Two Bits at Northeastern

Posted by ckelty on March 26, 2008

I just managed to cross the river from my current abode to give a talk at Northeastern, courtesy of the Consortium on Technology and Society.

A small but very enthusiastic crowd received the talk very well, with great questions. One thing the book doesn't address upfront, but which is perpetually the most obvious question is the so-called "motivation" question. That is, why do people do all this work creating free software (or free anything) and then give it away. In some ways, this question is central to the success of free software itself, in the form it's taken as a result of Raymond's formulation of it as a "gift economy" and so forth... an issue I attacked with gusto very early on, but never returned to (c.f. "Hau to do things with words").

However, I think the book actually answers this question strongly, if not as straightforwardly as it could: the reason people contribute to free software is in fact because it makes things public. It is the relative certainty that contributors have--based on the license terms and the existing community--that is the minimum necessary "motivation" for contribution. I think the question is asked backwards if one asks "what motivates X to do Y?" rather than asking what motivates X to give away Y after it's done?" In the absence of the license and the community, contributions to free software would diminish absolutely, even if the creation of software and other materials continued for differenet reasons.

Of course, this doens't explain why millions of people contribute reviews to Amazon, or give away ideas and intellectual property to corporations... but the question is still the same I think: not why do people write reviews for amazon, but what motivates them to give up their property in order to see it there.

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