Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Open source - a purer meritocracy?

One effective way to combat insomnia and get back to sleep is to read technical articles. Tonight I was engaged in this exercise reading an article called Why Ruby on Rails Succeeded. If you don't know, Ruby on Rails is a web application framework written in the programming language Ruby. Both Ruby and Rails are open-source projects, meaning they're free to use and the source is openly distributed under a license that requires (not just encourages) that modifications be similarly distributed and never charged for.

So you might ask yourself why anyone would ever pour massive amounts of effort into something without getting paid to do it. The answer is simple, because they can do what they want to do, not what some manager, bug review board or marketing suit told them to. They can do what they think will be good for users (which they frequently are) or will make the code simpler, faster or easier to maintain. If what they do really is better, as proved by it being widely adopted and actually used, then their personal stock rises in the community and their worth as a for-pay programmer rises as well. But more importantly, their own self-respect rises.

This is one thing that open source programming shares with on-line video, podcasts and blogs. People do it because they enjoy it and because it makes them feel good about themselves.

And I think this unpaid, create-for-free open market of ideas, software and entertainment is a purer form of meritocracy than the for-profit, rapaciously competitive corporate world. Why? Because it's not controlled by money, it's controlled by quality. Good things become popular because they're good, not because they have a multi-million dollar ad campaign behind them, or because their producer paid a cable company or search engine to give it top billing.

And if nothing else, it's certainly a much more pleasant place to spend one's time.


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