Open Source Making, Open Source Maintaining

I enjoyed this Long Now talk by open source researcher Nadia Eghbal. If you can’t be bothered to read her book, here’s a good summary of what she’s learned.

Working in Public

TL;DR: Nobody got into software because they love maintenance.

Related: Nobody ever became a teacher because they love grading.

I love one of the stories she ends with. She quotes someone who says that being a maintainer is like the movie “Good Will Hunting”, but in reverse: you start out as a respected genius, and you end up as a janitor who fights with strangers.

One of the ideas she mentions is that “maintainer” is not such a great word. We might be better off using a word like “steward”, something that acknowledges the community-centric work of dealing with lots of people to manage a valuable public resource.

The distinction between making and maintaining gets at the point that open source is really two things. One is a static artifact. Here it is. You can have it. It’s my gift to you. The other is a service. I’m using your code, and I expect you to keep it up-to-date, fix any bugs, add my favorite features, and so on. We perceive the code as an object, but we consume it as a service. Intrinsic motivation is sufficient for the giving of the gift. That’s an event. But providing a service is a job, an ongoing obligation. And that demands extrinsic motivation. I didn’t sign up for that. For that, you need to pay me.

I don’t mind throwing you a party, but I won’t pump your gas.