Reinventing FOSS user experiences: a bibliography

There is a small genre of posts around re-inventing the interfaces of popular open source software; I thought I’d collect some of them for future reference:

Recent:

Older:

The first two (Drupal, WordPress) are particularly strong examples of the genre because they directly grapple with the difficulty of change for open source projects. I’m sure that early Firefox and VE discussions also did that, but I can’t find them easily – pointers welcome.

Other suggestions welcome in comments.

Free-riding and copyleft in cultural commons like Flickr

Flickr recently started selling prints of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike photos without sharing any of the revenue with the original photographers. When people were surprised, Flickr said “if you don’t want commercial use, switch the photo to CC non-commercial”.

This seems to have mostly caused two reactions:

  1. This is horrible! Creative Commons is horrible!”
  2. “Commercial reuse is explicitly part of the license; I don’t understand the anger.”

I think it makes sense to examine some of the assumptions those users (and many license authors) may have had, and what that tells us about license choice and design going forward.

Free ride!!, by Dhinakaran Gajavarathan, under CC BY 2.0

Free riding is why we share-alike…

As I’ve explained before here, a major reason why people choose copyleft/share-alike licenses is to prevent free rider problems: they are OK with you using their thing, but they want the license to nudge (or push) you in the direction of sharing back/collaborating with them in the future. To quote Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research on how commons are managed in the wild, “[i]n all recorded, long surviving, self-organized resource governance regimes, participants invest resources in monitoring the actions of each other so as to reduce the probability of free riding.” (emphasis added)

… but share-alike is not always enough

Copyleft is one of our mechanisms for this in our commons, but it isn’t enough. I think experience in free/open/libre software shows that free rider problems are best prevented when three conditions are present:

  • The work being created is genuinely collaborative — i.e., many authors who contribute similarly to the work. This reduces the cost of free riding to any one author. It also makes it more understandable/tolerable when a re-user fails to compensate specific authors, since there is so much practical difficulty for even a good-faith reuser to evaluate who should get paid and contact them.
  • There is a long-term cost to not contributing back to the parent project. In the case of Linux and many large software projects, this long-term cost is about maintenance and security: if you’re not working with upstream, you’re not going to get the benefit of new fixes, and will pay a cost in backporting security fixes.
  • The license triggers share-alike obligations for common use cases. The copyleft doesn’t need to perfectly capture all use cases. But if at least some high-profile use cases require sharing back, that helps discipline other users by making them think more carefully about their obligations (both legal and social/organizational).

Alternately, you may be able to avoid damage from free rider problems by taking the Apache/BSD approach: genuinely, deeply educating contributors, before they contribute, that they should only contribute if they are OK with a high level of free riding. It is hard to see how this can work in a situation like Flickr’s, because contributors don’t have extensive community contact.1

The most important takeaway from this list is that if you want to prevent free riding in a community-production project, the license can’t do all the work itself — other frictions that somewhat slow reuse should be present. (In fact, my first draft of this list didn’t mention the license at all — just the first two points.)

Flickr is practically designed for free riding

Flickr fails on all the points I’ve listed above — it has no frictions that might discourage free riding.

  • The community doesn’t collaborate on the works. This makes the selling a deeply personal, “expensive” thing for any author who sees their photo for sale. It is very easy for each of them to find their specific materials being reused, and see a specific price being charged by Yahoo that they’d like to see a slice of.
  • There is no cost to re-users who don’t contribute back to the author—the photo will never develop security problems, or get less useful with time.
  • The share-alike doesn’t kick in for virtually any reuses, encouraging Yahoo to look at the relationship as a purely legal one, and encouraging them to forget about the other relationships they have with Flickr users.
  • There is no community education about the expectations for commercial use, so many people don’t fully understand the licenses they’re using.

So what does this mean?

