Open Source and the YMCA

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Slightly more than a year and a half ago, as some of you know, I moved to coastal Maine from our former location in New Hampshire. One of the first things I did upon arriving was to look around for a gym. Not looking very hard, I settled on the local Bath YMCA, mostly because it’s a short hop from the RedMonk office. Unlike many of the other Y’s I’ve been to, which are more like a regular gym, this one is highly family oriented. There are tons of children running around, and a lot of elder patrons as well. On one of my first visits there, I noticed a couple of the older men and women really pounding through their respective workouts. In their late late 50’s or early 60’s, they were working out harder than many of the teens and twenty-somethings in the room.

Looking at them, I remember being struck by the thought that this simply could not be sustainable over a long period of time. People of this age simply didn’t possess this sort of energy on an every day basis. I remember thinking at the time that it must have been some fad, some town hall fitness initiative run amok, that guilted everyone into killing themselves at the gym.

Fast forward to a year and a half later, however, and the better part of this elder fitness mafia are still there every time I’m working out, pounding away on their respective stairmasters and treadmills. A few have dropped off the map, so to speak, but it’s clear that my original supposition about what was sustainable was incorrect. The energy has not only been sustained, in some cases it’s been been amplified by new activities and resources within the gym.

This error on my part led me in turn to a consideration of what is and is not sustainable in the technology world, and more specifically open source. There are a variety of binary assessments of the open source pheonmenon – the Epstein camp concluding that it’s not (my colleague’s already ably taken him to task for it here), and sites like Groklaw passionately arguing the exact opposite. My own experiences have clearly predisposed me towards the Groklaw viewpoint, but after considering why that might be I think the gym analogy actually is instructive here.

Epstein, for example, seems to believe that the open source world is something like a hippy commune. Given that planning assumption, it should come as no surprise that his conclusion is the following:

“The bottom line is that idealistic communes cannot last for the long haul. The do-or-die question is whether open source offers a low cost solution to particular problems.”

If one accepts his underlying contention – that the open source world is one big commune, a naive and altruistic version of the Commons espoused by Lessig and others – his point is likely valid. I do not accept that, however, and in fact, I’m beginning to see the open source world as more like the YMCA described above than any commune. I think his use of idealistic indicates a basic lack of understanding for the breadth of drivers there are for open source participation.

Consider that the motivations for going to a gym are similar to the motivations for participating in the open source community – self-improvement/training, social interaction, a productive way to kill time, etc. There are differences, of course, but I don’t think it makes the analogy any less relevant. Open source has an advantage in that it creates tangible but non-rivalrous assets that can touch potentially millions of people, but overall I believe the reasons for participating in both activities are more similar than different.

But what can this teach us about the question that Epstein is pondering – the future of open source over the long haul? Much, I think. The most important lesson I take from this comparison is that these motivations are at once community oriented and intensely individual. And it’s the latter that – in my opinion – guarantees the sustainability of the open source effort as a whole.

Individuals motivate themselves to participate in the process for reasons that vary for person to person, but collectively, the effect on the group is neglible. Individuals join and abandon gyms every day, just as developers join and abandon projects every day. On a macro level, neither gyms nor open source projects sweat these individual losses, as the underlying motivation assures that those who leave the fold will be replaced in short order.

Epstein, I think, fails to appreciate the highly individual – and capitalistic – nature of the these motivations. See the following:

The open source movement may avoid these difficulties for outside contributors who work for credit and glory. But how do the insiders, such as Linus Torvalds, cash out of the business that they built? And in the interim, how do they attract capital and personnel needed to expand the business?

Aside from the fact that his third question is answered by the first, it indicates a lack of appreciation for the ability of the community to sustain and drive itself, driven by the unique drivers of millions of developers worldwide.

Why, for example, do developers invest time in the Mozilla platform? Because it’s profitable, both financially and otherwise. Walt Scacchi describes it here:

“These people are in demand,” said Walt Scacchi, a research scientist at the University of California at Irvine’s Institute for Software Research who studies the open-source world. “As Mozilla is moving into a wider public audience, software developers who are identified as core contributors are likely to have market opportunities that conventional software developers would not have. If you’ve contributed to a software system used by millions of people, you’ve demonstrated something that most software developers have not done…”

“Free and open-source developers get involved primarily for the opportunity to learn about emerging or advanced tools, techniques or methods associated with those projects,” he said. “But the consequence is that people who can demonstrate their expertise become the most valued people. So financial capital may follow social capital, rather than the other way around. If you do good and people recognize that, that translates into increasing the value for your personal brand.”


Seems pretty straighforward to me. Not to mention sustainable. Forgetting the idealism so mocked by those who believe open source is a temporary phenomenon, I’d contend that as long as self-improvement and career goals remain a priority for some portion of the developer population, the open source ecosystem will be vibrant and healthy. Just as we all would be if we hit the gym every day.


  1. Can your clarify your statement on Lessig? Thanks.

  2. Thanks! And I agree, by the way!

    When I first read the sentence I thought you were saying the exact opposite: "Lessig is a naive, hippy communist." My mistake.

    To your remarks I'd add only that Lessig argues not only for the commercial utility, but the political necessity of free culture. Free societies depend on informed persons; and informed persons depend on widely distributed and freely "usable" media.

    Lessig's reminder that "that right was FOUGHT for" was probably Web 2.0's most compelling moment. (emphasis in the original speech)
    [mp3 :http://web20.weblogsinc.com/entry/4574704268392347/%5D

  3. sure. Lessig’s Commons is not a marketplace where everything is free, contrary to the contentions of the RIAA/DRM crowd. it is instead based on the recognition that sometimes the free exchange of ideas has a less obvious, but no less significant value, and that sometimes free and commercial interests can work hand in hand.

    in short, i think it’s a brilliant idea, and we support the efforts by making all of our content here available via a CC licence.

    my contention here is that Epstein and his crowd seem to believe that open source is a sort of simplistic version of Lessig’s commons. a community based solely on starry-eyed idealism and altrusim, as opposed to a balanced combination of community and individual self-interest.

    make sense? that answer your question? what part was unclear?

  4. ah, i see. no, we love the Commons and fully support Lessig – though my colleague James did disagree with him on the JavaOne panel last year regarding the open-sourcing of Java. but in general, we think he's brilliant.

    the fundamental understanding that he gets – and the RIAA doesn't – is the distinction between rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods. would that more people would perceive the difference therein.

    also, thanks so much for the link. you're proving the point i made earlier in the week regarding finding material. i don't have to hunt very hard, because you guys are all smart and tell me what i need to know. so thanks, and will give it a listen.

  5. you want to watch out stepho – did you just subconsciously run with my personal trainer meme/ i better write it fast!!

    and on the lessig point – that was interesting. you were talking about someone else's assertion. but got called on it. no wonder political discourse is so damned hard.

  6. well, like i told you at the time dude – best. quote. ever. 🙂

    as far as the political discourse bit, sure – but you'll notice that eric took the time to ask for clarification. speaks well not only of eric but the other visitors here.

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