Older blog entries for mako (starting at number 316)

A Model of Free Software Success

Last week I helped organize the Open and User Innovation Conference at Harvard Business School. One of many interesting papers presented there was an essay on Institutional Change and Information Production by Fabio Landini from the University of Siena.

At the core of the paper is an economic model of the relationship between rights protection and technologies that affects the way that cognitive labor can be divided and aggregated. Although that may sound very abstract (and it is in the paper), it is basically a theory that tries to explain the growth of free software.

The old story about free software and free culture (at least among economists and many other academics) is that the movements surged to prominence over the last decade because improvements in communication technology made new forms of mass-collaboration -- like GNU/Linux and Wikipedia -- possible. "Possible", for these types of models, usually means profit-maximizing for rational, profit-seeking, actors like capitalist firms. You can basically think of these attempts as trying to explain why open source claims that free licensing leads to "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost" are correct: new technology makes possible an open development process which leads to collaboration which leads to higher quality work which leads to profit.

Landini suggests there are problems with this story. One problem is that it treats technology as being taken for granted and technological changes as effectively being dropped in from outside (i.e., exogenous). Landini points out that software businesses build an enormous amount of technology to help organize their work and to help themselves succeed in what they see as their ideal property rights regime. The key feature of Landini's alternate model is that it considers this possibility. What comes out the other end of the model is a prediction for a multiple equilibrium system -- a situation where there are several strategies that can be stable and profitable. This can help explain why, although free software has succeeded in some areas, its success has hardly been total and usually has not led to change within existing proprietary software firms. After all, there are still plenty of companies selling proprietary software. In Landini's model, free is just one of several winning options.

But Landini's model raises what might be an even bigger question. If free software can be as efficient as proprietary software, how would anybody ever find out? If all the successful software companies out there are doing proprietary software, which greedy capitalist is going to take the risk of seeing if they could also be successful by throwing exclusive rights out the window? In the early days, new paths are always unclear, unsure, and unproven.

Landini suggests that ethically motivated free software hackers provide what he calls a "cultural subsidy." Essentially, a few hackers are motivated enough by the ethical principles behind free software that they are willing to contribute to it even when it isn't clearly better than proprietary alternatives. And in fact, historically speaking, many free software hackers were willing to contribute to free software even when they thought it was likely less profitable than the proprietary alternative models. As Landini suggests, this group was able to build technological platforms and find new social and business arrangements where the free model actually is competitive.

I think that the idea of an "cultural subsidy" is a nice way to think about the important role that ethical arguments play in movements like free software and free culture. "Open source" style efficiency arguments persuade a lot of people. Especially when they are true. But those arguments are only ever true because a group of ethically motivated people fought to find a way to make them true. Free software didn't start out as competitive with proprietary software. It became so only because a bunch of ethically motivated hackers were willing to "subsidize" the movement with their with their failed, and successful, attempts at free software and free culture projects and businesses.

Of course, the folks attracted by "open source" style superiority arguments can find the ethical motivated folks shrill, off-putting, and annoying. The ethically motivated folks often think the "efficiency" group is shortsighted and mercenary. But as awkward as this marriage might be, it has some huge upsides. In Landini's model, the ethical folks can build their better world without convincing everyone else that they are right and by relying, at least in part, on the self-interest of others who don't share their principles. Just as the free software movement has done.

I think that Landini's paper is a good description of the critically important role that the free software movement, and the FSF in particular, can play. The influence and importance of individuals motivated by principles can go far beyond the groups of people who take an ethical stand. They can make involvement possible for large groups of people who do not think that taking a stand on a particular ethical issue is even a good idea.

Syndicated 2012-08-10 01:08:18 from Benjamin Mako Hill

User Innovation on NPR Radio

I was invited onto NPR in Boston this week for a segment on user innovation alongside Eric von Hippel (my advisor at MIT) and Carliss Baldwin from Harvard Business School.

I talked about innovation that has happened on the CHDK platform -- a cool firmware hack for Canon cameras example I use in some of my teaching -- plus a little bit about free software, the democratization of development and design tools, and a little bit about user communities that LEGO has cultivated.