This has already gone on too long, but a quick thought: what this suggests is that if you have a community dedicated to creating a cultural commons, it needs some features that discourage free riding — and critically, mere copyleft licensing might not be good enough, because of the nature of most production of commons of cultural works. In Flickr’s case, maybe this should simply have included not doing this, or making some sort of financial arrangement despite what was legally permissible; for other communities and other circumstances other solutions to the free-rider problem may make sense too.

And I think this argues for consideration of non-commercial licenses in some circumstances as well. This doesn’t make non-commercial licenses more palatable, but since commercial free riding is typically people’s biggest concern, and other tools may not be available, it is entirely possible it should be considered more seriously than free and open source software dogma might have you believe.

  1. It is open to discussion, I think, whether this works in Wikimedia Commons, and how it can be scaled as Commons grows. []

Understanding Wikimedia, or, the Heavy Metal Umlaut, one decade on

It has been nearly a full decade since Jon Udell’s classic screencast about Wikipedia’s article on the Heavy Metal Umlaut (current textJan. 2005). In this post, written for Paul Jones’ “living and working online” class, I’d like to use the last decade’s changes to the article to illustrate some points about the modern Wikipedia.1

Measuring change

At the end of 2004, the article had been edited 294 times. As we approach the end of 2014, it has now been edited 1,908 times by 1,174 editors.2

This graph shows the number of edits by year – the blue bar is the overall number of edits in each year; the dotted line is the overall length of the article (which has remained roughly constant since a large pruning of band examples in 2007).

 

The dropoff in edits is not unusual — it reflects both a mature article (there isn’t that much more you can write about metal umlauts!) and an overall slowing in edits in English Wikipedia (from a peak of about 300,000 edits/day in 2007 to about 150,000 edits/day now).3

The overall edit count — 2000 edits, 1000 editors — can be hard to get your head around, especially if you write for a living. Implications include:

  • Style is hard. Getting this many authors on the same page, stylistically, is extremely difficult, and it shows in inconsistencies small and large. If not for the deeply acculturated Encyclopedic Style we all have in our heads, I suspect it would be borderline impossible.
  • Most people are good, most of the time. Something like 3% of edits are “reverted”; i.e., about 97% of edits are positive steps forward in some way, shape, or form, even if imperfect. This is, I think, perhaps the single most amazing fact to come out of the Wikimedia experiment. (We reflect and protect this behavior in one of our guidelines, where we recommend that all editors Assume Good Faith.)

The name change, tools, and norms

In December 2008, the article lost the “heavy” from its name and became, simply, “metal umlaut” (explanation, aka “edit summary“, highlighted in yellow):

A few take aways:

  • Talk pages: The screencast explained one key tool for understanding a Wikipedia article – the page history. This edit summary makes reference to another key tool – the talk page. Every Wikipedia article has a talk page, where people can discuss the article, propose changes, etc.. In this case, this user discussed the change (in November) and then made the change in December. If you’re reporting on an article for some reason, make sure to dig into the talk page to fully understand what is going on.
  • Sources: The user justifies the name change by reference to sources. You’ll find little reference to them in 2005, but by 2008, finding an old source using a different term is now sufficient rationale to rename the entire page. Relatedly…
  • Footnotes: In 2008, there was talk of sources, but still no footnotes. (Compare the story about Motley Crue in Germany in 2005 and now.) The emphasis on foonotes (and the ubiquitous “citation needed”) was still a growing thing. In fact, when Jon did his screencast in January 2005, the standardized/much-parodied way of saying “citation needed” did not yet exist, and would not until June of that year! (It is now used in a quarter of a million English Wikipedia pages.) Of course, the requirement to add footnotes (and our baroque way of doing so) may also explain some of the decline in editing in the graphs above.

Images, risk aversion, and boldness

Another highly visible change is to the Motörhead art, which was removed in November 2011 and replaced with a Mötley Crüe image in September 2013. The addition and removal present quite a contrast. The removal is explained like this:

remove File:Motorhead.jpg; no fair use rationale provided on the image description page as described at WP:NFCC content criteria 10c

This is clear as mud, combining legal issues (“no fair use rationale”) with Wikipedian jargon (“WP:NFCC content criteria 10c”). To translate it: the editor felt that the “non-free content” rules (abbreviated WP:NFCC) prohibited copyright content unless there was a strong explanation of why the content might be permitted under fair use.

