Direct support won’t work for OSS
December 08, 2020
Open source is a unique system that exists in the developer community. The number of open source components in the codebase of proprietary applications keeps rising.
OSS delivers more value for a company than any single developer they employ. While they’re willing to pay 6 figure salaries for those developers, they don’t have to pay for OSS.
As OSS grew, the more OSS maintainers suffer from fatigue of working hard for free to address the users’ issues. It’s hard work even for people who are paid to manage the OSS.
Many things are lacking to support the OSS maintainers, but one that stands out is financial support. It used to be taboo to market your open source in the OSS community actively. The developer community wants to separate their work from the business because they are purely driven by intellectual curiosity.
It is still the case, but as the problem becomes more visible, Its perception is changing. As software businesses become more data-driven, there are more occasions that engineers talk about the business that they are in. And there haven’t been more people who want to help solve this problem.
Github launched Github Sponsors in 2019, and it was accepted positively.
But I don’t think it’s going to be the mainstream.
Passion Economy Model
Kevin Kelly famously wrote “1000 true fans”. Internet removed the middleman and allows individuals who deliver values to people to get paid directly by the fans. The whole premise of it is charging $10/m from each fan to let you make a living.
- According to BuzzFeed News, the top 12 writers on Substack make an average of more than $160,000!
- As one of the top earners on OnlyFans, Monica Huldt is making more than $100,000 a year, from a mixture of subscribers who pay $6.50 a month as well as larger fees for pay-per-view and commissioned work.
And if we think about the developer community, the numbers look promising.
There are anywhere between 6-50M software developers in the world. According to Wikipedia, Github has 40M active users. The more reasonable estimates I’ve found are closer to 23M software developers. To me, this is a good rough sizing of the bionic market. That is, it’s probably > 1M and < 100M.
— Daniel Gross, the bionic market
As passion economy makes more cases, I hope the same model works for OSS.
Why it won’t work for the OSS community
OSS is a set of functions you can use in your product code. The key distinction between the OSS community and other passion economy platforms is that it is hard to tell which OSS contributes to the end product in the OSS community and how much they contribute individually. Not any single OSS brings the full value of it. Product engineers combine the functionalities of OSS to make their software.
Even though people feel the need to support and sustain the ecosystem, there’s no good option to do so right now. What’s happening is that only the famous projects get paid relatively well(still very low, though), and many other projects don’t get enough sponsoring to sustain them.
Also, a large portion of it goes to the highest layer of the ecosystem that product developers touch, such as popular application development frameworks. Many other projects in the lower layers, such as network management, don’t get exposed well enough.
That creates a negative cycle.
- It is hard for product engineers to feel they get value high enough to pay $10/month to each of the OSS you depend on; very few people contribute.
- You know the good developers easily get paid six figures in Silicon Valley. So why does your $10 matter?
A couple of platforms exist to support independent creators, such as Patreon, Buy Me a Coffee, and Gumroad. It’s exciting to see those services thrive, enabling the direct support system and let people go independent. We don’t know the ceiling of it yet.
Obviously, there will be a limit on how many recurring payments a person can have. And there will be a structure of only a few winners get a large portion.
It’s alright for creators market. But I believe it’s not for the OSS ecosystem. It cannot be the future mainstream of OSS support structure and we need a better model for the OSS community.