Yesterday, Alex Gaynor explained why he supports personal funding for open source developers, namely that “open source is an obscenely efficient way to develop software.” Russell Keith-Magee agreed (as do I), and then hit the nail on the head when he added that, for personal funding to work in open source, what’s really needed is a cultural change:
But the whole personal funding approach won’t work unless you can get a non-trivial proportion of those 1.7 million Github users to contribute financially. So for me, the real question is how to affect the social change that makes donation like this the rule, not the exception. Unless there’s a plan for how to get to there from here, my concern is that Gittip won’t move beyond a well-intentioned, but small-scale experiment. [emphasis added]
I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what I see as “the plan.”
The Vision and the Next Step
A few years ago I worked for a non-profit that was trying to effect social change, and basically succeeded. The model that we followed was called “transformational change” by our organization’s leadership and the consultants they were listening to. The core idea is this: All you can count on is the vision and the next step. Here’s an image I put together at the time to capture my understanding of transformational change:
From where you stand now (A), you see the mountaintop you’re trying to reach in the distance (Z), and you have a general idea of what lies between, but the only step you’re really clear on is the next one (B). So take the next step! Don’t get distracted speculating about the ground between (B) and (Z), because it’s too uncertain, full of unknown obstacles and opportunities. Bringing about transformational change means reacting to many, many realities that are out of your control and off your radar, given where you stand right now.
We’ve already seen this illustrated in Gittip’s short life. Who knew that in week two our credit card processor would fail, and we’d have to rebuild from scratch? We had to react to that when it became step (B), the next step. If we had spent time protecting against that risk earlier, week one never would have happened. The good news is that we bounced back, and here in week five we have 64 credit cards on file, more than double the 26 we had before starting over.
My vision for Gittip is a culture of giving, where we as a community enable each other to freely pursue our vision of how to make the world better. I love this quote from Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva, on the cultural shift that Kiva has witnessed and been a part of: “hundreds of thousands of people have given up financial return […] in exchange for the feeling of participation in someone else’s story.” Yes!
What’s the next step? To run Gittip #5 tomorrow. It looks like we’ll have 1.5x givers and 2.5x volume over last week. That’s not nothing.
A Swarm of Bees
I also take inspiration from the following passage from Leo Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, where he eloquently describes the interplay of group and individual required for social change to occur. The book, published in 1894, presciently describes what we would now call the diffusion of innovations.
Men [sic] in their present condition are like a swarm of bees hanging in a cluster to a branch. The position of the bees on the branch is temporary, and must inevitably be changed. They must start off and find themselves a habitation. Each of the bees knows this, and desires to change her own and the others’ position, but no one of them can do it till the rest of them do it. They cannot all start off at once, because one hangs on to another and hinders her from separating from the swarm, and therefore they all continue to hang there. It would seem that the bees could never escape from their position[….] And there would be no escape for the bees, if each of them were not a living, separate creature, endowed with wings of its own. Similarly there would be no escape for men, if each were not a living being[.]
If every bee who could fly, did not try to fly, the others, too, would never be stirred, and the swarm would never change its position. […] But only let one bee spread her wings, start off, and fly away, and after her another, and another, and the clinging, inert cluster would become a freely flying swarm of bees.
Which is to say that “the plan” to effect the cultural change that Gittip needs to succeed is the same as that for any other cultural change. The plan is for millions of people to each individually adopt a new outlook. As Tolstoy goes on to say:
But men think that to set all men free by this means is too slow a process, that they must find some other means by which they could set all men free at once. It is just as though the bees who want to start and fly away should consider it too long a process to wait for all the swarm to start one by one; and should think they ought to find some means by which it would not be necessary for every separate bee to spread her wings and fly off, but by which the whole swarm could fly at once where it wanted to. But that is not possible; till a first, a second, a third, a hundredth bee spreads her wings and flies off of her own accord, the swarm will not fly off and will not begin its new life.
My plan is to take the next step in front of me, to start hovering away from the swarm a little bit, and encourage others to do the same.
Plenty to Do
Now, of course that doesn’t mean that there’s not plenty to do, nor that discussing possible ways to reach out to the open source community and evangelize the idea of personal funding is time wasted. What I want to establish is that I have no big Master Plan, and that that’s a good thing. Let’s be clear on that, and then by all means let’s figure out how to get this swarm moving!