This is both great, and sad: as a lawyer, I’m very happy that the community is pre-emptively trying to Do The Right Thing and take down content that could cause problems in the future. At the same time, it is sad that the editors involved did not try to provide the missing fair use rationale themselves. Worse, a rationale was added to the image shortly thereafter, but the image was never added back to the article.

So where did the new image come from? Simply:

boldly adding image to lead

“boldly” here links to another core guideline: “be bold”. Because we can always undo mistakes, as the original screencast showed about spam, it is best, on balance, to move forward quickly. This is in stark contrast to traditional publishing, which has to live with printed mistakes for a long time and so places heavy emphasis on Getting It Right The First Time.

In brief

There are a few other changes worth pointing out, even in a necessarily brief summary like this one.

  • Wikipedia as a reference: At one point, in discussing whether or not to use the phrase “heavy metal umlaut” instead of “metal umlaut”, an editor makes the point that Google has many search results for “heavy metal umlaut”, and another editor points out that all of those search results refer to Wikipedia. In other words, unlike in 2005, Wikipedia is now so popular, and so widely referenced, that editors must be careful not to (indirectly) be citing Wikipedia itself as the source of a fact. This is a good problem to have—but a challenge for careful authors nevertheless.
  • Bots: Careful readers of the revision history will note edits by “ClueBot NG“. Vandalism of the sort noted by Jon Udell has not gone away, but it now is often removed even faster with the aid of software tools developed by volunteers. This is part of a general trend towards software-assisted editing of the encyclopedia.
  • Translations: The left hand side of the article shows that it is in something like 14 languages, including a few that use umlauts unironically. This is not useful for this article, but for more important topics, it is always interesting to compare the perspective of authors in different languages.

Other thoughts?

I look forward to discussing all of these with the class, and to any suggestions from more experienced Wikipedians for other lessons from this article that could be showcased, either in the class or (if I ever get to it) in a one-decade anniversary screencast. :)

  1. I still haven’t found a decent screencasting tool that I like, so I won’t do proper homage to the original—sorry Jon! []
  2. Numbers courtesy X’s edit counter. []
  3. It is important, when looking at Wikipedia statistics, to distinguish between stats about Wikipedia in English, and Wikipedia globally — numbers and trends will differ vastly between the two. []

reading recommendation on American political multilingualism?

I’m trying to find a book on the political history of multilingualism in the US; in other words, of why/when it started becoming acceptable (and in some cases required) for government works, electoral ballots, etc., to be written and printed in multiple languages. This is related to some of the talk about mozilla-as-social-movement that a variety of Mozilla folks have been talking and blogging about lately; I’m curious if some of the rationales and arguments used by supporters of multilingualism would be applicable to software. Anyone have any pointers? Thanks!

Notes on Arthur Bestor’s ‘Backwoods Utopias’

A few months ago I finished reading Arthur Bestor’s ‘Backwoods Utopias‘, a book on the Utopian social-communitarian movements of the pre-Civil War US. Some belated notes on the book’s themes follow.

The average high school US history textbook gives a thumbnail sketch of these movements, but for those who didn’t get that or don’t remember it, the gist is that, from very shortly after Europeans reached North America until right around the Civil War, groups of people regularly launched themselves into the North American wilderness, trying to found new communities organized around communitarian and egalitarian principles. They met with some success, but eventually the movements petered out, with none of them truly surviving into the modern age.

