The Economics Of Cooperation

I’d like to spread the word about a project that has the goal of allowing open source developers to focus on the projects they have passion for.

Gittip allows people to set up recurring payments to specific programmers to encourage them to work on whatever projects they are passionate about. The long term idea is that maybe these developers could quit their day jobs working for companies that pay well but don’t necessarily produce products they are fascinated with, and spend their time on whatever open source project is currently taking their fancy. This model has been used somewhat effectively for a few projects such as the massively successful kickstarter project for Diaspora (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/196017994/diaspora-the-personally-controlled-do-it-all-distr) or the donation bars for PyPy development (http://pypy.org/). However, the simple fact is that most open source developers are either a) paid by companies that have ulterior motives or b) working on open source projects only in their free time.

Gittip was developed by one of my favourite coworkers. He’s leaving a kickass job at our company because he believes that the world can be made more personal. I am writing this article, on my own initiative and not at his request, to support that goal. Perhaps I, too, one day, will be able to return to open source development and focus on my passions.

Instead of paying Google to pay it’s developers to make awesome stuff for us (and allowing Google’s wealthy shareholders — who did nothing — to skim a little off the top), we can pay developers directly. Google employees have a pretty awesome life, but they still have to spend 80% of their time working on Google products. We can make them happier by allowing them to quit Google and focus on their passions. And they can make us happier by creating brilliant products for us without having to sell our souls and personal data to use it. This story, of course, could apply to every software company and any brilliant open source developer out there today.

Gittip reminds me of a project I developed a few years ago called Arch Bounty (http://archlinux.me/dusty/2009/09/07/introducing-arch-bounty/). Arch Bounty failed before it got off the ground, partially because Arch itself wasn’t big enough to support it, partially because I failed to promote it, and partially because I didn’t do a good job of explaining what kinds of projects would be suitable for it. I hope Gittip does better.

I am fascinated by how effective cooperative communities can be. I love how my tiniest contributions to Arch Linux are paid in full by the tiny contributions of numerous other users. I love how hosting one person in the Couch Surfing community gives me the chance to stay anywhere in the world and meet wonderful people.

And yet, I am saddened by the way consumerism is able to overwhelm many similar communities. Google is very intent on making Mozilla irrelevant. We are socially conditioned to compete for resources instead of cooperating to build shared resources that benefit each of us more than individual competition could ever pay off.

Cooperation and competition need not be mutually exclusive. When I play ultimate, twice a week, I have a very strong competitive desire, as do my teammates and opponents. However, we have a culture of cheering good plays, regardless of which team makes them, and commiserating with missed opportunities. When two of us are competing for the disc, we’ll high five each other for having made a good run, regardless of who caught it. The world would be a better place if this cooperative-competitive culture could be applied universally. If we could all be attempting to excel at our individual passions, while also nourishing and encouraging others in their pursuits. I believe this dual nature can be applied to the marketplace. Everyone talks about the relative merits and problems with capitalism vs communism. Both systems seem to have fatal flaws over the last hundred years. What if we had both?

Can such a coopero-competitive culture be financially stable? A successful Gittip would be a great first step. I encourage you to discover the github username of your favourite Arch Linux developers and make a small weekly contribution. It would be amazing if enough of us could do this to motivate even one developer to quit his day job and work on Arch full time. Is it possible?

Yes.

One Comment

  1. Changaco says:

    A good project, but ideally everybody should receive a basic income, whether or not we create things others want.

    I would also note that having money didn’t make Diaspora successful, we’re still waiting on a real free alternative to Facebook.