Is sustainability still a thing in open source?

These examples show how different kinds of sustainability influence each other in open source.
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Eugen Rochko just reported that the social service Mastodon had "hit 1,028,362 monthly active users […] 1,124 new Mastodon servers since Oct 27 and 489,003 new users". Known mainly by open source developers, Mastodon has suddenly become mainstream, promising to take inclusive, open, and free values to social media. If Mastodon was sustainable, it is now thriving, attracting both users and developers, and able to launch more than 1,000 servers in a matter of days. How can this increase in users and infrastructure be explained? In this article, we want to suggest that there are different kinds of sustainability in open source and that these can have interesting interactions.

We know intuitively open source is sustainable: It's been around for decades, its importance keeps growing in the digital economy, and public institutions actively try to participate in open source ventures. Still, open source sustainability remains a key concern for both practitioners and academics. On the practice side, recent projects like Bitergia and Augur are identifying holistic measures of sustainability and project health. An entire group meets to discuss open source sustainability. For academics, a recent call for papers from IEEE asks for contributions on how public bodies can improve the long-term sustainability of open source projects.

3 types of sustainability

A recent article argues that there are three kinds of sustainability: Resource-based, interactional, and infrastructural. Resource-based sustainability has historically attracted the most concern. This sustainability refers to the capacity of open source actors to attract resources such as developers or value such as knowledge. A large part of the world used to be bewildered by the ability to attract contributors. One question asked by economists back in the day was, "Why should thousands of top-notch programmers contribute freely to the provision of a public good? Any explanation based on altruism only goes so far" (Lerner and Tirole, 2000, p. 2). Although the sustainability of open source no longer hangs on its ability to attract people, large numbers of contributors are still needed. Those projects that no longer attract them risk maintenance and security issues.

Interactional sustainability concerns what kinds of relations are created and sustained in open source. What value do certain interactions bring? How do developers collaborate to make the best software possible? For example, the historical debates between Free software and open source deal with what kind of interactions should be favored in open source, with whom, and for what purpose. The existence of mentorship programs, such as Red Hat's, shows the importance of passing down 'open' and reciprocal values. More recently, the introduction of codes of conduct has also aimed at better defining desired values of interaction, ones that are inclusive.

The final kind of sustainability is about the infrastructures needed for any work to be carried out. A lot of open source development depends on infrastructures. Without GitLab, GitHub, or even Git, open source development would be much costlier and more complicated to set up. These kinds of projects act as platforms that enable many open source projects to develop and collaborate. They also create an underlying basis for how open source projects coordinate. Developers can more rapidly get to speed and start contributing to other projects when they share versioning systems.

Sustainability strategies in open source

When thinking of sustainability as being of multiple kinds, start analyzing how they interact. A recent article showcases one such example of sustainability relations. The article notes that it may seem paradoxical that firms must get involved in projects they don't control and collaborate with competitors. A firm's sustainability depends on its ability to foster a sustainable community. This is a hierarchical relationship: the sustainability of one leads to the sustainability of the other. But you may also question this hierarchical relation: do the different actors have different priorities or values of sustainability? Does the community have different sustainability goals than firms?

These questions lead you to think strategically about open source sustainability. Strategizing sustainability has a direct consequence: "achieving" sustainability in open source may not be possible. Actors take a calculative—though potentially mutually-beneficial—approach to sustainability. For example, an organization might want to quickly grow a project, while the community might prefer to focus on infrastructural sustainability. Further, sustainable priorities may evolve and become contested. Indeed, that there may be different kinds of sustainability means that you can also find yourself with contradictory sustainability objectives held by different actors (e.g., community, core developers, organizations, etc.). These objectives may independently be worthwhile but together, may incur trade-offs instead.

[ Related read 5 open source tips to reduce waste in web design ]

I'll look at one historic event in the Linux Kernel that shows how understanding sustainability was contingent on circumstances. In 2002, as the Linux Kernel was growing, Linus decided to change versioning systems to better accommodate increasing changes (infrastructural sustainability) since growing numbers of developers were contributing to the project. Having looked at the existing systems available, he finally chose BitKeeper because it fit best with development practices in Linux. That BitKeeper was a proprietary project did not bother Linus. Yet the decision to migrate to this versioning system annoyed many developers, with the risk that some might stop contributing (a decrease in resource-based sustainability). How could the open source flagship project rely on a proprietary system (a decrease in interactional sustainability)? Could the owners of the VC system cut access to it and take the community hostage (infrastructural sustainability risk)? Despite an email from the founder of BitKeeper promising not to do that, an attempt to reverse engineer BitKeeper (using developer resources and prioritizing interactional sustainability) ended the collaboration between Linux and BitKeeper.

The more recent example of Mastodon shows a synergistic growth scenario. The social platform could exponentially grow infrastructural sustainability by adding new servers and connecting new instances around topics, interests, or any kind of group. In contrast, its interactional sustainability was defined very well in clear codes of conduct and adapted per instance, thus being ready to increase its resource-based sustainability.

A sustainable future

These are brief examples, but they are enough to see that different kinds of sustainability influence each other, and not always positively. If there are multiple kinds of sustainability, then can you maximize all of them? Or should you maximize one as long as it does not negatively influence others? What type of sustainability should be prioritized? Or should you look for some sort of balance? These strategic questions are important for future, newly established, and mature open source projects since they face different sustainability struggles, and also for funding agencies that may want to evaluate how projects understand their sustainability priorities.

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I study how open communities coordinate and organise themselves from a social science perspective. I'm particularly interested in how different commons are produced and sustained, whether in open source communities or citizen-science projects. I’m a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Gothenburg and the Swedish Center for Digital Innovation.

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