Failure is Free

This week’s readings, “Failure is Free” by Clay Shirky and “Code is Speech” by Gabriella Coleman, discuss the importance and the success of the open source system in current society. First I will review the logic behind an open source system and why/how it has become such an integral part of how we manage and structure our organizations. I will then go over the issues that surround this rising system.

In chapter 10 of Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky discusses the logic of publish-then-filter than has emerged from the evolution of the open source system. This new method has been enabled by the idea of “failure for free”. Shirky explains this using the success of Stay At Home Moms (in chapter 8 of his book). Like any group formed on the Web, every Meetup group faces the problem of balancing specificity and size. In other words, each group wants to create a sense of local community and shared interest without being too general or too specific. An ideal group would exist right in between the generic and the specific—something achieved by the Stay At Home Moms (which can be demonstrated by the success of the group). How was this achieved? Did Meetup know that this would be such a big hit? The process of such group formation is actually quite ironic. Meetup uses an untraditional methodology in which they “do best not by trying to do things on behalf of its users, but by providing a platform for them to do things for one another (Shirky, 235). This seems to be reversed customer service—doing the least possible to serve the users, and instead leaving it up to the users/consumers to communicated and serve themselves. This leaves much room for failure as one may predict. Most groups fail due to a lack of interest by users (too generic, too specific, too boring). The user’s judgement is highly valued because the rise of groups is not a business decision, but a by-product of user behavior. As Shirky writes, “Meetup is succeeding not in spite of the failed groups, but because of the failed groups” (236). This is simply because failure is free. Through trial-and-error systems such as Meetup, successful groups such as Stay At Home Mom are born.
This form of experimentation began with software programmers. Linux was developed by Linus Torvalds, who wanted a free operating system that would utilize voluntary contributions and user participation. This initial proposal by Torvalds launched the idea of collaborative “open source” software. This open source software (OSS) has been one of the most influential developments of the digital age. Open source programs are “freely available and more importantly freely improvable” (244).

A key point that Shirky makes is that open social systems work because open systems lower the cost of failure and they do not create biases in favor of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea. Most traditional organizations try to reduce the likelihood of failure to avoid repercussion costs by choosing the “steady performer” over “brilliant but erratic” (250). On the other hand, the open source movement is an “ecosystem” in which failure is free. Cheap failure allows exploration of many more possibilities or “fitness landscapes” (for any problem there is a vast area of possibilities to explore but few valuable spots within to discover). Therefore, the cost of filtering versus publishing have reversed. Now, trying something new is often times less costly than deciding whether it is worth to try a certain thing.
Competitors such as Microsoft point out that the kernel of Linux is done by only a handful of people and discredits the idea of the open source system that there are hundreds of people contributing to the system. But Shirky expalins why this is not problematic to the open source society. Whereas an additional contributer at a traditional organization will use up resources, there is no such overhead management in an open source system who needs to worry about the scarcity of resources. Microsoft’s attack is pretty easy to negate if we look at the success of Wikipedia versus the flop of Microsoft’s Encarta. Encarta did not utilize user contributions that Wikipedia bases its success on.

Shirky makes the final point that open source systems work because there is genuine support from the community and not just commercial support (for a specific example read pages 256-259 about AT&T vs. Perl). The secret of the open source ecosystem is the shared interest—the idea that “communal can be at least as durable as the commercial” (259).
The philosophical commitment to freedom through OSS in Shirky’s article is directly tied to the argument of source code as speech formed by Gabriella Coleman. Coleman discusses the strong commitment of the Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) society to “redefine the meaning of liberal freedom, property, and software by asserting in new ways that code is speech” (1). Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) created Free Software, which unlike proprietary software, could be copied, shared, and modified without cost. In these systems, no one is really paid and voluntarily contributes to the developments of the organization. Growing copyright laws and patent laws seem to limit the distribution and sharing of F/OSS projects, show in the arrests of Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov. The former was arrested for unlocking a DVD’s DRM to play movies on Linux computers and the latter was arrested for unlocking Adobe’s e-book access controls. To programmers, these arrests violated the First Amendment and only showed the continual monopolization of big businesses. Coleman writes, “ Hackers, programmers, and computer scientists continue to be motivated to transform what is now their cultural reality—a rival liberal morality—into a broader legal one by arguing that source code should be protectable speech under the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of other nations” (29).

These ideas can be linked to last week’s reading on Facebook. There is a lack of privacy, but this lack of privacy is the most vital form of the open source society that allows the success Facebook. The MIP works on a basis of persuasive experience and the success of Facebook can be attributed to the success of the six components of the Facebook Platform in determining which approaches and options create the most popular feedback. Facebook is able to apply method of trial-and-error because of the open source system by which failure is free.

