Open source and behavioral economics

People occasionally ask me why busy, highly-skilled, highly-compensated programmers freely donate their time to open-source projects. In the past, I’ve nattered about the satisfaction of sharing with the community, the pleasure of programming as a hobby even if you do it for your day job, the “just make it work” attitude that often prevails among techies, altruism, idealism, the musings of people like Linus Torvalds, or research like the Lakhni and Wolf MIT/BCG study of developer motivation. (Speaking for myself, I code to solve problems, and I am naturally inclined to share what I do with others, and derive pleasure from having it be useful to others. The times I’ve written code for a living, I’ve always been lucky to have employers who were willing to let me open-source anything which wasn’t company-specific.)

But a chapter in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational got me thinking about a simpler way to explain it: Programmers contribute to free software projects for reasons that are similar to the reasons why lawyers do pro bono work.

The book posits that exchanges follow either social norms or market norms. If it’s a market exchange, we think in terms of money. If it’s a social exchange, we think in terms of human benefits. It’s the difference between a gift and a payment. Mentioning money (“a gift worth $10″) immediate transforms something into a market exchange. The book cites the example of lawyers being asked to do pro bono work — offered $30/hour to help needy clients, they refused, but asked to do it for free, there were plenty of takers. The $30/hour was viewed through the mental lens of a market exchange, mentally compared to their usual fees and deemed not worthwhile. Doing it for free, on the other hand, was viewed as a social exchange, evaluated on an entirely separate basis than the dollar value.

Contributing to free software follows the norms of the social exchange. The normative difference is also interesting in light of Richard Stallman’s assertion of the non-equivalence of “free software” and “open source”, and some of the philosophical debates that simmer in the background of the open-source movement; Stallman’s “free software” philosophy is intricately tied into the social community of software development.

The book also notes that issues occur when one tries to mix social norms and market norms. For instance, if you ask a friend to help you move, but he’s volunteering his time alongside paid commercial movers, that’s generally going to be seen as socially unacceptable. Commercial open-source projects conflate these two things all the time — which may go far to explaining why few commercialy-started projects gain much of a committer base beyond the core organizations and developers who care and are paid to do so (either directly, or indirectly via an end-user organization that makes heavy use of that software).

(Edit: I just discovered that Ariely has actually done an interview on open source, in quite some depth.)

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Posted on January 9, 2009, in Industry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. That is a fascinating interview!

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