Open Path

by Chad Whitacre

The Open Source Sustainability Crisis

By Chad Whitacre ❧ Published on January 19, 2024
tl;dr What is Open Source sustainability? Fair pay, no hoops. Why is it in crisis? Burnout.
Disclosure / advertisement: I work for Sentry.

Let’s get the XKCD reference out of the way, shall we?

Okay, now let’s talk about the Open Source sustainability crisis. The purpose of this post is to define terms. What is Open Source sustainability? Why do I say it is in crisis? My answers are that sustainability is when people are getting paid without jumping through hoops, and we’re in a crisis because people aren’t and they’re burning out.

What is Open Source Sustainability?

Open Source sustainability is when any smart, motivated person can produce widely adopted Open Source software and get paid fairly without jumping through hoops.

Consider these four examples:

  1. Jordan Harband is a smart, motivated person who produces widely adopted Open Source software and can’t get paid fairly without jumping through hoops.

  2. Josh Goldberg is a smart, motivated person who produces widely adopted Open Source software and can’t get paid fairly without jumping through hoops.

  3. Filippo Valsorda is a smart, motivated person who produces widely adopted Open Source software and can’t get paid fairly without jumping through hoops.

  4. Caleb Porzio is a smart, motivated person who produces widely adopted Open Source software and can’t get paid fairly without jumping through hoops.

Those are four people at the top of the Open Source game, clearly illustrating that we have not reached Open Source sustainability yet. We’ve hardly begun. For, sustainability means the opportunity to produce Open Source software and get paid fairly without jumping through hoops is widely available to many, many people.

How many? There are 30 million developers in the world. The largest tech companies each employ on the order of magnitude of 10,000 to 100,000 of us. The sustainable Open Source community taken as a whole will be roughly the same size. Open Source is a sleeping tech giant.

Today we are at zero.

What’s Wrong With Hoops?

Hoops are boring. We’ve had scarcity-based economic relations for millenia. Open Source is designed for a different world. It presents the first real opportunity in our society to begin to develop a post-scarcity economic model at scale. That likely wants unpacking in a future post. For now, I assert that our creative use of well-trodden paths is Open Source subsidization, not sustainability.

As I define it, Open Source sustainability means no hoops, no “New Role” in Nate’s chart. Self-determined individuals freely produce Open Source software, and get paid in proportion to their productivity without having to also become tech influencers, or sell contracts, or any other shenanigans. Those can who want to. I envision a world where we don’t have to.

What is the Sustainability Crisis?

High-profile security kerfuffles such as Heartbleed and Log4Shell often come to mind when we think about Open Source in crisis. But, while they draw attention to the sustainability crisis, the crisis is not about security. Microsoft pays 100,000 developers and still has plenty of security issues. Yes, companies and governments should care about Open Source security, and those efforts can contribute to what I’m calling sustainability, but security is a proxy concern. Let’s call that the Open Source security crisis.

Just as the security crisis is adjacent to the sustainability crisis, so is the Open Source diversity crisis: Open Source is markedly less demographically diverse than software engineering in general. We have not just inequality of outcome but inequality of opportunity. 35% of people don’t even have Internet access yet, let alone free time to hack on Open Source projects. Structural inequalities can be thought of as the largest of hoops to jump through in order to get paid fairly for producing widely adopted Open Source software. We should directly address this wider diversity crisis, and, we should work on resolving the sustainability crisis.

Open Source has created an economic value vacuum. Our society depends utterly on the common pool resource of Open Source software, and this commons is severely underprovisioned. How do we know? The real indicator of the Open Source sustainability crisis as I define it is maintainer burnout.

We have a long-standing pattern of chewing people up and spitting them out, as youthful idealism and enthusiasm give way to resentment and depression. We see it most clearly when a high-profile vulnerability shines a spotlight, but it plays out much more widely in less visible circumstances. For example, here is how Marc Grabanski tells his story:

I created an open source component that literally every website or piece of software at the time used, and often still do. Go to the WordPress control panel and there’s my date picker. But in 15 years, the only money I ever got for that was $400 from a guy who needed me to add a specific feature. I think I got a handful of change thrown at me through PayPal, like $50 bucks. There was no economic sustainability whatsoever.

There was a long time where I was doing open source almost more time than my full time job, and getting paid nothing. I just burnt out. I stopped writing and contributing to open source. I never built up my GitHub profile when that came around. I just gave up, because what’s the point when all you get is constant issues? You give and give and give, and people just take and take and take.

My open source success went from a major blessing to a great curse. It was one of the darkest times in my life. Something that started out with such hope and light ended up just being about getting thousands of emails.

There was no viral moment when we collectively realized that we were taking advantage of Marc. We quietly crushed him without ever noticing. There are many such cases.

Update From Marc:
The thing I'd add to that, is I was able to create a network that eventually led to Frontend Masters. My story is not all doom and gloom like it is portrayed in the article. But it def wasn't a given I'd be able to capitalize on the networking opportunities that OSS gave me."

The Path Lies Through Platforms

Funding platforms are critical to achieving Open Source sustainability. Maybe you want to classify “join a platform” under “jump through hoops.” It’s not the same, though.

Building platforms and recruiting devs to receive free money is easy. The main options today are GitHub Sponsors, Open Collective, and Tidelift. I’m also rooting for (they are helping me a lot at Sentry) and Liberapay (they are a fork of Gittip/Gratipay).

What’s hard is opening the corporate floodgates. Companies receive outsized value from Open Source, and companies control nearly all the funds. How do we open the floodgates? tl;dr Taxes and social pressure. More on that in a future post.