects; a day spent hiking together; even just a conversation. It’s so easy to use money as a substitute for any of these. Thanks to money I can send dollars to a favourite open source developer and not even need to talk to them, or have them know who I am. This feels really dangerous to me. A community thrives on human interaction, and money facilitates this nameless wordless precise exchange.

In the Moneyless Manifesto, Mark Boyle points out that if someone did an act of kindess for you, like offer you a bed for a night, and in the morning you paid them what you computed to be the fair market rate for a bed in their part of the city, what would happen to that relationship? I think it fades away. The debt is [precisely] repaid, and there’s nothing left to say or do. Bonds seem to form with the introduction of an unbalanced debt that goes outside the realm of money and exact credit/debt. I’m still chewing on this.

In short: if you appreciate or benefit from the things I make or share, let me know. Say hi. Send a patch. Cook us a warm meal. Show me a new neighbourhood. Let’s form a connection instead of making a mechanical monetary exchange.

So, how can the gift economics of open source work while embedded in such a system of methodical abuse? I don’t know. I think it’s important to prevent the gift economics culture of open source from being exploited by corporations. I think it’s important to have tight-knit communities where people can support each other. Secure Scuttlebutt is doing a good job of exploring this right now: if this articles resonates with you and you aren’t on SSB, come by and say hello!