Post-OSCONum part 1: try not to suck

Good lord, I’m exhausted.

OSCON was amazing. It’s clear that a sea change is occurring in the open source movement: to paraphrase Tim O’Reilly’s keynote, we’re finally moving away from “free software is better because it’s free” towards “free software is better because it’s better”. This of course makes being a free software author more exciting than ever. Judging by the number of job postings, it’s also easier than ever to actually get paid for work on open source.

There’s apparently over $1 billion being invested in open source every year.

That’s fantastic, but it also causes no small bit of hang-wringing among hackers. One keynoter referred to open source as a “business strategy”, and there was no lack of rhetoric about how to “monetize” and “sell” open source. For idealists – and I include myself in that camp – this is frightening. As free software gains acceptance, it appears we run the risk of turning into the money-driven suits we’ve always tried to fight.

It’s hard to feel very subversive when Sun, IBM, Novell, and – yes – Microsoft all have major presence at the Open Source Convention. It’s also not hard to see the open source community as an aging Deadhead who’s long since shaved his beard, put on a tie, and bought an SUV.

Anil Dash articulated this better than anyone. He implored us to look closely at our work and make sure our work is meaningful and important. “Try not to suck,” he said, and while funny his words ring true: where once we were subversive, now we’re the ones in danger of being subverted by the draw of money and power. That sucks.

In One Dimensional Man Herbert Marcuse writes about the mainstream’s dangerous ability to absorb its own fringes. While a totalitarian society persecutes those that fight against it, Marcuse writes we have more to fear from our seemingly open society. When the subversives threaten the status quo, the mainstream expands to include its former adversaries, luring the visionaries into complacency. “We’ve won!” they trumpet, mistaking their personal success for success of their ideals.

In music we usually call this “selling out;” in hacker circles, we like to use “jumping the shark.” Whatever the terminology, open source seems in grave danger of succumbing to the siren song of success.

Thankfully, the push-back has already begun.

I witnessed heated arguments about the hosted software distribution loophole that is blunting the teeth of the GPL; I watched a roomful of hackers ridicule commercial efforts to seize control of their project; I saw thousands of coders from around the world ready to take arms against a new, more insidious foe: our own success.

Thus it is that OSCON will stick in my mind as a celebration of success beyond our wildest dreams, and simultaneously a sobering realization that we cannot let that success blunt our idealism.