Yochai Benkler and Rishab Aiyer Ghosh at WikiMania 2006

On Saturday morning, I had the pleasure of attending talks given by two very important contributors to my field. About a year and a half ago, shortly after I first met Katrin Verclas, Katrin started telling me, “You’ve got to read Yochai Benkler.” I’m pretty sure that she ended 90 percent of our subsequent conversations with, “You really should read Benkler.” When Benkler came out with his book, Wealth of Networks earlier this year, everybody else in the world seemed to echoed Katrin’s advice.    (KYH)

I knew that Benkler was speaking this weekend, so I finally downloaded his book and started reading it on the plane. Unfortunately, I only got through the first chapter. You can imagine how lame I felt when I found myself having dinner with him on Friday night. Fortunately, Benkler himself gave a thirty minute synopsis of his book on Saturday morning.    (KYI)

(As an aside, Benkler unintentionally scored some major geek points, when his laptop revealed that he runs Linux with KDE. There are a lot of outsiders commentating on Open Source these days, but most of them do not actually run Linux themselves.)    (KYJ)

Benkler’s thesis is that technology has enabled unprecedented forms of large-scale cooperative production, what he calls “commons-based peer production.” Think Wikipedia, think Open Source, think Mash Ups, etc. According to Benkler, these non-market activities are no longer on the periphery, but form the very core of economic life for the most advanced societies.    (KYK)

Technology is largely responsible for our ability to behave this way, but only partially responsible for the authority to behave this way. The latter is a cultural phenomenon that has been catalyzed by the technology, but is not entirely causal.    (KYL)

The question is, is this behavior an outlier, or is it economically sustainable? Benkler didn’t talk a lot about this — this is why I need to read the book — but he did cite numbers such as IBM’s revenues from Linux-related services, which far outpaces its revenues from IP licensing. (This alone is not evidence; smaller Open Source companies like MySQL are making significant revenue from dual licensing, a lesser known fact of life for many Open Source companies.)    (KYM)

Benkler touched a bit on the importance of humanization in commons-based peer production, which he said is the focus of his current research. He also cited the reemergence of a new folk culture in society today, something that Lawrence Lessig also talks about.    (KYN)

There was a minor hullabaloo between Jason Calacanis and Benkler during Q&A. (See Andy Carvin‘s description, plus some background and commentary. It was entertaining, but low on any real controversy. Benkler acknowledged that the interface between market and nonmarket interaction is not well understood right now. There are good examples of how paying people kills the community dynamics, but the patterns are not necessarily discernible yet. However, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who spoke after Benkler — made it crystal clear that those citing numbers about how a small number of people are responsible for a large percentage of work are missing the point. If you pay for 75 percent of the work, you end up with a three legged chair, which is worthless.    (KYO)

Ghosh has done some of the best quantitative analysis on Open Source communities, and he’s been doing it for a while. The Blue Oxen report on open source communities was heavily based on work that Rishab had done.    (KYP)

Ghosh kicked off his talk by talking about James Watt‘s exploitation of the patent system, and argued that Watt’s significantly slowed innovation with the steam engine and thus was partially responsible for delaying the Industrial Revolution.    (KYQ)

(I didn’t find Ghosh’s argument particularly compelling or relevant, but it was a good story. Patents give folks monopolies, and monopolies are bad for markets. We know that already. But patents are also supposed to incentivize innovation. Ghosh was insinuating through his story that patents were not a strong motivator for innovation in this particular case, but I have trouble believing that. Christoph Friedrich Von Braun wrote an excellent, but dense book, The Innovation War (1997), where he explained how difficult it was to correlate patents to innovation, either for or against. And von Braun barely touched on software, which adds even more complexity to the question.)    (KYR)

Ghosh then went on to talk about FLOSS developer motivation and described his value-flow and cooking pot analogy for how markets can sustain this type of behavior. He also pointed out that the collaboration is not new, but the scale is.    (KYS)

Ghosh continues to do good research, much of which is hosted at FLOSS World.    (KYT)

Why Nonprofits (and Foundations) Should Care About Open Source

Why should nonprofit organizations care about Open Source? I’ve had an ongoing conversation about this with Katrin Verclas for a while now, and I thought it would be worth outlining the arguments here. I actually think philanthropic organizations should care a lot more about Open Source than nonprofits, and I’ll explain why below.    (KOD)

