September 3, 2019
Subsistence Programming funding failure has a name
Feross Aboukhadijeh, an old Node friend and fellow funding scientist, recently posted a recap of his initiative to support npm package development with terminal ads. His introductory post and recap are both worth the candle, in full. But I’d like to focus on, amplify, and expand on one bolt of clarity that Feross rains down midway through his recap, almost in passing:
Sustainability is another way to say subsistence. This is why the common phrase “open source sustainability” isn’t ideal.
Reading this felt like watching the last piece of a puzzle fall in place, only to reveal a profoundly ugly overall picture. Feross perfectly captures the dark flip side of gainful open software development. He gives it a name.
Fuck subsistence programming, in all its wretched forms.
If you’re making money, but not profiting, saving, or investing, you’re only subsisting, just getting by. Users are likely happy, because their profiting, saving, and investing depend only on your output, not on shared success. If you burn out and another subsistence programmer takes your place, infusing the project with a fleeting jolt of new-blood energy, that’s a sustainability gain, not a sustainability loss. The more productive jolts, the better.
That is, until word of the personal carnage gets around, grizzled veterans stop reupping for new tours, and fresh recruits stop enlisting to fill their empty trenches. Consumers don’t pay a price for producer abuse until it blows back on output. Only output problems are sustainability problems.
Word has got around. Open software maintenance can be a winning play, but usually for new programmers, on a temporary basis, as a kind of apprenticeship, portfolio project, or spec work. Not for independent coders with long open resumes, at their peak, doing highly specialized work.
Word is starting to get around about feel-good sustainability solutions, too. Solutions that coddle, rather than confront, the basic unfairness and shortsightedness of open developer disposability don’t lift open developers out of subsistence. They often do more to lift open software consumers out of guilt, by satisfying the politician’s syllogism: something has been done about sustainability, never mind whether it’s actually working. The high mental availability of the few outliers actually receiving substantial donations, well publicized by their platforms, fill in that blank. Publicity doesn’t emphasize how many of those “donations” are actually payments in exchange for very meaningful perks, not feelgood support.
But License Zero is seeing more new signups than ever not because this blog, Feross, or social media commenters have effectively “called out” donation models. License Zero, Feross’
funding, and other approaches taking user entitlement head-on are swelling with developers who have already tried donations platforms and other conciliatory, user-community-coddling approaches, and experienced their failure firsthand. They’ve come around to assertive solutions, and developed the chutzpah to adopt them, by hard knocks and a process of elimination, not enlightened deduction.
Increasingly, maintainers are starting to go through a mindset shift. We don’t want to ask politely for donations anymore — donations that often never come, or when they do they’re usually only enough for maintainers to sustain themselves but never enough to actually thrive.
If you include “make users feel good about the current situation” in your system of equations, you can’t effectively solve “pay independent open developers market compensation”, “maintain their independence”, and “build only open software”, too. User entitlement and expectations are just too expansive, the forces inflating them too strong, the rate of scope creep too bewildering. Something and someone has to give, and so far, as usual, that’s been producers, not consumers.
From the consumer point of view, the effects are rapidly “radicalizing” producers. Dedicated open software developers who don’t want junior programming gigs at FANG are in increasingly open revolt, adopting business models in direct affront to the idea that producers and consumers are all one happy interest group of peers. But there is nothing radical about fairness.
Everyone should have seen this coming. Now we have to face it.