The Three Tenets of Open Source

I am historically a user of open source software far more than a contributor. While I hope that this will change over the coming semester, this reflection is written with that in mind.

I have far from a holistic view of the open source software world. I am predominantly a user of Processing, p5.js, Blender 3D, and a scattering of javascript and python libraries here and there. In the years that I have been using these softwares, I have noticed three… trends or perhaps tenets among the communities, trends that I admire and respect.

Open access

This is not so much a trend as it is an obvious core component of open source software. The idea of open access for me, however, extends beyond merely being freely distributable. It’s an ethos rather than a (lack of) price tag, an ethos that facilitates building community and education.  More on that below.

Fostering a low barrier to entry

By this I do not mean that open source projects are easy to get the hang of, or easy to learn. Rather, the ‘cost’ of experimentation and play is far less than on closed source software.

For example, Blender is a software that is entirely free, because of its open source nature. An aspiring artist merely needs to put in the time and effort to start learning 3D creation on Blender, though that journey may be long and difficult.

In the case of proprietary software, however, the artist must consider whether the thousands of dollars to simply start learning is worth the potential future rewards (a job, artistic fulfilment, etc). Even if the software comes with an educational license, those are usually restrictive in functionality, in what the resulting work can be used for (e.g. non-commercial licenses), or both.

Open source software, from the potential user’s point of view, and especially when compared to proprietary software, fosters an environment conducive to low-cost, low-barrier experimentation, learning, and play. This is very important in engaging users of many different backgrounds who, for whatever reasons, cannot pay to simply learn to use a tool.

Sense of Community

From my little experience in the open source communities of Blender, Processing, p5, and the like, there seems to be far less user gatekeeping than the average software user community.

What I mean by this is the communities are more open to complete beginners, both in the sense of how people interact, as well as inherent structures within the institutions.

The user communities of the projects I’ve mentioned above do not look down beginners, they do not dismiss a lack of qualifications, they do not (generally) brush aside questions as obvious or trivial. This is in contrast to the communities of some similar proprietary software (here’s looking at you, Maya). This type of openness definitely also contributes to the sense of low barriers to entry I described above.

In addition to generally open and friendly user communities, all three projects I mentioned above have very clear ‘getting started’ docs, FAQs, and resources for beginners. Perhaps it is because proprietary software expects certain qualifications, or proprietary software is generally built by people who assume an already-extant user base, but my experience as a user of closed source artistic software is far less beginner friendly, and the communities can be a little more snooty. The open source projects I have experience with inherently foster friendly, accessible user communities, which then leads to a much friendlier and more supportive user environment in general.

Final thoughts

These three trends of my open source experience are by no means all-encapsulating, and of course I am sure there are open source projects that are less beginner friendly or have different barriers to entry. I consider these idealistic tenets, things to keep in mind as I begin my own contribution journey, guidelines to bring into my own open source projects, contributions, and interactions.

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