I would have liked the conversation and terminology to do more to emphasize user freedom and free software, but I'm otherwise pretty happy with the result. The segment will be aired again on NPR in Boston this weekend and is available on the WGBH website.

Syndicated 2012-07-26 16:45:28 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Diamond Clarity

I3→I2→I1→SI2→SI1→VS2→VS1→VVS2→VVS1→IF→FL

The GIA diamond clarity scale, shown above, is rather opaque.

Syndicated 2012-07-09 10:49:30 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Wiki Conferencing

I am in Berlin for the Wikipedia Academy, a very cool hybrid free culture community plus refereed academic conference organized, in part, by Wikimedia Deutschland. On Friday, I was very excited to have been invited to give the conference's opening keynote based on my own hybrid take on learning from failures in peer production and incorporating a bunch of my own research. Today, I was on a panel at the conference about free culture and sharing practices. I'll post talks materials and videos when the conference puts them online.

I will be in Berlin for the next week or so before I head to directly to Washington, DC for Wikimania between the 11th and 15th. I'll be giving three talks there:

Between then and now, I'm taking the next week in Berlin to catch up on work, and with friends. If you're in either place and want to meet up, please get in touch and lets try to arrange something.

Syndicated 2012-07-09 10:49:30 from Benjamin Mako Hill

The Global Iron Blogger Network

Since last November, I've been participating in and coordinating Iron Blogger: a drinking club where you pay $5 to a "beer" pool if you fail to blog weekly.

The revival of Iron Blogger in Boston has been a big success. Even more exciting, however, is that Iron Blogger concept has spread. There are now two other Iron Blogger instances: in San Francisco coordinated by Parker Higgens, and in Berlin run by Nicole Ebber and Michelle Thorne.

Yesterday, we convened a virtual meeting of the Global Iron Blogger Council (i.e., an email thread) and we all agreed a new on iron blogger rule that might sweeten the deal for jet-setting prospective Iron Bloggers: any paid-up member of any Iron Blogger club can attend meet-ups in any other Iron Blogger cities if they happen to be in town for one. Because We Are One.

If you want to join us in Boston, we have some room through attrition. Rust bloggers, perhaps? If you'd like to join, you should contact me.

And if you'd like to set up your own in a different city, the code is in git. One warning, however. As those of us that have set it up have figured out, the documentation for the software to run Iron Blogger is between poor and non-existent. If you do want to set up your own instance, please get in touch. I'm happy to give you some pointers that you'll probably need but, more importantly, I'd like to work with the next brave soul to put together documentation of the setup process along the way.

Syndicated 2012-07-09 09:49:30 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Wiki Conferencing

I am in Berlin for the Wikipedia Academy, a very cool hybrid free culture community plus refereed academic conference organized, in part, by Wikimedia Deutschland. On Friday, I was very excited to have been invited to give the conference's opening keynote based on my own hybrid take on learning from failures in peer production and incorporating a bunch of my own research. Today, I was on a panel at the conference about free culture and sharing practices. I'll post talks materials and videos when the conference puts them online.

I will be in Berlin for the next week or so before I head to directly to Washington, DC for Wikimania between the 11th and 15th. I'll be giving three talks there:

Between then and now, I'm taking the next week in Berlin to catch up on work, and with friends. If you're in either place and want to meet up, please get in touch and lets try to arrange something.

Syndicated 2012-07-02 01:48:36 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Why Facebook's Network Effects are Overrated

A lot of people interested in free software, and user autonomy and network services are very worried about Facebook. Folks are worried for the same reason that so many investors are interested: the networks effects brought by hundreds of millions of folks signed up to use the service.

Network effects -- the concept that a good or service increases in value as more people use it -- are not a new problem for free software. Software developers target Microsoft Windows because that is where the large majority of users are. Users with no love for Microsoft and who are otherwise sympathetic to free software use Windows because programs they need will only run there.

Folks worried about Facebook are afraid for similar reasons. Sure, you can close down your Facebook account and move to Diaspora. But who will you talk to there? You can already hear people complaining about Facebook the same way they've been complaining about Windows or Office for years. People feel that their hands are tied and that their software, and their social network, will be determined by what everybody is doing.

I'm worried about Facebook. But I'm not too intimidated by Facebook's network effects for two reasons.

