While you're surfing the web, you ought to thank Jacob Thornton for making it so pretty.
He's a programmer who, along with web designer Mark Otto, created Bootstrap, free software that the pros use to make their sites look spiffy. If you've ever noticed that a lot of websites have the same big chunky buttons, or the same clean forms, that's likely because an estimated one-fifth of all websites on the planet use Bootstrap.
One reason for its spread is that Thornton and Otto made Bootstrap open source. Anyone can use it without permission, and anyone can tweak it and improve it. Thornton didn't get a salary for making Bootstrap. When he and Otto first released it, back in 2010, they had day jobs working for Twitter. But both were propelled by classic open source motivations: It was a cool challenge, it burnished their reputations, and it felt neat to help people. Plus, watching it surge in popularity—Green Day's website used it, as did Barack Obama's White House—was thrilling.
But open source success, Thornton quickly found, has a dark side. He felt inundated. Countless people wrote him and Otto every week with bug reports, demands for new features, questions, praise. Thornton would finish his day job and then spend four or five hours every night frantically working on Bootstrap—managing queries, writing new code. “I couldn't grab dinner with someone after work,” he says, because he felt like he'd be letting users down: I shouldn't be out enjoying myself. I should be working on Bootstrap!
“The feeling that I had was guilt,” he says. He kept at it, and nine years later he and Otto are still heading up Bootstrap, along with a small group of core contributors. But the stress has been bad enough that he often thought of bailing.
When the open source concept emerged in the '90s, it was conceived as a bold new form of communal labor: digital barn raisings. If you made your code open source, dozens or even hundreds of programmers would chip in to improve it. Many hands would make light work. Everyone would feel ownership.
Now, it's true that open source has, overall, been a wild success. Every startup, when creating its own software services or products, relies on open source software from folks like Thornton: open source web-server code, open source neural-net code. But, with the exception of some big projects—like Linux—the labor involved isn't particularly communal. Most are like Bootstrap, where the majority of the work landed on a tiny team of people.
Recently, Nadia Eghbal—the head of writer experience at the email newsletter platform Substack—published Working in Public, a fascinating book for which she spoke to hundreds of open source coders. She pinpointed the change I'm describing here. No matter how hard the programmers worked, most “still felt underwater in some shape or form,” Eghbal told me.
Why didn't the barn-raising model pan out? As Eghbal notes, it's partly that the random folks who pitch in make only very small contributions, like fixing a bug. Making and remaking code requires a lot of high-level synthesis—which, as it turns out, is hard to break into little pieces. It lives best in the heads of a small number of people.
Yet those poor top-level coders still need to respond to the smaller contributions (to say nothing of requests for help or reams of abuse). Their burdens, Eghbal realized, felt like those of YouTubers or Instagram influencers who feel overwhelmed by their ardent fan bases—but without the huge, ad-based remuneration.
Sometimes open source coders simply walk away: Let someone else deal with this crap. Studies suggest that about 9.5 percent of all open source code is abandoned, and a quarter is probably close to being so. This can be dangerous: If code isn't regularly updated, it risks causing havoc if someone later relies on it. Worse, abandoned code can be hijacked for ill use. Two years ago, the pseudonymous coder right9ctrl took over a piece of open source code that was used by bitcoin firms—and then rewrote it to try to steal cryptocurrency.
No one's quite sure what to do about open source burnout, but some think finding money for the coders might help. Programmer Ashley Williams is a member of the team creating the open source language Rust, and they're trying to set up a foundation to support core contributors, or get firms to keep contributors on staff. (Some of the largest open source projects thrive in precisely this fashion; firms like Facebook or Google pay some employees to work full-time on open source code.) Eghbal thinks subscriptions could offer new ways to pay for the work. Others worry that injecting pay can deform how and why the work is done in the first place.
But we need to rethink the very idea of what crowdsourcing is capable of—and understand that it is perhaps more limited than promised. The open source revolution has been carried on the backs of some very weary people.
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This article appears in the December 2020/January 2021 issue. Subscribe now.