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Commonspace - Chapter Six (Success Through Selflessness)

Link to original publication: http://commons.ca/articles/fulltext.shtml?x=481
It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author’s everyday problems, and turn out to be typical for others. Eric Raymond The Cathed...
Views: 605 Created 10/08/2006

It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author’s everyday problems, and turn out to be typical for others.

 

Eric Raymond

The Cathedral and The Bazaar

 

 

Why are people drawn to collective endeavours online? Why are they giving away crucial information and intellectual property for free? Why are they sharing and working with others, even competitors? Why are profit-focused, power hungry business people being so generous?

 

Because the age of crass selfishness is dead. The age of the common good is dawning.

 

Pollyannic fantasy? No.

 

Look around. Huge companies are being built on software that they not only give away for free, but that they let other companies copy. Rival companies are setting up innovative joint Internet ventures to make their whole industry run more smoothly. Smart companies no longer see their customers as buyers to be duped but rather as a contributors and co-developers in the creation of better products. There is an increasing awareness of the business and political value of pursuing the common good online and of cooperating with those we may have seen as competitors in the past.

 

Like a grain of salt with that? Fine.

 

People -- and companies -- are still motivated by self-interest. By money. By power. By prestige. But the terms on which we pursue what we need and want have changed. In a many-to-many network that emphasizes sharing, everything that you do for yourself has the potential to benefit everyone else. Likewise, anything anyone else does has the potential to benefit you. A piece of software that you write may be exactly what others in your field have been looking for. In a digital environment, sharing this software costs you nothing and earns you a great deal: respect, feedback, and good turns in kind.

 

Our increased reliance on networks means a new dependence on common infrastructure: tools, data exchange protocols, reference information, the network itself. Each of us needs these tools to succeed and to meet our own goals. But we also have a shared interest in making sure the network not only functions, but constantly improves. We have a common interest in efficiency and ultimately in the collaboration that creates commonspace.

 

 

Bring Me the Head of Ayn Rand

 

In the world of atoms, our economy and culture are driven by the notion of scarcity, where sharing means giving up a precious resource. This has been the reality since, well, forever. But with the emergence of open source and other bit-based commonspace phenomena, this reality is changing. The common good is starting to triumph over scarcity.

 

Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ which first appeared in 1968, describes the problem of sharing in an atom-based world[1]. We’ll summarize it here, spiced it up slightly to reflect the wonderful world of the new millennium:

 

A village of farmers holds one field in common, which they use to feed their herds. Each farmer has a herd of equal size, and together, the herds eat exactly all of the fodder that the field produces. On day, one farmer, while thumbing through his dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead, gets the brilliant idea that he should exploit the other farmers by adding another cow to his herd. After all, he’d only be paying the same as everyone else for his grazing rights, even if he had more cattle. While all of the animals will be a little skinnier when they go to market because of the overuse of the pasture, he’ll still make a few extra bucks. And what the hell, he deserves it. Selfishness is a virtue. Ayn says so.

 

Meanwhile, the other farmers are losing money to their Objectivist buddy because their cows go to market with slightly less meat on them, and they have fewer animals to sell. What to do? Inevitably, they all decide that they too have to buy more cattle to stay competitive. The cycle repeats itself. The field becomes muddy and rank and bare of grass; the increasingly scrawny cattle are packed in like sardines. Eventually, all of the grass is gone, and one of the farmers (probably that bastard with the copy of The Fountainhead) decides that the only thing to do is to feed the living but scrawny cattle on the ground-up remains of the cattle who’ve died of starvation. Everyone gets Mad Cow Disease and dies a horrible, foaming, gibbering death. Not a pretty picture.

 

Eric Raymond to the rescue. In ‘The Magic Cauldron’ <www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/magic-cauldron/>, he uses the example of open source to demonstrate how ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ disappears in commonspace. The self-interest vs. common good dilemma flips upside-down in an economy driven by bits.

 

Say you have a custom program for managing your farm. If you are willing to open the source code and share this software with your ‘community’ (the other farmers), you’ll definitely build goodwill. But will it cost you anything? No! Will it make the software less useable for your business? No! In fact, sharing it (and contributing to the common good) may even make the software more valuable, because the farmers you share it with may have geeky kids who improve the software and then share the improvements with you. Instead of falling under a despotic communist dictator or being broken up into tiny little capitalist freeholds, the commons continues to expand. Freaky but true.

