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Why open?

I've been building open source platforms for my entire career. It has not made me rich. Nonetheless, I'm more committed than ever to openness as an ideology, strategy, and organized response.

It took me years to realize that the startups I founded were more acts of resistance than they were ways to make money from a perceived opportunity. Elgg, my first, was entirely created because my co-founder and I believed that educational technology exploited institutions that served the public good; we open sourced it because we were appalled by the license fees these business commanded of taxpayer-funded organizations. It wasn't so much "we could make millions of dollars" as "you're looking at the million you never made".

The same pattern has continued since. Known was originally created as a way to support communities outside of the centrally-controlled Facebook ecosystem. I found work at Latakoo and Matter, two organizations anchored (albeit in different ways) in supporting the future of media in an uncertain time. And Unlock is a payments layer for the web without central control.

I'm here to tell you that running an open source project is not a path to glory. One of the important lessons we taught startups at Matter is that first-mover advantage is a myth: it's usually the second or third mover in a market that learns from the first mover in order to find success. In open source, that's particularly true, because the second and third movers can literally take your software and commercialize it. You spend money on R&D, and they can immediately turn around and use it for free.

Crypto-based projects like Unlock have a way of getting around this: the second and third movers theoretically increase the value of tokens held by the first mover, so everybody wins. There's also a growing movement to compensate the developers of open source libraries that are used as the building blocks of for-profit products and services. Still, in general, open source is not for the profit-minded.

But not everything needs to turn a profit; there is a core and growing need for software that is entirely built for the public good. Particularly now.

I'm comfortable with the idea of end-user open source platforms sitting in opposition to monopolies. In education, government, and anywhere primarily supported by public funding, it makes sense to use software that doesn't lock you in or quietly convert public funds into private equity. And as software becomes more and more ingrained into every aspect of society, we need to be asking questions about the effects of lock-in and ecosystem ownership.

I'm beginning to think of open source as operating like a union. In labor unions, corporate power is offset by organizing workers into a counterbalancing force. One worker would have a hard time counterbalancing a corporation's power, but if all the workers band together, they can influence decision-making and negotiate for better working conditions. Similarly, in the open source movement, developers all act together to build products that counterbalance the impact of high-growth platforms in order to create a better ecosystem.

(I'm pretty sure Eric Raymond, who originally coined "open source" because he felt the free software movement was associated with communism, would hate this framing. Too bad.)

I knew Elgg was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia started to use it to share resources with each other. If it had been a centralized, subscription-only platform, and if all the available social software had been centralized, subcription-only platforms, they never would have been able to do this. But because there was an open source platform available, they could take it, run it on their own servers, and customize it for their own needs, including translating it into Spanish. In turn, other Spanish-language users could take their work and use it for their own advantage.

And, yes, some people who weren't me made a lot of money from Elgg. But for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It was used to train aid workers by NGOs around the world, and by schools who otherwise didn't have the funds to run a platform of their own. That's meaningful. No, it wasn't a VC-scale business, and it didn't achieve significant recurring revenue. But that's not in any way to say that it didn't have value.

Not everything that has value has to be a high-growth business - and not being suitable for VC funding is not a value judgment. We're in an era where the impact of venture capital scale is being examined, and it's the best time in decades to find other models. If you're building something to serve people, it's important to think about how you can do so sustainably, but there are lots of different ways to do this. From the Zebra movement to the Shuttleworth Foundation, there are opportunities to find sustainability in a way that's right for the thing you're trying to create, with world-positive values.

Communities can build open source; startups can absolutely build open source; I think there's a huge part for public media and higher educational institutions to play that they as yet haven't quite lived up to. For organizations that already serve the public good, collaborating on software that serves their needs should be a no-brainer.

More than anything, I think there's value in standing in opposition to the status quo. Open source is a bottom-up, worker-led movement. The means and outputs of production are available to everybody. I think that's beautiful - and, in a world where every aspect of our lives has been packaged and monopolized for profit, a powerful force for good.

 

It was brought to my attention that the illustration I used for this piece was an image that traditionally is used as a symbol for racial equality. My misappropriation was unintentional, but nonetheless harmful. I'm very sorry for this thoughtless mistake.