Building A Platform That Maximizes Freedom

Motivation, self-determination, and how they relate to a changing open source landscape

The relationship between external rewards, internal motivation, and work is a muddled topic. People spend hours beating video games, yet would probably play less if it’s mandated by a parent. Sometimes, people would rather pay-to-play than do something for free. When designing platforms, creators must make space to evaluate this complexity.

At Gitcoin, we’re building a platform which introduces payments for work in open source software. Traditionally, open source has been an intrinsically motivated space. It has also been— to put it lightly — an undermonetized space.

This macro trend is changing. Led by value-accruing open protocols, money is making it’s way into open source. We see this trend as undeniably net positive.

Even still, we must be thoughtful about the introduction of extrinsic motivation where intrinsic motivation traditionally dominates. The two don’t always play well together. Platforms generally must toe the line with motivation when creating meaningful spaces for creators to spend time.

Work, Freedom, And Play

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. — Mark Twain; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The basic framework for motivation is as follows:

  • Intrinsic motivation is doing something “for its own sake.” The behavior itself (exercising, writing, reading, eating, coding) is the reward.
  • Extrinsic motivation is when an external incentive (getting paid, receiving awards) creates a positive feedback loop which encourages an actor to take a certain course.

It is trivially easy to sabotage intrinsic motivation by introducing extrinsic motivation. It’s complex, but possible to retain both.

The combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is where sustainable reality lies. However, there are many pitfalls to avoid. A few examples are shown below.

The ‘Overjustification Effect’

Intrinsic motivation can be stifled if extrinsic motivation is too strong. This is called the ‘overjustification effect’. If something which, first, was simply something done for fun, now comes with a huge reward, there’s a tendency to de-value this task when the rewards go away.

An anecdote shows how this may happen.

An old man is tired of kids playing outside of his home, breaking windows and causing ruckus along the way. He devises a plan to put an end to their play. One day, he goes to the children and offers $5 to each of them if they promise to come out and play everyday. They happily agree.
A week later, he comes back and offers $1, stating the original amount was too high. The kids grumble, but accept his terms nonetheless. Finally, he comes back a week later and states he’ll no longer be paying the kids. Angry and disappointed, the children refuse to play for free. They decide not to come back. The old man enjoys his peace. 😇

Forbidden fruits

The forbidden fruit bias is when one wants what they are not offered. In some cases, optimal bonus could well be zero, perhaps even negative.

More from our friend, Tom Sawyer, who ended up making lots of money “allowing” his friends to paint his fence, originally a chore.

There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash . . . . And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had a nice, good, idle time all the while — plenty of company — and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

Amusing anecdotes aside, real world examples are found every day in open source. Developers contribute to projects without expectation of return, other than learning and growing with the community.


The stories above show why extrinsic motivation shouldn’t be unilaterally celebrated. Platforms must be diligent about creating spaces where passion is grown, not withered.

To this end, there is encouraging research.

A Sense Of Freedom

A 2003 Princeton study explored the following hypothesis: “Empowerment always increases the probability that the agent will exert effort (no matter what his type)”.

Drawing upon prior research (Deci, 1975), the following conclusions were reasoned.

If a person’s feelings of competence and self-determination are enhanced, his intrinsic motivation will increase. If his feelings of competence and self-determination are diminished, his intrinsic motivation will decrease.
We are suggesting that some rewards or feedback will increase intrinsic motivation through this process and others will decrease it.

Self Determination Theory

This ultimately brings us to self-determination theory. A theory of motivation concerned primarily on motivation without rewards, self-determination is also interested in how external factors play into intrinsic motivation.

Per self-determination theory, three ‘basic human needs’ for proper motivation are listed below.

  • Competence: Effectively control outcomes and experience mastery
  • Relatedness: Will to interact, connect, and care for others
  • Autonomy: Desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self; not necessarily independent of others

Thus, the addition of any form of extrinsic motivation should necessarily respect these three ‘lower-level’ needs for intrinsic motivation. In the best case scenario, you’ll reach a state Deci and Ryan call ‘integrated regulation’, where extrinsic motivations (e.g. getting paid for work and the necessary ‘regulations’ associate) integrate well with your basic human needs.

Freedom in Open Source

Freedom is a guiding principle in open source. At Gitcoin, this translates to having freedom over a) the projects that you’d like to work on, and b) the people with whom you’d like to engage. Continuing to hold ‘freedom’ as an operating principle is embedded from the first day of Gitcoin.

Doing open source work can be seen, first and foremost, as its own reward. There is something deeply meaningful about contributing towards a project where you a) are making a direct impact, b) believe in the mission, and c) collaborate and learn alongside other software developers.

So long as freedom to work on projects you choose remains, this can be enhanced by monetary incentives. We believe this could lead to an influx of full time work in the open source space and a new model for supporting the ecosystem, while retaining the original ethos of the ecosystem.

At Gitcoin, we’ve had over 150 developers contributing to 50 open source projects and have been compensated over $75,000 to do so. Developers can contribute to multiple projects as they see fit, and indeed 75+ developers have contributed to multiple projects through Gitcoin. In addition, 10 Gitcoin contributors have joined teams full-time after working with them on Gitcoin.

We believe that all this data points to a new model in contributions in open-source software.

Growing open source and making a living are two things that should go hand in hand. Even though many software developers love open source, it’s never been feasible to financially support at scale. In a new, sustainable model, we must responsibly introduce extrinsic reward while maintaining the passion which made this ecosystem great.

A Human Right For Freedom Of Expression

Given the nuance of motivation explored above, what decisions should we make? How should we design spaces for humans to build and create, like Gitcoin?

We believe autonomy should be recognized as a basic human need, and a right each individual owns. This therefore, must be a design priority for a thriving, open community.

We take forward the following supporting ideas:

  • When introducing extrinsic motivation into an ecosystem (e.g. open source), it is necessary to maintain the intrinsic motivations (freedom, expression, community) while introducing rewards (tangible or intangible) that the community values.
  • Financial security is a necessity. Freedom is the ultimate motivation. These need not be mutually exclusive.

As Gitcoin, we feel a responsibility to understand the nuances of motivation. We’re hopeful it allows us to become empathetic to our underlying human needs and provide rewards which lead to the growth of open source.

Resources


To learn more about Gitcoin, click below. We welcome you on our journey to grow open source while changing the way we work.

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