 

In a world without scarcity, there are often insufficient rewards to motivate the creation of new software. The result is under-provision, and it’s a real issue. But as Raymond notes, this problem doesn’t grow with an increase in the number of end-users: ‘The complexity and communications overhead of an open-source project is almost entirely a function of the number of developers involved; having more end-users who never look at source costs effectively nothing. It may increase the rate of silly questions appearing on the project mailing lists, but this is relatively easily forestalled by maintaining a Frequently Asked Questions list and blithely ignoring questioners who have obviously not read it.[2]

 

The fact that valuable things made out of bits can be replicated easily and at almost no cost is having a profound impact on our culture.

 

common good vs. self-interest

 

becomes

 

common good = self-interest

 

Of course, this fact doesn't mean that everything is free. We all still need a way to make a living. It also doesn't mean that things made of atoms are no longer scarce. The new economy is not going to magically create enough food to feed the world, or solve the global housing problem, or make sure that we all have enough clean water to drink. But it will change Internet-based business, politics and education is.

 

In the long run, this shift in the way we think – towards mutual self-interest and an appreciation for cooperative work – will have a profound impact on the world of atoms. Old-economy businesses will learn from successful Internet companies how to have their cake (self-interest) and eat it too (community and common good). They will see how helping and collaborating with others feeds success and the bottom line.

 

It’s not that self-interest has disappeared, but rather that people are starting to see the synergistic nexus between the common good and their self-interest.

commonspace

(mutual self interest)

Common Good

Self-

Interest

Companies and

Individuals.

Communities, clans and groups.


Self-interest drives smart individuals to collective work and collaboration. The common good serves everyone involved, creating opportunities for all to prosper. It’s in this context that the industrial-age, Ayn Rand-style selfishness is dying. It’s simply become unnecessary.

 

And it's just so rude.

 

 

My Software is Your Software

 

The prime example of mutual self-interest and common-good thinking in action is (surprise) in the open source movement.

 

Most open source projects are not driven by some abstract perception of what the market wants (and what you can sell). Rather, they start with the immediate needs of an individual or a small group, such as a tool to keep track of all the networks you connect to with your Linux laptop, a better Web server, a better application server, or a better operating system. All of these things weregerminated by an individual or a small group driven by their own needs, wants, desires and vision.

 

 Luckily, our needs are often the same as the needs of others.

 

This is one of the reasons that Apache is the number one Web server on the Internet. Many people need a Web server that provides the flexibility and control of an open source package. For that matter, many people just need a Web server, and a free Web server that is just as good or better than the ones you pay for is an obvious choice. And so it is that a solution designed to meet the needs of a small group becomes a solution for hundreds of thousands of others.

 

From the inside the walls of old-style business thinking, creating something that others want is an opportunity for exploitation. What do you do? Copyright it. Package it. Bundle it. Advertise it. Sell it. And make sure that people can’t steal it. Make it proprietary. Create frequent incompatible upgrades. Release sequels. Keep it to yourself, and charge as much as you can.

 

The thing is, you will also see an opportunity for profit if you put on your open source thinking cap (comes complete with propeller!).

 

And we’re not just talking about monetary profit. There is no question that you can still make heaps of money from support, consulting, and ancillary businesses while giving away your software. You’ll also receive feedback, new ideas, upgrades and fixes written by your users. You may even get loyalty and community in the bargain. People will join you and act as shepherds for the idea that you have germinated. These things are just as valuable as money, and in the end may lead you to more economic profit than you would have been able to generate by staying strictly commercial.

 

Look at the differences between Microsoft and Red Hat, one of the major Linux distributors. Both companies face the same challenge: they need to build stable, useful operating systems that people will trust. Trust is key, as people are betting their livelihoods on the reliability of their systems. At the same time, both companies need to be constantly updating their software in order to meet new demands and respond to changes in the technology. This, in turn, introduces inevitable bugs and instability into their systems – a problem for both companies.  However, the pressures of reliability and software evolution take a greater toll on Microsoft.