Forget, for a moment, the question of whether nonprofits should be investing in technology or what the long-term return on investment might be. That question is a bit of a red herring, because a lot of nonprofits have fundamental problems (poor management, under-resourced, etc.) that can’t be resolved with technology.    (KOE)

Instead, assume that there are specific needs that can be addressed by technology. The question is, what do nonprofit organizations need to leverage that technology? They need two things:    (KOF)

  • The tools themselves    (KOG)
  • Capacity — the ability to install, maintain, and use the tools    (KOH)

If there’s an affordable tool that meets your needs, and if you have the capacity to install, maintain, and use it, then it doesn’t matter whether the tool is proprietary or Open Source. Use it.    (KOI)

If there’s no tool that meets your exact needs, then that tool becomes a candidate for fundraising, and the conversation likely shifts from the nonprofit itself to foundations. If you’re a foundation and if you’re going to invest in the creation of a tool, there are all the reasons in the world to invest in Open Source.    (KOJ)

  • You get more for your money, because others can invest in the same codebase as well, and you can use what you develop across your entire portfolio. This is especially true if you’re investing in a project that already exists.    (KOK)
  • You decrease the likelihood of lock-in. This is a bit misleading, as the cost of switching technology is not necessarily lower if your software is Open Source. However, you avoid the problem of legacy, unsupported software where the supporting company disappears, because the source code is always available.    (KOL)

Most importantly, as a foundation (or nonprofit), you’re more likely to be skilled at connecting people than you are at developing software. And this is exactly what developers need to build better tools — a greater understanding of their users. Commercial companies aren’t likely to care about a market unless it is mature, and the needs of most nonprofits don’t fall into that category. But Open Source developers will care. Many Open Source developers share the same underlying “do good” attitude that folks in the nonprofit world have, and they’re more than happy to improve their tools for the nonprofit community. By focusing on connecting with a pre-existing software development community that is already predisposed to work for the social good, you are likely to get better tools sooner than you might from proprietary software companies.    (KOM)

More importantly, the process of connecting has a powerful side-effect: It helps build organizational capacity. When you connect your community to developers, you’re also connecting your community to each other. There will be some who will feed off the knowledge of developers, and that’s critical. Even more critical is what your community will absorb from each other. People are far more likely to learn from their peers — those they perceive are as lost as they are — then they are from authority figures.    (KON)

Katrin Verclas: New N-TEN Director

Congratulations to Katrin Verclas, the new executive director of N-TEN! Those of you who follow my blog know what I think about Katrin: Quite simply, she’s awesome.    (KM3)

Katrin is someone I’ve bonded with over the years, because she truly understands the importance of networks and how to catalyze them. More importantly, she’s a doer. She’s already planning a roadshow across the country this summer, so go say hello to her when she’s in your area.    (KM4)

Katrin’s got what it takes to catalyze N-TEN’s latent potential, and I’m looking forward to seeing her jolt it to bigger and better things.    (KM5)

Working With Others: Loose vs Tight Collaboration

Last November, I explained that I was going to embark on a series of open conversations with Katrin Verclas. Katrin initiated the conversation with a list of life and career desires. I wanted to quote my favorite items here, but I couldn’t pick just one. So instead, here’s a question for Katrin. Katrin, you say:    (K2P)

I want to work with a team of people who know how to be a team, who are flexible, give, take, are giving, competent, smart, have a sense of humour, are creative, passionate about what they do, and good at it, who know how to truly collaborate for a bigger and better whole.    (K2Q)

What’s been your best experience working with a team? Did that experience match this stated goal, and if not, what was missing?    (K2R)

I spent a ton of time in college doing stuff with the campus computer group. We weren’t just a group of nerds who got together to hack (although we did plenty of that). At the time, the Internet was on the verge of exploding, and our school had just finished installing Ethernet in all of the undergraduate dorms. We saw ourselves as playing an integral role in getting folks on campus to understand technology’s great potential. In this vein, we taught seminars and sponsored a lecture series. We provided support for the network and hosted Web sites for campus groups. We advised campus officials on policy and ways to put new ideas into practice, then we helped them actually do it. We kicked some serious butt, and we had a heckuva lot of fun along the way.    (K2S)

The raw talent in that group was remarkable, something that’s even more clear today as I look at what many of these people have accomplished post-college. More importantly, there were a lot of good people there, and I became life-long friends with many of them.    (K2T)

