Oh, you want support?

I don’t know how many open source communities have the same problem, but in the LLVM list we do receive more than a few emails a year with people really upset that no one has fixed their bugs quick enough, or that no one replied to their emails. I find this behaviour quite interesting from a sociological point of view, but if you behave in that way, let me help you straight out: it’s rude. Really.

Business Model

The open source business model relies on sharing of ideas, accumulation of technology and niche development. Small and incremental pieces are incorporated into stabilizing products that provide value to a groups of people.

For example, MacOS and Linux provide different values to the same user base (desktop users). The more commercial software, like MacOS, provide a stable, recognizable interface, with powerful integration to other products of the same line, while the open counterparts provide a more experimental interface, but greater control and spread of knowledge.

Apple’s business model is quite different than most Linux distributions, but both heavily use/derive open source infrastructure (kernel, compilers, libraries). So, if you purchase MacOS, you’re getting not only the eye candy, but also some components that are open source, like LLVM. What companies get from investing in LLVM is up for a different kind of post, but rest assured, the license is really clear: “THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED “AS IS”, WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED”.

Presumptuous Crowd

Most Linux/BSD users, when they have a problem with their programs, they first search the web for the error message. In the uncommon case where they don’t find an answer, they then post on forums or mailing lists, often politely, dumping their logs and error messages, and gladly waiting for an answer, that may take a day, a week, sometimes, it may be forgotten. They, then, try a different forum, or “ping” their messages, work a bit harder, find more causes, etc.

After all, no one is as interested in your problems as much as yourself. Let me make that one clear:

No one is as interested in your problems as much as yourself.

Most people that deal with open source understand that. Most people that buy software don’t. But there is an intermediate crowd, that has recently grown tremendously: the freemium folks.

Most people now enjoy an impressive amount of free products, in midst of all the software that they did purchase, and for most of them, they do receive the same quality of support that they do for their paid products. That seems controversial, even paradoxical, but the answer is quite simple: they’re not free.

If you haven’t figured out yet, let’s get that one clear, too: you pay for it with your personal information. Accurate location logs, purchase history, personal identification, credit status, number of friends (and all their personal information too), who you like and who you don’t, etc. All that information is dutifully stored and used for their profit. A profit that is orders of magnitude higher than it would be if they did none of that and you paid $10 for it. Even $100. Hell, even if you paid $1000 per year, it would have been cheaper, or better said, they would have less money from you.

So, it only makes sense that they treat you like a full-paid member of their exclusive club, and treat you like a king so that you don’t jump ship and go share your cat picture on the other social website. Some people quickly understand what’s at stake, but most of them would keep using the service as a matter of convenience. They know the price of their privacy, and they exchange it for convenience.

Market Penetration

As predicted by many in the 90s, and repeated by most in the last decade, open source (free/libre/etc) has taken the roots of computing and is now the base for all technology. From stock markets, to the ISS. From high-performance computing centres to schools. From operating systems to games. Open source is everywhere, and more people that never thought would have any contact with open source, are now getting exposed to it first hand. The pervasion of open source technologies is so complete, that I risk to say that there isn’t any profitable company today that doesn’t use or ship open source with its products. There isn’t a gadget that you own that didn’t use it during design or production, or rely on it for its operation.

And, as with any other technology, occasionally, open source fails. And as they fail, helpful messages pop up where users were expecting a nice “support contract” fixing it straight away. You may contact whoever you paid, and they may help you, or they may give the standard response that it’s not their problem. After all, your privacy is worth a lot of money, but not that much.

Support Contract

Because open source is everywhere, more and more people that were not used how it works are now falling pray to the support contract fallacy.

You may get expedite help from Android “free” apps makers, or social media websites, and they may provide their services for free and still be very friendly and helpful, but you cannot compare that freedom with libre/open source freedom. In free software / open source, we do not store your personal data, not we want to. We do not track your whereabouts, nor we contact your friend on your behalf. We don’t have that freedom, mostly because that’s not our business model, but also because most of us believe that’s wrong.

Because you’re not directly, nor indirectly, paying us, you cannot, ever expect that anyone will help you, less still, in any reasonable time. The overwhelming majority of people working in open source projects are directly or indirectly paid by companies, and that’s their day jobs. Folks that fix the problems that their companies think will best improve their products. Only a small minority of lucky bastards can work on free software without getting any compensation or direction from a company, but even those people have their own agenda. And that’s very rarely aligned with yours.

Expecting support, complaining about the lack of help or interest in your problems, is like carrying a large bag through the underground and be mad a people for not helping you. Granted, many people will help you, but as a selfless act, not as a support contract. Only those that are going in the same direction, or those that have a free hand, or that have some shared history (like, they have been in the same situation before), will likely help you, and different people align differently with your problem. If it’s a large suitcase, or a baby pram, or some clumsy and fragile painting. Different people will help in different times.

In libre/open source, the situation is exactly the same. We’re all working along our own projects and priorities, and unless your problem is directly related to my paid job, I will rarely even look at it. It’s not out of spite, but if I stop doing the work I’m paid and start helping all those in need, I’ll lose my job and I won’t be able to help anyone any more. Not to mention feed my family.

The social contract

When you send an email that no one pays attention, try to phrase it differently. Or better yet, do some more investigations, provide more information, show that you care about what you’re asking. There’s nothing worse in a forum, than people asking others to solve their homework. The general rule of free help is that you must show equal or more interest and sweat on what you’re asking, than the people that are helping you. It’s exactly the opposite than on a support contracts. Moreover, your behaviour will tell people whether to help you or not. The more aggressive and demanding you become, the less people will help you. The more humble and hard working you are, the opposite will happen.

To understand that social contract, think of it as an exchange. If you bring a lot of information with your request, I will learn a thing of two about that. I enjoy learning, so, even if it’s not my area, I may feel compelled to help you just because you might teach me something. If there is any payment in community help, this is it. The knowledge you pass on to people helping you, and the joy they feel of learning a new thing and helping a nice chap.

In the end, most people that are new to such environments, end up learning it really fast, and become enthusiastic contributors. This is, for me, the beauty of the lack of payments. Each one values the newly acquired knowledge in different ways, so it’d be impossible to treat them as standard currency. But, since I don’t tell you how much I value your contribution, and vice versa, we cannot know who has the profit. More importantly, in this case, profit is not the difference between my gains and your gains, but the difference between my expectation of gains and my actual gains, which is completely independent of your exchange ratios.

This is precisely what Buckminster Fuller meant as Synergetics. The total system behaviour is not always predictable from the behaviour of all its parts, and in some systems, the value aggregated can be more than the sum of its individual gains. This is why the open source business model is so infectious and addictive. Once you’re in, there’s no way out. But you have to put some effort.

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