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.