Robert Owen (untitled) by BinaryApe, used under CC-BY

The tie from this book to my own interests should be clear, but if not, I should make them explicit: free and open source software often thinks of itself as being sui generis, but in fact it is part of a history (in this country) of retreat from established economic structures with the intent of creating parallel systems that would eventually compete with or replace those established structures with something simultaneously individually empowering and socially just. (See also.) I’m both personally and professionally curious about gleaning lessons from such past experiments- so I picked up the book. If any of this blog’s readers have suggestions either of more histories of this movement, or of histories of other similar movements (watch this space for a post on the local food movement soon), please do let me know in email or comments.

Unfortunately, Bestor’s intended follow-up book (covering the 1840s to the end of the movement) was never completed, which limits the lessons that can be drawn about the decline of the movement.  Nevertheless, some observations and themes from the book:

  • The movement had a broad spectrum of motivations and philosophies- some were heavily religious, while others were overtly anti-religious; some had (or were intended to have) quite complex governance systems, while others were nearly anarchist, and indeed Marx condemned them in strong terms because (to over-simplify) they were not dedicated to fighting the good fight in the cities. Interestingly, while the community focus of these groups was typically very strong, in modern terms we might also call them libertarian (or what Erik Olin Wright calls ‘interstitial’ revolutionaries): they all believed that they had the right and the ability to make a better world by striking off on their own, rather than working within or against established structures.
  • Religion was initially a major motivating force; this faded over time, but Bestor does not make it clear why later groups tended to be non-religious. Interestingly, American critics of later movements like Owenism apparently tended to focus on this non-religious aspect, rather than the practical/anti-capitalist issues modern critics might focus on.
  • As with every movement, looking at who left is often as important as understanding who stayed. In particular, Bestor mentions that when pragmatists became frustrated and left New Harmony (perhaps the highest profile of the various communities), those left behind were a combination of those too lazy to leave and those too fanatic to leave. This was a huge problem for the morale of the remaining pragmatists, who resented the free-riders and were driven nuts by the fanatics, and so they repeated the cycle.
  • Relatedly, Bestor argues that the repeated talk of ‘everyone will live in our miraculous new society any day now’ meant that many newcomers were not prepared for the long haul; that may have disillusioned some people and contributed to a sense of lack of momentum. To paraphrase Bestor, ‘a new society cannot be built on excuses.’
  • When the movement started, it was actually pretty easy to get a community going- lots of land was effectively empty, and the median community size in the US was in the low hundreds, making it quite easy to form a community that had all the ‘comforts’ (such as they were) of traditionally organized communities. As time progressed, two things began to work against this: first, more and more ‘normal’ landowners migrated to the midwest, causing land to become more scarce, and second, even the smallest villages became larger as the country’s overall population grew. This meant that finding enough space for a ‘basic’ community became a much more capital intensive process over time. Not coincidentally, later communities tended to have wealthy patrons- with all the plusses and minuses that brings.
  • As economic complexity increased (more machinery, more specialists) it became harder to create a self-sustaining village, especially if your human capital stocks were limited to ‘believers.’ For example, when the movement started in the late 1600s/early 1700s, having a self-sustaining community required very little specialization, while by the mid-1800s, it was understood that you needed machinists and manufacturers who would trade with other areas. Bestor says that New Harmony was bitten by this, as the land they bought for the town had the hardware for extensive wool manufacture, but lacked the people familiar with the machines, killing an expected source of financial sustainability.
  • Over time, some of the social goals of early communitarians became more broadly accepted or supplied by other organizations. For example, public education was a significant goal of New Harmony, but over the course of the 1800s, that became more common in non-utopian communities. New Harmony also had a concept of mandatory social insurance; unions started providing similar services in the late 1800s. This again made recruitment harder.
  • As for most world-changers, the gap between theory and practice was often large. Robert Owen, the wealthy patron of New Harmony, created an elaborate philosophical scheme intended to encompass everything from the individual to the nation-state, but he was bad at creating practical schemes, which led to constant reorganizations at New Harmony. This may reflect the extreme difficulty of organizing a full society; capitalism has the advantage of being simple and direct in general scheme relative to a centrally planned society like Owen’s.