 

It’s a Catch-22. Dealing with this reliability problems is a painful and expensive process for Microsoft.  First, every upgrade or ‘service pack’ needs to be rigorously tested before release. This process needs to be more extensive (and expensive) than it is with other companies because Microsoft already has a bad rep for buggy software (One hacker’s website bears the following wisecrack: ‘The software said it required Windows 95 or better, so I installed Linux’). But even when Microsoft manages to cover most of their bases, there will inevitably be bugs or security holes (65,000 in the case of Windows 2000… ouch!). If Microsoft is lucky, these holes will be discovered by a friendly Fortune 500 customer who will responsibly report the problem. Microsoft will then send the bug back to one of its development teams who will in turn come up with a solution in a month, or two, or three, and post a fix to their Web site. If Microsoft is unlucky, the bug will be discovered by teenage pranksters who will write a virus that will take down half the Microsoft-based servers on the Internet. Either way, bugs are an expensive embarrassment for a company like Microsoft.

 

For a company like Red Hat, the process is completely different. First of all, many of Red Hat’s upgrades and fixes come prewritten and pre-tested as a part of other Linux releases. In an open source world, Red Hat can build on the work of others who are also committed to the ‘common good’ of growing Linux. When Red Hat actually does write its own upgrades (and it does so fairly often), it has a responsive and understanding testing community – Linux users. Linux users will not only report bugs, but they will also propose fixes. Doing so is in everyone’s interest. As a result, bugs get fixed quickly and cheaply, often in a matter of hours. As Linus’ Law states, the open source group mind makes all bugs shallow.

 

 

Mutual Self-Interest

 

It’s worth noting that open source software often comes from places other than 'open source companies.' For example, people who aren't in the software business at all often write software to meet their individual business needs. This could be a custom tool to manage bookings for a hotel, or an accounting system for an ISP. No matter how good this software is, setting up shop to sell it commercially would probably be folly for most people in this situation, for it would distract the company from its primary business. But this doesn’t mean that the software isn’t useful to others. To people who do similar work, it’s probably very useful indeed. And the people who do similar work would probably be further ahead by putting their meagre software budgets into expanding something that’s already written than on writing something new from scratch. This is a perfect opportunity for open source: share what you create for yourself with others, then get others to share their improvements.

 

This points to the key value of open source – sharing and collaboration. It's not the idea that the software is 'free' that is so amazing (in fact, some open source software isn't free). Rather, it's the collaborative development and shared ideas. You start something. I add to it. So does someone else. We keep swapping code. This kind of collaboration is the nexus of self-interest and common good. We all get something better by sharing and using our group mind.

 

The notion of the collective mind as it applies to the open source community needs to be qualified slightly, which is one of the reasons we emphasize the notion of ‘self’ in the phrase ‘mutual self-interest.’ (This is the Power Rangers, not the Borg, remember?)  The Orbiten Free Software Survey, released May 1, 2000 analyzed over 25 million lines of code and the work of over 12,000 authors in an attempt to provide some empirical data about how open source projects actually work. Their findings are interesting:

 

The top 1271 authors, 10% of the total, accounted for 72.3% of the total code base. The top 10 authors alone (0.08% of the total) are credited for 19.8% of the code base. Free software development may be distributed, but it is most certainly very top-heavy.

 

What goes for lines of code written goes for involvement in projects too. Only the top 25 authors (0.19% of the total) were credited with participation in more than 25 projects. The top 250 authors were credited with participation in over 5 projects, and the vast majority (over 77%) of authors were only involved in a single project. Our conclusion: Free software development is less a bazaar of several developers involved in several projects, more a collation of projects developed single-mindedly by a large number of authors.[3]

 

These findings don’t invalidate the ‘bazaar’ model that contrasts open source development to traditional hierarchical organizations. What they do demonstrate is that at least in this early phases, community thought leaders don’t disappear. The attitude people take toward their own work changes, and the relationship that they believe others should take to it as well. Over time, as the code base increases in size and years, and more people become involved, more projects will pass from hand to hand, and these statistics will change. But the initial gesture had to be made, and an example set.

 

The open source approach to collaborative idea production is creating a significant shift in culture and economics. People are excited about open source. It’s real, and it works. But does its example map onto other industries and other parts of society? Do people other than idealistic anarcho-hippie programmers see the value of mutual self-interest? Yes. Of course.

