Article by Clive Thompson: “…When the open source concept emerged in the ’90s, it was conceived as a bold new form of communal labor: digital barn raisings. If you made your code open source, dozens or even hundreds of programmers would chip in to improve it. Many hands would make light work. Everyone would feel ownership.
Now, it’s true that open source has, overall, been a wild success. Every startup, when creating its own software services or products, relies on open source software from folks like Thornton: open source web-server code, open source neural-net code. But, with the exception of some big projects—like Linux—the labor involved isn’t particularly communal. Most are like Bootstrap, where the majority of the work landed on a tiny team of people.
Recently, Nadia Eghbal—the head of writer experience at the email newsletter platform Substack—published Working in Public, a fascinating book for which she spoke to hundreds of open source coders. She pinpointed the change I’m describing here. No matter how hard the programmers worked, most “still felt underwater in some shape or form,” Eghbal told me.
Why didn’t the barn-raising model pan out? As Eghbal notes, it’s partly that the random folks who pitch in make only very small contributions, like fixing a bug. Making and remaking code requires a lot of high-level synthesis—which, as it turns out, is hard to break into little pieces. It lives best in the heads of a small number of people.
Yet those poor top-level coders still need to respond to the smaller contributions (to say nothing of requests for help or reams of abuse). Their burdens, Eghbal realized, felt like those of YouTubers or Instagram influencers who feel overwhelmed by their ardent fan bases—but without the huge, ad-based remuneration.
Sometimes open source coders simply walk away: Let someone else deal with this crap. Studies suggest that about 9.5 percent of all open source code is abandoned, and a quarter is probably close to being so. This can be dangerous: If code isn’t regularly updated, it risks causing havoc if someone later relies on it. Worse, abandoned code can be hijacked for ill use. Two years ago, the pseudonymous coder right9ctrl took over a piece of open source code that was used by bitcoin firms—and then rewrote it to try to steal cryptocurrency….(More)”.