Did you see the cute cartoon with the two pigs who agree on how they enjoy life on the pig farm — because they get free food and housing?
The punchline is “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You are the product being sold.”
The cartoonist was of course thinking of Facebook and the big advertisement machine powering it, and (s)he makes a pretty good point. That made me wonder to what extend this aphorism can be generalized: Especially, what about open-source software? Nobody is paying for that, either. Are open-source fans “being sold”, too?
Firstly, open-source users don’t consider themselves customers. (There are only very few clueless enough to complain on forums why somebody dared to release free software that isn’t the perfect custom solution they, “the customers”, expected it to be). Secondly, a few users –the contributors– have “paid off” the software by investing time, expertise, bandwidth and hardware.
These contributors also get something in return for their investment: A highly specialized software that would never have come into existence otherwise. Each contributor only knows how to do his part and they are all aware of the mutuality of this deal. They all take the gamble and put their work openly on the table, knowing that every member is a volunteer and could back out unannounced. In the worst case, if the team disbands, you haven’t lost anything and you just have to finish what you gained on your own. Even though nobody is accountable, there are enough open-source enthusiasts who complete projects successfully. When the core investors got their unique payoff, they give the product away for free to others, new users who may not have invested anything themselves, but who do not take anything away either by making copies.
[ Spending time for answering questions on free support forums, and paying for the server hosting does cost time and money, but apparently not so much that it would make open-source projects impossible. Users often give back by posting ideas and solutions, and by reporting bugs — free QA! ]
How is that different from Facebook? Facebook gives its users something they want. But as opposed to open-source projects, the “core users” have not joined Facebook with the intent of giving Facebook something (personal data for targeted marketing). The deal is not as obviously mutual as an open-source project is. These pigs do not stay at the pig farm with the intent of giving the pig farmer something. But the pig farmer gets what he wants anyway, because the pigs are already “trapped” and not worried about the payoff.
Does anyone know a good “animal” metaphor for open-source projects? Maybe we can say, an open-source community is not a pig farm, it’s a pack of animals that works together to survive outside the farm, in the wild. Some pack members have better hunting skills and share the loot, others are good at keeping watch and protecting the pack, etc. One animal cannot do all survival tasks on its own. Together they take the gamble to make this work, and they can afford to feed a few extra lazy pack members who don’t contribute much. Or throw them to the lions as a distractor, muhahahahaha! … Uh. Wait. No. Bad metaphor.
Reminds me of a phrase used in Agile development teams: They say, in this breakfast, you’re either a pig or a chicken. When preparing ham&eggs, the pigs are commited, while the chicken are contributors… ;-)