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Thu, 03 Mar 2005
Explaining Commons Based Peer Production, er, Open Source

Justin relates his difficulty explaining what he does:

It's not like I didn't know this question was coming. Yes, I'm a Ph.D. student at UC Irvine. These people, not being dullards, then asked "What are you researching?" So, I proceeded to answer along the lines of "everytime you go to a web site - like Amazon, ESPN, etc., the odds are that 60% of the time, the other end will be using software that I helped write." That worked for the most part.
But, how do we explain the concept of open source? "Yah, I work on software and we give it away for free. We're not socialists, I swear!" Which is even more impressive - or not - when you are talking to Economic majors from University of Chicago like I was.
So, in typical open source fashion, I'd love to know how others respond to the question, "What do you do?" Do you even mention open source? Can you make us not sound like a bunch of communist hippies? And as a bonus, how do you make the fact that 60%+ of the world uses this software sound impressive without getting overly technical.

This is where you explain the notion of a commons -- Lots of people work on it, everybody benefits from it, and then people can build upon it (even in a revenue generating fashion). The stuff in the commons is available to all, but stuff improved from the commons might not be. And then you talk about how people from various constituencies contribute to the commons, some for love, some because they use it and need improvements, and some because it's directly part of their job to improve the commons. You explain how the various levels of love or need attract people to work on the parts of the software that they care the most about (and are likely to know something about), which gradually (and often in fits and starts) improves the software as a whole. Don't forget the meritocracy that prevents people from inserting stuff willy nilly.

This is not communism, it's about preserving the freedom/openness of the web at a basic level, since the software in the commons will be available to anyone, and not controlled by a corporation with a profit motive. It's about fostering innovation by providing a base that can easily adapted or used as a ground for experimentation. We foster innovation by lowering the threshold so that passionate, talented people can get involved right where they can help the most. In short, commons-based peer production.

As for 60%, you say "Microsoft, Sun, and a whole bunch of people have products that do what httpd does. But more people are using ours than all the rest of them put together. " Not impressive enough? Ok, then tell them that IBM and Oracle based their web server products on httpd.

[00:10] | [computers/open_source] | # | TB | F | G | 7 Comments | Other blogs commenting on this post

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I work at the Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF).
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