 

 

The Community and the Common Good

 

The other place where common good thinking is spreading rapidly is in online communities. This is especially true in the nexus between traditional business practice and virtual community building – the creation of 'communities of commerce'. By truly engaging in community building, smart companies are able to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘improving relationships with customers’ to something more real and tangible. These companies are dropping one-way media emptiness in favour engaging online communities. As they do, they become able to see their customers as true partners, or even as leaders.

 

Rick Levine provides a small but instructive example of this in The Cluetrain Manifesto[4].

When Sun first released Java, documentation was poor, and there were still major problems with the code. To ‘help’ developers with these problems, Sun set up a flashy, marketing-department-inspired support site that charged $100 ‘per incident.’ This site was a money-losing failure. Almost no one from the developer community showed up, and when they did, they were costing Sun $110 for every $100 support incident. The site was both a business flop and a credibility flop. It was hard for developers to take Sun seriously.

 

Realizing it was going nowhere, Sun did a 180-degree flip. They set up a site that provided free support in discussion forums from Sun engineers, and that allowed developers to support each other. The result was a fast-moving information stream that built up the overall knowledge base among Java developers. With developers helping each other, the new system cost much less that the paper-pushing bureaucracy of the paid support site. Sun had created a valuable, self-sustaining resource that boosted its credibility with the development community.

 

What’s the difference between the two Sun sites? The first site treated developers and their questions as opportunities to grab a little extra revenue. The new site recognizes that regular users are likely Sun’s most valuable resources as well as customers and treats them accordingly. It addresses them as collaborators. It asks for their opinion. It rewards them for using Java. Most importantly, it builds a community by connecting Java developers to each other. In turn, this helps Sun with its core business – selling computers and software.

 

Contrasting these two sites shows what works online and what doesn’t. Services that are open, transparent, people-driven and based on principles of community building are the services that are increasingly in demand. Meeting this demand will be essential to the survival of businesses, governments and other organizations in the near future.

 

If you don’t provide this kind of openness, people will find a way to route around you. They will talk about your lame-ass, tight-fisted attitude in newsgroups, Web forums, listservs and e-mail. They will complain about your lack of responsiveness on ICQ and IRC. And together, because someone will have the answer, they will find companies who are responsive to their needs. Of course, this can also happen to those who are open, transparent and engaged in online community. But if you are engaged in an honest manner – if you are part of the community – people will laugh (and learn) with you. If you are a grumpy outsider, they will proably laugh at you, and they will definitely abandon your crappy, unsupported product in favour of something more, well, open.

 

Understanding and making this kind of shift is not always easy. In the Sun example, decision-makers were extraordinarily open and honest to themselves and their customers when they redesigned their support service. They also had to abandon a lot of tried-and-true business thinking. Even with dozens of business books and magazine articles out there touting the value of online community, being this honest and dropping old ways of making decisions isn’t easy. But it has to happen.

 

 

Better Markets for All

 

The Gartner Group, a large American consulting firm, says ‘collaborative commerce’ within the context of business-to-business (B2B) transactions is goin to be The Next Big Thing[5]. Collaborative commerce is basically business-to-business Internet services plus community. It covers a wide range of applications designed to connect players within an industry and enable collaboration. These applications allow companies to place fluid bids on tenders, find pricing, work on joint bid proposals, manage their supply chain, and so on.

 

Systems that provide this type of automated B2B information exchange are not new. Large companies and governments have been trying for years to make their interactions more fluid by investing in huge Electronic Data Exchange (EDI) projects. These projects allow for the automated exchange of purchase orders, inventory information and other supply chain information between established business partners. But while these systems have made business more efficient, they neither work across a whole industry nor allow for flexible collaboration.

 

A better historical example of early collaborative commerce is Sabre – the travel booking system established by IBM and American Airlines in the 1960s and still in use today. Sabre provides a single marketplace for travel agents, where all airlines list their flights. By aggregating large volumes of travel information in one place, Sabre is a type of commonspace. It crosses the boundaries of individual companies and essentially encompasses the whole industry. As a result, the travel market becomes fluid, enabling buyers and sellers to find each other without much hassle.