I’ve often said that I’d jump at the chance to work with any of those folks again, but experience has shown that this isn’t quite true. The opportunity has come up several times, and I’ve turned down all of them, although most very reluctantly. It has nothing to do with the people, and everything to do with timing, personal values, and the work itself.    (K2U)

I don’t want to have to choose between working with great people and working on something I’m passionate about — I want to have both. I don’t think I’m alone in this. There are several people with whom I would love to work more closely, but for a variety of reasons, it won’t happen soon, if ever. Sometimes, the alignment is only slight off, but having that alignment in values and goals is critical to success and happiness.    (K2V)

This has broader applicability when it comes to facilitating collaboration in large groups, and it has to do with the difference between what I call loose and tight collaboration. Tight collaboration occurs when you have a strongly shared, concrete goal, and it usually manifests itself in small, tight-knit groups. Loose collaboration occurs when you are working towards a larger, possibly unbounded goal. (In fact, according to the definition of collaboration I throw around all the time, “loose collaboration” would not always qualify as “collaboration,” since the goal could be, but is not necessarily unbounded.)    (K2W)

Some people desire tight collaboration to the point of unhappiness. I’ve seen people complain that their community is not working together, when in fact, the problem is not that collaboration is not happening, it’s that it’s not aligning itself around a particular person’s individual goals and desires. All too often, “We can’t agree,” actually means, “I can’t get the group to agree with me.” When you consider collaboration at a large-scale, this kind of thinking is not viable. It is possible to be loosely aligned and to collaborate loosely with others to the benefit of all.    (K2X)

Bringing it back to individual goals and desires, I’ve had wonderful experiences with loose collaboration with Blue Oxen Associates, but only fleeting experiences of great tight collaboration. I’m not too unhappy about the latter, though, because I think it’s largely a matter of timing. It’s certainly not due to the lack of candidates. As the business continues to grow, I think those experiences will occur more frequently.    (K2Y)

I’ll end this rambling with a flight of fancy. Towards the end of college, when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I settled on the following fancy: Pick a neighborhood in the worst part of some urban city, start a K-12 school with ten of my smartest friends, and see it through at least long enough to watch the first kindergarten class graduate from high school. I still fantasize about this scenario, and in a lot of ways, it captures what I want to do with my life and many of the elements of what I’m trying to do with Blue Oxen Associates.    (K2Z)

A Series of Open Conversations

What the heck is Blue Oxen Associates supposed to be about. Why the heck am I in this business? Forget about my Elevator Pitch for a moment. Forget about collaboration and collaboratories, Pattern Languages and Purple Numbers. What do I want, and why do I care?    (K1V)

I haven’t been able to answer these questions to everybody’s satisfaction, but I’ve found folks of all types who get either it or me pretty quickly and who share many of my hopes, dreams, and values. Being around these people has kept me going both personally and professionally, and further catalyzing this community is a big part of what Blue Oxen Associates is about. I often think about the negativity that one of my mentors, Doug Engelbart, faced for so long early in his career, and I’m grateful at how different my world has been.    (K1W)

Katrin Verclas and Seb Paquet are two of my favorite conversational partners. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Katrin (and Allen Gunn, another favorite) on the FLOSS Usability Sprints. I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Seb yet, but I’m quite certain it will happen eventually.    (K1X)

Katrin is in Massachusetts, and Seb is in Montreal. My conversations with both are always incredibly rich, and I’m constantly wishing that we could talk more often and that we could capture some of those conversations. Of course, thanks to technology (and a bit of process), we can.    (K1Y)

In the spirit of old school letter writing, I’ve proposed to both of them a series of conversations with a twist. Instead of emailing back and forth, we’ll post our letters on our blogs so that others can participate and hopefully join in.    (K1Z)

I think the open conversations will be revealing and hopefully entertaining. Katrin has already kicked things off with a nice list of things she wants out of her career and life. I’ll respond in my next blog post. And when Seb decides to return to the blogosphere (*nudge, nudge*), we’ll have an open conversation as well.    (K20)

I’d love to have conversations with many others, beyond what already occurs on our respective blogs. If you’d like to join in on this little experiment, write me a letter and post it on your blog. Don’t forget to link back here so I can find it.    (K21)

Looking forward to the conversations!    (K22)