Supporting Open Source Projects

I remember (back in time) when I was still using Slackware Linux. It is a Linux distribution maintained by Patrick Volkerding – the only person behind a project with thousands or tens of thousands of users (maybe more, who knows?). Occasionally the news section of the distro had a new post published that looked like: “I’m taking two weeks off with my family for the holidays, and I will be unable to reply to support inquiries while I’m away“.

It probably looks odd, and the Linux distribution was pretty stable once configured, but compared to the commercial operating systems it is sort of funny to see how the only person behind the project is off for two weeks and the official maintenance drops down to zero replies.

TGM Plugin Activator

TGM Plugin Activator is a great plugin that adds dependencies to your theme or plugin. For instance, if you are building an extension to another plugin, the library provides you with a neat framework for displaying notices and installing the dependables from within the WordPress dashboard, resolving all of your conflicts. Given the best practice approach of dropping custom post types and content-related shortcodes from a theme’s core itself, the plugin is the best solution to providing the best experience to your users without locking them to a specific theme.

Recently there were several reports on GitHub for some notices, and a very recent incompatibility with WordPress 3.8. We’re approaching the holidays at the end of the year and several people complained already, but no solution has been found so far.

Now, I know that Thomas is working on another version of the plugin, probably building from scratch, that provides way more in a better manner to get even more people involved in the project. The paradox however is limited to the following statements:

  • Thomas is working on another version of the project and the existing one is not his priority
  • No one can force him to do any updates or maintenance on any Open Source project that hadn’t been backed up by some contract and cash respectively
  • Holidays are near, and regular people take time off
  • Users face plugin issues that seem to break the normal flow of the plugin

I’m not blaming Thomas for the current state of the project. It’s his pet project, he has his day job and it’s just a side library that people could use if they want and can to improve their projects. No strings attached.

Blogging in the Wild

Tom wrote a great post on blogging, related to the dangers of exposing your own opinion online where it could be read and commented by anyone. The years of trolling aren’t behind us, but even ignoring them for a bit, people around the world have different opinions and some sound harsh online (no matter if they mean it or not). Eric wrote another related post called “Opinons. I have them” which is a good read as well. What I liked in the first story is the tweet that Tom published for his post:

[tweet https://twitter.com/tommcfarlin/status/413723172585095168]

The Open Source industry is mostly built by idealists who make no sense at all if you read any of the capitalist economical theories. Volunteers who share free resources to everyone in their own spare time. That culture is distributed among bloggers, developers, designers, journalists and many more who contribute and educate, save others’ time by providing solutions that could be used by millions, or even billions of people across the world.

Contributing to Open Source

Both Tom and Jeffro wrote about contributing to WordPress 3.8, among other “infected” members of the large Open Source family. It’s great to contribute and they both outline the importance of giving back when using open resources. I write about Open Source regularly and I send the “Contributing Manifesto” to my clients who are not convinced about giving back to the world. Sometimes it works!

Most people think that contributing is only related to development, and they can’t help unless they learn a few programming languages and everything. That’s not true at all. Just browse the blogs of regular community folks and they’ll convince you that there are numerous way to give back to a project, such as:

  • Writing tutorials and documentation
  • Translating the product
  • Helping with the support requests
  • Sending bug reports
  • Sharing the product to other users
  • Suggest new features or enhancements

These are just a few ways to give back to a project. Smaller projects are often being built by developers (or designers only) who have no experience in marketing, SEO, can’t manage with blogging or writing documentation, and can’t cope with all the support coming their way. They would all appreciate your help in any possible way. Including the financial support.

Donations

That’s another relevant topic that haven’t been covered properly. You can buy a smartphone, tablet or a computer, and you’d rent some DVDs or buy the latest album of your favorite band. You pay some folks who build something to make you happy, and they continue working on the same thing to improve it, or for example record new albums. But have you contributed to the Open Source projects that you use?

I’ve thought about the time that my Linux saves me on a monthly basis, together with my IDE (the tool that I develop code with), my OpenOffice software kit, WordPress and various plugins. Whenever I can, I help with the code, propose new features, support other people. Occasionally I send small tokens of gratitude to the projects. I know that ten or thirty bucks won’t solve anything really, but I know that it would make the project authors happy and if more people donate too, it would move the project further.

Remember the Slackware story at the beginning of the post? What would have happened if people (and companies who use Slackware) donated enough to hire a few support folks? Or help the developer with support and maintenance (which was the case back then)? Or even hire him (larger companies) to work on that project if they use it?

This is Real

Imagine the following scenario: a project such as Easy Digital Downloads by Pippin (both a great project and an inspiring author) has about 200 000 users. It’s a platform based on WordPress for  selling digital goods and it has 200K downloads on WordPress.org. Now, if every user of that massive plugin sends $3 to the author (which is approximately the cost of a Starbucks latte in the US) it makes $600 000. That’s roughly a 10-years salary of a mid-level developer in some US states! It almost means that you can get 5 more years of Pippin’s time plus new goodies being built, support folks on board and even more!

I’ve heard a really odd comment a few times that sounds like: “What would $5 do here? I would probably even insult the author with that“. The only thing that insults an Open Source author is ungrateful users who don’t appreciate the time he/she spent on something that they could use for free, or the lack of any feedback and signs of appreciation. Any tweet, Facebook status, email, blog comment sending positive energy to the author is inspiring and potentially leading to more features, better support and documentation and a vivid ecosystem.

Speaking from experience, donations in my site always make me smile and whenever I buy myself a can of coke, it makes me think: “Cheers and thanks for appreciating my time and efforts!“. I wrote about the Gittip project where people could regularly support active contributors to a large project – it doesn’t take a million to change someone’s life. But the same authors of your favorite themes and plugins might have a hard time travelling to the next WordCamp and sharing their knowledge to hundreds of people (thousands if we cound WordPress.tv), or struggle with the mortgage due to spending too much time working on free projects – so wouldn’t you feel better if you could have helped them?

Join The Project Family

But then again, money is not the key thing for this post. Contributing, however, is. Take some time in the evening or over the weekend and see what Open Source tools, projects, themes or plugins you’ve been using and like a lot. Try to answer a question or two in the support forums, write a tutorial on your blog about some fancy way to do something (or just to give props to the authors), see if you can help them make them even better.

Because that is how a community works.

 

6 thoughts on “Supporting Open Source Projects

  1. Fantastic post, Mario – and thanks so much to linking to some of the stuff, I’ve discussed as well.

    There were two points you made that I really like:

    The Open Source industry is mostly built by idealists who make no sense at all if you read any of the capitalist economical theories.

    Which is really funny because of some the most entrepreneurial, pro-free market, capitalists are some of the most active open source developers :).

    The only thing that insults an Open Source author is ungrateful users who don’t appreciate the time he/she spent on something that they could use for free, or the lack of any feedback and signs of appreciation.

    And this. Straight up.

    1. Thanks for commenting Tom, and for the continuous efforts in educating and helping other people in the community – WordPress is a great example of what tens of thousands of people can do together, and maybe even change the course of history! 🙂

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