 

But ‘collaborative commerce’ means something more than Sabre and EDI. It’s about the Internet. A report by the consulting firm Bear Stearns states that the Internet is pushing industry well beyond EDI and Sabre and into a more collaborative world[6]. It not only provides electronic transactions and data aggregation, but also acts as a platform for open, interconnected marketplaces. It also lowers the cost of entry for smaller players. In some senses, it provides the potential for a more democratic world of B2B exchange.

 

Currently, the main form of collaborative commerce is the ‘vertical marketplace’ Web site. Popping up in almost every industry, these sites provide content and commerce tools focussed on a particular industry. For example, VerticalNet provides online marketplaces for the airline industry, wireless technology companies, hospitals and over 40 other industries. Each of VerticalNet’s sites (i.e. <www.hospitalnewtork.com>) provides product information, industry news, requests for proposals, directories, job listings, discussion forums and auctions within that industry.

 

Another example is Covisant – an online auto industry marketplace announced in early 2000 and owned by General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler. Covisant provides all the standard vertical market tools, such as auctions, catalogues and directories; but it also goes a step further by offering services like ‘collaborative forecasting and planning’. In other words, Covisant members are actually sharing strategic information they would normally have compiled separately – and secretly. This joint venture between cutthroat competitors shows that even dinosaurs can see the value in shared infrastructure and feed the common good ... even if it is only the common good of the auto industry.

 

When -- and if -- these vertical marketplaces work, they will indeed bring some of the potential of online communities to commerce. Suddenly, one’s scope and one’s colleagues move beyond the boundaries of individual organizations and out to the industry as a whole. This provides the potential for overall evolution within the industry. It also jumbles up once-static relationships. Open RFPs and auctions allow for a constant shifting of suppliers. In turn, small players can more easily sneak into the market.

 

Of course, the potential scope for collaborative commerce goes beyond throwing the supply chain up in the air and connecting peers within an industry. There is also a great deal of hands-on intellectual collaboration going on between business. Software companies with related products need to agree on common protocols. Lawyers and accountants working on big mergers need to shuffle collaboratively authored documents. In other words, even the boring world of B2B work needs access to group mind tools.

 

While this more cerebral aspect of collaborative commerce has been ignored by most of the big B2B players, there are some companies experimenting with ways to meet this need. For example, Open Text spin-off b2bScene (<www.b2bscene.com>) currently provides rentable intranets and a ‘trading community’ platform to help knowledge workers cluster around a particular project. The tools provided include project management and workflow programs, document management software, and discussion forums. Moreover, the service is designed much more along the lines of traditional community-building tools. The result is an environment that can foster real and fluid communities of commerce. They appear. People collaborate. They shut down. The gears of industry gind on.

 

 

Trust-Busting Community

 

Can collaborative commerce projects really bring commonspace to old-style businesses, or will they simply replace industry associations? Will markets really become more fluid and democratic, or will they simply be sewn up by the big players who own the marketplaces?

 

Not surprisingly, the trust-busters at the U.S. Department of Justice are starting to ask some of these same questions about industry-backed e-marketplaces[7]. While it's likely that independent markets like those run by VerticalNet will provide the momentum to speed up and add efficiencies to the marketplace, the impacts of industry-backed exchanges are a little harder to predict. Will reverse monopolies form, allowing big players to bully their smaller suppliers? Will alternate markets be shut out of the game? Or will they be able to communicate with the more established markets through open standards?

 

These questions don't apply just to the world of spark plugs and spray paint. During the first half of 2000, industry-backed exchanges were announced in over 20 sectors. Everything from meat (Tyson, Cargill, Gold Kist, etc.) to rubber (Goodyear, Michelin, Pirelli, Bridgestone, etc.) to chemicals (Dow, Shell, Dupont, etc.) now has its own industry-backed exchange in the works. Given this trend, it's unlikely that any major business sector will be without a huge, jointly-run e-marketplace.

 

On the one hand, this bodes well for commonspace. Huge companies are starting to understand the value of collaborative infrastructure. They are putting their money on the table and opening the pores of their corporate membranes. This will no doubt have an impact on the way that people in these industries work. Work across company boundaries will become more fluid and transparent.