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8 responses to “Failure is Free

  1. The growth of internet and mediated networks triggered the birth of new organizational structure which was very different from hierarchical structure of corporations such Microsoft or IBM.. Shirky’s main point is that not open source software itself challenges big corporations such as Microsoft but rather the conditions in which these software had been created, this new organizational structure in which programmers work are, not the part of hierarchical structure, hence there are no additional costs which should be spend on managing this organization. In this situation commercial support which is in heart of every traditional corporations is ineffective because it is too slow vs. community support which is not financially or contract based, much more flexible and effective. Shirky states that “shared interest can now create that longevity” and this shift can be considered a historical (258). Traditional organizational structure is rigid and cannot compete with the open source ecosystem. By examining actual successful projects of open source ecosystem it might seem that it is failing because a small number of programs become successful, however, the crucial factor that makes this system revolutionary is “because the projects that fail, fail quickly, but the people working on those projects can migrate just as quickly to the things that are visibly working” (Shirky 258). In other words failure costs nothing and it doesn’t hurt the ecosystem, there is no time and money spend on decision making and filtering stages and it makes this system much faster and flexible.
    Shirky’s argument has overlapping points with the Fogg’s observation when in 2007 Facebook has launched its platform which allowed 3rd party plugins developers to integrate their programs into Facebook, In less than a year over 6000 apps were developed, of course not all of them were successful, but failures were not so significant because it were small companies, imagine Microsoft would launch such number of apps, we all know that it is impossible because its traditional organizational structure, planning and filtering stages are resource demanding, and in order to be safe corporations try to invest in more predictable models. Open source ecosystem has much greater potentiality in developing successful projects because they are not limited with their choices; the filtering stage is done by users and product consumers while big company will try to develop one product they think will be successful vs. open source ecosystem which develop all possible choices giving to the consumer the power to judge.

  2. I like how Shirky’s theory centers around the internet being open-source, it seems that on the internet people gravitate to the most interactive websites. Which explains our fascination with blogs and social networking programs, these websites give us a sense of control and authority. Especially with a website like digg.com that we discussed last class. I’m also fascinated in how open-source browsing puts us all on the same level, no social heirarchy exists online. Which gives a 3 year old just as much as a chance of being a YouTube sensation as an adult.
    I’m interested in finding out the results of other non-web based businesses taking on a similar open-source model. What would public input for a company like LG produce.

  3. I think the “non-hierarchical” structure characteristic of open source systems (mentioned above) is interesting on a few levels. First, the idea that essentially, people who are not employed by a certain system can affect its function is really representative of the global world and increasing interactivity we are experiencing these days with the internet. The “community” is enormous and contributions can be many. They are all accounted equally because of the platform already provided by the operating systems, internet, computer programs etc. This is where I find the idea of open source systems particularly intriguing: they are completely unbiased and egalitarian. Where as in the reality of working for a company creating operating systems, you would need to provide experience, show a college degree and prove your credentials, open source systems leave behind all of these types of prerequisites. Obviously, you’re not going to improve upon an operating system without having the proper knowledge to do so. But, I find this new way of accepting and valuing ideas (esp. the aid of an individual) to be socially modern. This type of equality and opportunity to share ideas is the foundation of digital culture, to me. With the internet, we are able to reach users far and wide, so why not collaborate with them, or at least, leave that option open?

  4. Responding to nichollp, I do agree that opening up “closed” source programs would benefit the program itself to some extent. Obviously we can see the tremendous successes of Facebook and iPod apps, which allows for any programmer to create their own programs, making Facebook and the iPod more valuable as a whole. However, as a company, by opening up the source, you jeopardize the integrity of your name. For example, I have always thought about switching Linux as an OS from XP. I’ve heard that it’s faster and more secure than Windows, but the main reason I didn’t make the jump is because of reliability. I know that at Microsoft, employees probably DO have college degrees, good credentials, and are paid to write good software. This helps in terms of compatibility, reliability, and responsiveness of the operating system and support. But this also has to do with the popularity of Windows and how Windows machines outnumber Linux machines about 90 to 1. The popularity in itself creates a community of support, which was one of the selling points of Linux.

    Do I think that this sort of closed source is the future? Probably not. One of the main incentives behind keeping things closed is to retain intellectual property and like any business, to make a profit. I think with the ease of sharing, it will be more difficult for software manufacturers to charge large amounts for their software (for example, the Windows 7 operating system is almost half the price of a netbook). What will be interesting to see in the near future is Chromium, Google’s new open source OS offering. I think that this will be interesting because it is backed by Google, which over the past few years has proven itself to be one of the most innovative companies around, and it is also open source, so it will be interesting to see what the community can offer in terms of enhancements.

  5. Hello, ehg242

    Thank you for your response! I understand your hesitance completely. Branding exists for a reason, after all. I suppose I shouldn’t have used the example of not having a degree because that makes this participant sound somewhat illegitimate. However, I do still think that the “blindness” of open source systems, the lack of discrimination of contributors, should be appreciated. This is an openness which eliminates the importance of national borders, financial status, social status etc. Not to sound too idealist, or political, but where else does such an egalitarian forum for expression exist? I feel like that in itself makes open source systems worth protecting. I’m also curious to see what becomes of this Chromium OS.

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