Doing stuff for free, and who keeps communities alive?

Posted by: on Mar 13, 2013 | No Comments

If you’ve never listened to Mule Radio’s “Let’s Make Mistakes” podcast, you probably should. Mike Monteiro and Leah Reich are smart and entertaining, and occasionally deliberately offensive (which I like). Most of my readers are likely to be programmers, and at first it might seem there is not much overlap. If you are a freelance developer or somebody who cares about running businesses that don’t suck, or have an interest in design you probably will get a lot from it. I do, and it also makes me laugh as much as it makes me think – which is quite a lot. Anyway, today I listened to the latest episode #85 and was very surprised at how relevant it was to my recent withdrawal from active Open Source development and open source community issues.

This episode covered some recent debacle about journalists being asked to write for free by companies like The Atlantic who should pay for work. If you’ve developed open source for free, this might ring some bells.

What was very interesting for me was the part (contributed by Leah I think) about people thinking that maybe you don’t need to be paid to do something you love doing, as well as the part about doing it to get exposure to lead on to further work. These are very common justifications given for doing your “craft” for free. Again this sounds very familiar to me.

This attitude is blatant nonsense the moment you stop to think about it. Of course you should be paid to do what you love. Its what we all should strive for – making our living from something we enjoy – its a basic way to be happy which is what we all want. Then add to the mix something else: for many of us, there is more than one thing we love doing. This means that if people don’t want to pay you for this thing that you love, the smart people shift to that thing that they love, where people will pay.

The other very interesting element was the talk about Facebook and social and photo services like Path and Flickr. Their guest Matt Honan, a writer for WIRED rightly says about ailing online or service communities:

“Sorry, but fuck that. The community doesn’t have any obligation to keep this place going. The people who are running the community do.”

He goes on to talk about how Flickr dropped the ball by not having any sane mobile strategy which had them cede the social photo market to Instagram.

This is incredibly brutal and truthful. Businesses or products that rely on a community for their survival actually cannot expect their community to make the business or product thrive. Such activity by the community is a fig leaf over underlying failures and deficiencies. Furthermore and perhaps counterintuitively, people who haven’t paid anything have no reason to be loyal. People who have paid have made an investment they are less likely to turn their back on. Still, if you aren’t delivering the goods for your community, even those that pay will go.

The community has to enjoy the service or product and be served well by it. The onus is on the business or provider to make and continue to make it compelling and keep it contemporary. If you make Open Source stuff, however you are funded (or not), you have to keep making it compelling for people to participate. You cannot expect the community to step up and fill the gaps you leave if it is “your” product – which in truth is usually the case one way or another with all Open Source projects. There’s usually a company with ownership of the team, or an individual who is the leader of the project, and maybe some contributors whose employers are happy to bankroll some time.

If your product or service is not compelling enough, people will try other things and often they will not come back.

Even if they loved what you do, they will go where the pain is less and reminisce about how they enjoyed what your project did, and maybe mourn it a little, but they need to get on with doing stuff and removing the pain points, and they need to be where they can find the other people and features they need to interact with. Failing to change your course when things are causing you problems is that oft-mooted definition of madness.

On a complete side-note, in the podcast Mike Monteiro also lays it down beautifully about the evil that is Facebook:

Settings are only as good as the ethics of the people behind them – Mike Monteiro