 

What has regulators worried is the impact of this kind of openness and transparency when it flows from systems run by the dominant players in a huge industry.  In an effort to prevent the big guys from ganging up on the little guys, the US Justice Department has undertaken preliminary investigations into Covisant and six other vertical marketplace sites. They have also held hearings on the subject. The likely outcome of this is some form of regulation. If this is indeed what happens, let's hope the regulators know about open standards – the factor that really will keep things open, and will allow the little guys to thrive.

 

Unfortunately, some of the new digital juggernauts are still too big and too flushed with their own power to care too much about minor details like senate committees and regulation. While the Microsoft antitrust case was still being heard, AOL was purchasing Time Warner and creating a huge vertical monopoly including everything from the content itself (AOL, movies, magazines, TV) to the software to view it (Netscape, AOL, ICQ, WinAmp) to the actual cable networks to carry the content to the users. Although AOL Time Warner signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ in March 2000 promising to allow rival ISPs access to their cable networks in order to ensure a competitive market, the members of a U.S. senate panel investigating the merger were skeptical. Committee Chair Sen. Orrin Hatch went on record as saying ‘Given that this [agreement] lacks both enforceability and specificity, this committee remains to be convinced of its value beyond the boardroom and public relations office of AOL Time Warner.’ The senators also inquired why ‘AOL’s Version 5.0 software appears to hijack users’ computers and prevent them from accessing competing services’.[8]

 

All this power in the hands of a company that tried to sue AT&T in 1998- for the use of common Net phrases like ‘You Have Mail’ justifiably makes legislators wary. After the judge threw that case out of court, AT&T’s counsel stated that ‘we feel this sort of overreaching by one company raises serious concerns about whether AOL is truly committed to keeping the Internet an open platform, or whether it intends to leverage its dominance to make the net more proprietary.’[9]

 

Clearly, commonspace has some major competition. What’s more, its techniques and powers can be used by players on both sides of the field.

 

 

Giving Away the Store

 

It’s not always easy to convince people to open up their electronic barn doors and embrace the common good. In fact, even we were a tough sell for a while.

 

Back in 1999, one of us (Mark) was starting up a Web publishing software project for a group called the Association for Progressive Communications (<www.apc.org>). The project proceeded as one would expect. We laid out all the criteria. We described the desired features for our software. We brought a bunch of techies to the table to look at our options. At the end of all this, we took the predictable steps that might have come out of an IT management textbook from an MBA program – we picked out the best commercial software and started building our tools on top of them.

 

Quietly at first, and then more loudly,there was a chorus of people in the background asking, ‘Why don’t you use open source tools?’

 

‘Because they aren’t as good as the commercial tools’, we answered.

 

‘Why don’t you pick the best open source tools and make them better, to fit our needs?’

 

‘Because we’re in a rush’, we said.

 

‘But others will help you if you just share the code!’

 

But my gosh, we couldn’t give away our smart, amazing, unique code.  ‘We’d be giving away the store!’ we said. And so we went on our merry way, testing and customizing our commercial tools.

 

Then, six or nine months into the process, we realized that the chorus had been right (the chorus is always right in tragedies). It was much harder to make the commercial software do what we had wanted it to do, despite the grand marketing claims to the contrary. In addition, users were telling us that they wouldn’t adopt what we were developing since it was too big and complex. And as we looked around, the open source world was passing us by with a smug smile on its face. The tools that hadn’t been good enough six months earlier had become much better. Other open source tools were emerging that could do the same Web publishing functions we were planning to provide. Clearly, we had made a terrible mistake.

 

Luckily, we hadn’t missed the boat altogether. The voices calling for us to take a more open approach kept up their song (which often sounded like an angry mob of bald kids screaming hardcore punk lyrics). We started listening, dragged the project back to the drawing board, and redeveloped it with open source tools. This changed the project tremendously, forcing us at once to scale back our ambition and to see the real opportunities. Instead of regarding ourselves as the ones with the solution, we saw ourselves as a useful piece of a much bigger constellation. We eventually released our code under the General Public License (GPL) with the hope that others would find it useful and help it grow.

 

While this story doesn’t reflect well on us in some respects, it does make a point. We are all too easily stuck in our do-it-for-ourselves-and-keep-it-to-ourselves attitude. Despite years of involvement with cooperative projects both on- and offline, we just couldn’t get out of our mental straightjacket when it came to software development. And then, when with did, kabloooeeey! It all became clear. The connections between the common good, community building, iterative development and cooperative crystallized. Thought this process, we learned that it was possible to reassess our initial positions, and to ‘switch sides’ as a result.