First, using Facebook doesn't preclude using anything else.

Twitter has enormous overlapping functionality with Facebook. Sure, people use the systems very differently. But they both ask you to create lists of friends and followers and are designed around sending and receiving short status messages. Millions of people do both and both systems are thriving. For the millions of people who use both Facebook and Twitter, the two services have had to negotiate their marginal utility in a world they share with the other one. People decide that Twitter is for certain types of short messages and Facebook is for others. But these arrangements shift over time.

And the relationships between services aren't always peaceful coexistence. Remember Friendster? Remember Orkut? Remember Tribe? Remember MySpace? MySpace, and all the others, are great examples of how social networks die. They very slowly fade away. MySpace users signed up for Facebook accounts and used both. They almost never just switched. Over time, as one platform became more attractive than the other, for many complicated reasons, attention and activity shifted. People logged in on MySpace less and Facebook more and, eventually, realized they were effectively no longer MySpace users. Anyone that has been on the Internet long enough to watch a few of these shifts from one platform to another knows that they're not abrupt -- even if they can be set in motion by a particular event or action. Users of social networking sites simply don't have to choose in the way that a person choosing to boot Windows and GNU/Linux does.

I'm sure the vast majority of people with Diaspora accounts use Facebook actively. This is not a problem for Diaspora. It is how Diaspora -- or whatever else eventually achieves what many of us hoped Diaspora would -- could win.

Second, Facebook is for the ephemeral.

Facebook is primarily used for information that was produced very recently. This week if not today. If not this hour. Facebook has an enormous amount of data that users have fed it that may be hard to get out and move somewhere else. But most people don't care very much about having any regular access to the large majority of this information. What people care deeply about is having access to the data that they and their friends created today. And that data can just as easily be created somewhere else tomorrow. Or, with the right tools, created just as easily in both places.

Compare this to something like Windows where moving away would require learning, converting, and perhaps even writing, new software. Perhaps even in new programming languages that most developers don't know yet. Compared to Windows, a migration away from Facebook will be easy.

Facebook's photo galleries are an example of an important place where this holds less well. Social network information -- i.e., the list of who is friends with who -- is another example of something that is persistently valuable. That said, people really enjoy the act of finding and friending. Indeed, this process was part of the initial draw of Facebook and other social networks.

None of this means that Facebook is over. It doesn't even mean that its ascendancy will be slowed. What it does mean is that Facebook is vulnerable to the next thing more than many technology firms that have benefited from network effects in the past. If users are given compelling reasons to switch to something else, they can with less trouble and they will.

That compelling reason might be a new social network with better features or an awesome distributed architecture that allows freedom for users and the ability of those users to benefit from new and fantastic things that Facebook's overseers would never let them have and without the things Facebook's users suffer through today. Or it might be a sexier proprietary box to store users' private information. It doesn't mean that I'm not worried about Facebook. I remain deeply worried. It's just not very hard for me to imagine the end.

Syndicated 2012-06-04 01:44:48 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Date Arithmetic

When I set an alarm, my clock, now running on the computer in my pocket, is smart enough to tell me how much time will pass until the alarm is scheduled to sound. This has eliminated the old problem of sleeping past meetings before being surprised by an alarm precisely half a day after I had originally planned to wake.

The price has been having to know exactly how little I will sleep: a usually depressing fact that had previously been obscured by my difficulty doing time arithmetic in my most somnolent moments.

Syndicated 2012-05-14 01:18:44 from Benjamin Mako Hill

Diamond Clarity

I3→I2→I1→SI2→SI1→VS2→VS1→VVS2→VVS1→IF→FL

The GIA diamond clarity scale, shown above, is rather opaque.

Syndicated 2012-05-14 00:57:48 from Benjamin Mako Hill

My Setup

The Setup is an awesome blog that posts of interviews with nerdy people that ask the same four questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What hardware are you using?
  3. And what software?
  4. What would be your dream setup?

I really care about my setup so I am excited, and honored, that they just posted an interview with me!

I answer questions about my setup often so I tried to be comprehensive with the hope that I will be able to point people to it in the future.

Syndicated 2012-04-12 15:33:16 from Benjamin Mako Hill

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