Fall in love… with your Self
Applying open source collaboration models to other creative endeavours
[this article originally appeared on the now defunct iCommons.org website on 2007–07–11, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine it’s being re-run here]
Greetings in the name of the divine Chakra to all you wonderful human souls,
Waldhead and Schmatler are back, this time wearing carefully placed crystal accessories, tie-dyed hemp pantaloons, and feathers in our long flowing hair (what we have left of it that is!) Yup, we are going to rinse you of the negative energy generated by our last article where we talked about money being a motivating factor for people sharing the fruits of their labours. This time we are changing tack entirely and looking at self-improvement as a reason for people to share their creative output, one step at a time on the path to ultimate enlightenment.
As a matter of fact, even with all this incense smoke in the air, we were able to find some good old hard statistics to back up our rhythmic chanting. Swami Ghosh (sometimes referred to as Rishab Ghosh) asked a lot of open source software developers about their divine motivation, and a surprising number of them pretended that money had nothing to do with it, but that learning and sharing knowledge were the path to enlightenment. More than 2500 developers participated in the FLOSS survey. Almost 80% said they joined to learn and develop new skills, and almost 70% remained active developers because they wanted to share knowledge and skills. Even in the absolute stillness of one’s mind, this sounds almost too good to be true. Hari Hari!
Yet this focus on learning and sharing knowledge is not as surprising as it seems. Working as a developer on an open source project can be a great way to hone one’s skills as one is usually collaborating with people from all over the world who could have very different approaches and ideas to solving problems. Open source is by its very nature subject to peer review and code submitted to a project often goes through some harsh criticism on a project’s mailing lists before it is accepted. An example of such crit is a quote from Greg Kroah-Hartman (one of the Linux kernel hackers) who has these words of wisdom for a would-be contributor: “Wow, for such a small file, every single function was incorrect. And you abused sysfs in a new and interesting way that I didn’t think was even possible. I think this is two new records you have set here. Congratulations.” We believe he added a few divine blessings as well, but we are not allowed to repeat them here.
Lively debates about the best way of coding something are the norm in open source as various members of a project discuss the pros and cons of of each approach and how a submission stands in comparison to this. If you have a tough shell and can take others poring over your code and giving line-by-line feedback then you stand to learn a lot from this process. Of course the opposite could be true and the experience could be so traumatic that you either check yourself into a clinic for depression or end up stalking your critics and subjecting them to physical and psychological aggression as revenge. But let’s not focus on these negative thoughts, instead loosen your prayer shawl, take a deep breath, hold it and think about a sunny beach with palm trees and dolphins splashing in and out of the waves in front you… and exhale. Yes. All better now.
This notion of sharing your works in order to get feedback which can be used to improve yourself applies to other forms of creativity and numerous examples abound. Even before we entered the computer age (and Schmatler started sending obscene emails to everyone he knew) we learned and shared knowledge in “communities of practice”. Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave found that learning often happens in groups of people that have a common interest, engage in similar activities, and who talk about their experiences — trading stories and asking each other for help. With digital technology people have a lot more possibilities to express themselves and communities of practice can include people from all around the world. Budding film makers can share their works online while they are still in the formative phase and get feedback from their peers on editing techniques, what parts of the film are worth keeping, and what other changes they can make to improve it before final release. The 911 conspiracy theory movie Loose Change is a good example of this — the makers have released two subsequent versions of their original documentary after receiving comments from the community. Sites like Garage Band offer a similar concept for music — users of the site submit their tunes and these are reviewed by other users of the site, creating feedback loops which should in theory lead to better music being produced. Photo-sharing sites like Flickr let users comment on each other’s photographs — enabling photographers to share techniques and give each other tips for improving composition, lighting and so on (or they can slag each other off and insult each other’s mothers in the comments, it can go either way).
The notion of allowing someone to remix or modify your creation (which is enabled by the “Derived Work” section of Creative Commons license) can also help one to improve as you see how other people take your original creation and turn it into something different. This might lead to your original work being improved which would give you pointers for future works, or the opposite might be true (like that Jason Nivens git trashing various old school Run-D.M.C. Hip-Hop classics by putting monotonous dance beats over them) in which case you would have a great example of what not to do in future!
Well, it’s time for us old codgers to head off to our geriatric yoga class so we’ll leave you with a quote and look forward to seeing your self-improved auras next time.
“Aah, this show is good for what ails me.”
“What ails you?”