 

 

Common Good Culture

 

The whole process of selling and learning to understand the simplicity and power of common good projects is like peeling an experiential onion. In order to have that eureka moment for yourself, you really have to see each layer of the onion being peeled away. You have to recognize each problem and deal with its results. Hopefully, you’ll find your answers sooner rather than later, and you’ll still have some onion left to garnish your burgers.

 

The fact that it is hard to get people’s heads inside the core ideas of commonspace doesn’t mean we aren’t pushing for them all the same. We are committed to them because they work, which is unfortunately still a rarity in the world of networked computing. Whenever we’re asked for advice on Internet projects, we look for the commonspace opportunities. We look for connections. We look for the nexus between the interests of the project participants and the common good. Trying to hook people on these ideas has provided some real opportunities for learning. We’ve come to see how people’s attitudes and understanding of the power of the network impact the projects they undertake.

 

One of us (Mark) does a lot of consulting for the Government of Ontario regarding grants for non-profit Internet projects. Of the dozens of projects every year, there are always interesting opportunities for collaboration. One such opportunity arose in 2000, when almost 25 different groups came forward at the same time asking for money to write volunteer-matching software. Our eyeballs popped out. Were they all really asking for something different? Was there really no existing solution for the problem?

 

We brought together all of the folks interested in this kind of software and said: ‘While we can’t force you to work together, it seems like there is a real opportunity here. Why don’t you write the software together?’ A look of horror immediately appeared on some faces. Work together? Give other people our ideas? Screw that. But there were a few in the room whole smiled. They got it. They saw commonspace in front of them, and the opportunity to create something better, cheaper, and faster.  [Place Bionic Man sound effects here, minus the six million bucks]

 

Of the groups in that room, three decided to create their own software with the promise that they would make it available to others for a fee later on. One of these groups hasn’t completed their software yet. Another has completed the software for themselves but has not yet succeeded in rolling it out for others. The third group has created an expensive monstrosity of an application in Oracle and put it up on their Web site. While it’s too big and cumbersome (and proprietary) to share the code, others can supposedly ‘share the wealth’ by logging in to the group’s Web site and using the tool there. Understandably, nobody seems to have shown up.

 

In contrast, the three groups that banded together at the meeting went on to create a piece of software that they could share. The results have been astonishing. Not only is the software up and running in the three communities that came to our meeting, but groups in 20 other communities have also adopted it. In some cases, the software has been shared and set up ‘as is’. In others, the local community has added new features or tools to the software. These in turn are shared with other users of the package.

 

By jumping on the common good bandwagon, all the groups using this software have benefited. They have a solution to their needs that is cheaper and better than the packages produced by those who went it alone. They also have something that will grow over time. Additions to the software continue to be created by the Ontario communities using the program. Now that the software has been released as open source, it’s likely that others from even farther away will begin to contribute.

 

This story drove home the common good message for everyone involved – and for many who were watching the process. Real success in the Internet age comes when you trash the walls of your organization and embrace commonspace culture. Championing mutual self-interest and taking a few risks is what makes the sparks fly. And, while your Ayn Rand library burns, you can roast marshmallows and sing campfire songs all night long.



[1] Hardin, Garrett. "The Tragedy of the Commons" Science, 162(1968):1243-1248. Also at: <dieoff.org/page95.htm>

[2] Raymond, Eric. The Magic Cauldron. <www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/magic-cauldron/>

[3] <orbiten.org/ofss/01.html>

[4] Locke, Christopher and Rick Levine, Doc Searls, David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual. New York: Persues, 2000. p.69.

[5] Bond, B. et al. C-Commerce: The New Arena for Business Applications. Gartner Group Research Note. August 3, 1999.

[6] Ehrens, Scott and Peter Zapf. The Internet Business to Business Report. Bear Sterns Consulting. September 1999.

 

[7] Price, David A. "Exchange Trustbusters" Business 2.0. August 22, 2000 - issue 8.22. p. 60.

[8] <www.thestandard.com/article/display/0,1151,12437,00.html>

[9] <www.aolwatch.org/list/0101.html>

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