Purists and Pragmatists and Zealots, Oh My!

I didn’t make it to OSCON this year (thanks for everyone who voted for us for the CCA, by the way, even though we lost out again to Firebird) and I am quietly thankful for it, because it seems like the conference kicked off a new round of hyperbole and hypocrisy from the fauxpen source crowd and I’m going to try to stay out of it (instead of any kind of rational discussion, this round seems even more full of ad hominem attacks).

I’ve been labeled both an open source purist and a zealot simply because of my assertion that the term “open source” is defined by the open source definition. And while no one calls me a pragmatist, only a pragmatist could have kept a company like OpenNMS going through good times and bad without investment.

Heck, I’m even pragmatic about open source – in the realm of enterprise network management nothing works better, but that doesn’t mean it works for everything.

But no matter how successful we are, someone will think we aren’t successful enough. Luckily, I haven’t spent much of my life worrying about what others think, and we have been so busy lately that I can easily lose myself in helping our customers and our community.

However, at the risk of boring my three readers, I wanted to share an epiphany I had at dinner Thursday night.

We were discussing open source and I reexamined why a number of commercial open source companies see so little contribution that they resort to calling their users “leeches” and free loaders.

It is just natural that in a gift economy like open source, those who give back in a substantial fashion will be few. I’m am always grateful for any positive contribution while having the expectation of none. OpenNMS enjoys a wide range of contributors, enough so that I would never feel the need to refer to our community as leeches. I was wondering what was so different about us from other companies.

The answer came to me straight from Dan Ariely’s fine book Predictably Irrational. In it he talks about “Social Norms” versus “Market Norms” with an example from a day care center in Isreal:

A few years ago, [Uri Gneezy of UC San Diego and Aldo Rustichini of the University of Minnesota] studied a day care center in Israel to determine whether imposing a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their children was a useful deterrent. Uri and Aldo concluded that the fine didn’t work well, and in fact it had long-term negative effects. Why?

Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late — as they occasionally were — they felt guilty about it — and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future. (In Israel, guilt seems to be an effective way to get compliance.)

But once the fine was imposed, the day care center had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late. Needless to say, this is not what the day care center intended.

Vibrant open source communities operate under social norms. I am often approached by people who say that they really love OpenNMS, but then they sheepishly admit that they don’t buy support or contribute in any other way. They tend to smile when I say that I’m cool with that – just finding our work useful makes my day and they’re probably not a good fit as a support client in the first place.

But the open core realm operates under market norms. If some restaurant is handing out free food samples, rarely does one feel guilty about taking some. In much the same way, when users see a company that sells commercial software, there is no obligation associated with taking the free stuff and being done with it.

So the problem of leeches is one of their own creation, and as research has shown, once you set the basis for interaction based on market norms, it is hard to move back. This may be one of the main reasons a least one such company seems to be changing its message away from open source.

Once again, I’m just thinking out loud, and in that vein let me state that I’m thankful OpenNMS still seems to be operating under social norms. I’ll work hard to keep it that way.

One thought on “Purists and Pragmatists and Zealots, Oh My!

  1. Guilt as a motivator works generally speaking quite well. If you can only put you as a person or a small community forward you have to dose it carefully, but if you can bring in a judging authority above the human being there’s basically no limit or rational involved anymore. Look into history and todays “religious” societies.

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