I’ll refrain from drawing any direct conclusions for free and open source software here, in part because many of them will be obvious to many of my readers, and also because my reading of the book (especially several months after the fact) is inevitably heavily biased by my own thinking about social movements like this one, so I’m not sure whether any ‘lessons’ would reflect actual history or just my interpretation (compounded with Bestor’s.) With or without direct applicability, though, the book was an interesting read for a history nut, and left me with a lot of food for thought.

computer usage data bleg (update: and server market share)

Hey, all. I’m in need of data about ‘typical’ computer usage- i.e., ‘in 2007, the average computer user spent X% of time on the internet, Y% of time doing word processing, Z% of time listening to music, etc.’ The ideal data set would have this information for a number of years- ideally going back at least to 2000 A.D. (aka ‘1 B.iTunes.’) I’ve been googling for a bit and have had no luck. If anyone can point me at such data, I’d be extremely appreciative. Thanks!

Relatedly: (added later): similar long-term numbers for server market share, both by OS and by chip family (x86 v. everyone else, primarily) would be terrific to have if anyone knows of a source of them (ideally without paying Gartner bazillions, though I really need to look into whether or not the school’s Bloomberg subscription gives me access to that.)

interesting research on ‘conditional cooperation’

Interspecies cooperation by Barry Rogge. License:

For those interested in some of my previous writings on intrinsic motivation, this survey paper by Simon Gächter may be of interest.

Key sentence:

[W]e find strong evidence that many people’s attitude toward voluntary cooperation is conditional on other people’s cooperation… Moreover, the fact that many people contribute more the more others contribute also speaks against pure altruism explanations, because they predict that people reduce their own contributions when informed that others already contribute to the public good.

Basically, the paper argues (and justifies through a survey of experimental evidence) that a majority of people are ‘conditional cooperators’ who cooperate in community projects (voting, paying taxes, charity work, etc.) if and only if other people cooperate. If they think others are ‘defecting’ (i.e., not cooperating) then they will stop cooperating as well.

The paper also has some more detailed observations that come out of the experimental work; among them that voluntary cooperation is fragile; group composition matters (i.e., groups with more conditional cooperators will be healthier); and that ‘belief management’ maters- i.e., if people think that they are in a group with more conditional cooperators, that group will be more robust. None of these will come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been involved with volunteer communities, but still interesting to see it experimentally confirmed.

I’ve always suspected that something like this is the case, and that it explains in part why the GPL is so successful, since it uses copyright to force cooperation and penalize defection, and (importantly) makes a clear public statement that that is the case, which serves a signaling function (everyone in the community knows these are the ground rules) and a filtering function (people who aren’t interested in collaborating don’t join as much as they join other groups.)

The paper is only 25 pages and fairly readable; if you’re interested in the dynamics of volunteerism I recommend it.

Those of you who aren’t into economists and their fancy ‘measurements’ may also want to look at this related early paper, which is somewhat dated (the concept of low and high authoritarians is sort of discredited at this point) but still possibly of interest in explaining some of the psychological mechanisms at work here.

(Came to this by way of this paper on tax evasion, which looks to have many other interesting citations that I should investigate once exams are done. Only Telecoms left…)

morning link bits

wesabe ‘data bill of rights’

Wesabe’s Marc Hedlund is speaking at the Princeton Cloud Computing seminar I’m at. Their ‘data bill of rights’:

This Data Bill of Rights is our promise to you.

  • You can export and/or delete your data from Wesabe whenever you want.
  • Your data is your data, not ours. Our job is to help you understand and act on your data.
  • We’ll keep all of your data online and accessible for as long as you have an account. No “archive access” charges.
  • Any data you want us to keep private, we will.
  • If a question comes up not covered by these rights, we will answer it remembering that your data belongs to you.

Interesting. My intuition is that this is a really good start in the right direction for web apps; he himself notes, though, that it isn’t legally binding. They are considering doing that- will be very interesting to see that if/when it happens.