Riding hobby horses and scratching itches
Applying open source collaboration models to other creative endeavours
[this article originally appeared on the now defunct iCommons.org website on 2007–04–23, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine it’s being re-run here]
Schmatler and Waldhead are back again with some more words of wisdom on why we think people contribute to open source software projects and whether we can take lessons from this and apply it to other forms of creativity. In case you missed our introduction you can check it out here.
Now, why, you might ask, are we spending our valuable time writing about why people freely give away the fruits of their hard work, and then give away the fruits of our hard work to — you? One of the main reasons is that we dig it — it’s fun to sit down, debate, discuss, disagree, and go through the whole process of producing these articles. It’s not really work — it’s more like a hobby for us. And that’s exactly what writing software feels like for many of the geeks who share their code in open source software projects. In fact, Waldhead is one of them, and he will sit in front of that machine for hours and hours on a beautiful late summer Sunday evening like yesterday (just a hypothetical example, of course), simply because he enjoys it so much. The pay-off for him lies in the process itself, not in the compensation he receives for the result of his work — in this case the software he is working on.
If you look at flickr.com (or any of the other photo sharing websites) it seems that people feel the same way about other things, like taking photos. Ever since the invention of the camera people have taken photos. In the past, these were captured on film and then printed so we could re-visit moments we had experienced or take a second look at a view we had enjoyed. Most people did not take pictures because they were looking to get rich — they took pictures because they enjoyed it — not like a job, but like a hobby. It’s the same way today, except we’ve fast-forwarded to a world where photos are information goods (remember the first article we wrote) and can be sent around the internet and you realise the huge number of people who take photos for fun. On flickr alone, there are currently around 30 million photos that are available under Creative Commons licences. While most of these photographers do not want anyone to use their photos commercially, they do not mind if you download, print, modify or share them. They already got their kicks from taking and having the photos, but sharing them only makes it better.
Related to the hobby argument, is something that people often refer to as the “scratching an itch” theory. A few years ago, Eric Raymond wrote one of the first articles about open source development processes called The Cathedral and the Bazaar (which has been referenced by pretty much everyone discussing the subject since then, so we thought we would go with the flow and reference it too!)
In the article he said that many open source projects started with the need to scratch an itch. Since we all know that computer geeks live on pizza and coke and rarely sleep or shower (Waldhead is, of course the big exception, he does not like coke) we feared that Eric was making an inappropriate comment about personal hygiene. However, Eric was using it as a metaphor for developing a software application that the developer needs him, or herself (which means that we can take full credit for turning it into an inappropriate comment about personal hygiene). In other words, when Waldhead comes up with a super new idea for a piece of software he would like to use but can’t find that software anywhere (or it exists but in a proprietary form, or it is written in a programming language he doesn’t like, or it only runs on a certain operating system) he starts to itch. Like when someone puts that trick itching powder down the back of Schmatler’s shirt or shorts (was that you Waldhead?!?) and the only way to alleviate the pain is for him to scratch like mad — in this case that’s done by writing that piece of software yourself. Once the itch has been satisfied the next step is to wonder if other people might have the same itch, and so by giving the software away they won’t have to do any scratching themselves. Or one might find a group of people ‘itching’ to work on the same problem together and this leads to a group scratch of people collaborating on solving it. Even better, sometimes a bunch of people have a similar itch, but they can’t reach that one particularly itchy spot on their back (you might not know how to program a particular kind of feature), but someone else can reach it, and scratching together turns out to be a lot more fun and produces great results, faster.
Now, you might think it is a little more difficult to apply the ‘scratching an itch’ metaphor to taking photos, since software usually serves a practical purpose and we just argued that many people take pictures not for practical reasons, but mostly because they enjoy it. However, if you think about the itch more broadly, then taking a photo (or making a piece of music, painting a picture, writing a story) is just like scratching a creative itch you might have. Humans want to express themselves and be creative, and outlets for this creativity range from writing software to taking photos with many other forms of expression in-between.
Admittedly, this week’s article has been a bit hippie-hobby-good-vibes-and-sunshine (and body odour), but don’t worry! Next week we can turn back to the darker side of the human psyche and look at self-promotion and maybe a bit of attention seeking as reasons for creating and sharing. Of course neither of these apply to your hosts in any way. With best regards,
“Oh well, at least its over now”
“What are you talking about, it’s only just beginning!”
“Oh why are we doomed to suffer? And why are those people watching voluntarily?!”