Free software projects are not products

One of the best things to happen if you are a free software developer is to see your code cropping up in other projects. Recently I’ve been helping Till Bovermann reuse the Betablocker DS virtual machine and integrate it into Supercollider, where it can be run at audio rate to create sound directly. The fact that the code was written to run on Gameboy means that Till’s also able to run 20 of them at audio rate at the same time.

In other news, the Fluxus editor is now being used as a way of livecoding Open Frameworks. This has a nice symmetry to it, as Fluxus uses some code from Open Frameworks for it’s camera input.

To me this highlights how thinking about free software in terms of being products (in a consumer capitalist sense) is an ill fit. This kind of cross pollination is really “the point” of free software, and would be, by necessity full of barriers if these projects were proprietary.

The problem is that it’s very hard for us to see outside of these ideas when they are so ingrained in our world and our thinking. It’s sometimes valuable to try and outline these assumptions, and become more aware of them.

The popularity in terms of raw market share is an interesting metric for a free software project as it has a kind of irrelevance or is even an obstruction when users are not supporting the project somehow. In the same way, the definition of “user” and “developer” seem a hangover from the same kind of producer/consumer thinking we are interested in finding the edges of.

What we want to know is what kind of people are using the project, are they curious, will they fiddle with things, do they blog about the work they are doing, can they translate the documentation? Most of all, will they increase the energy surrounding the work? People that do that are precious.

If we want a good metric of a project’s success in terms of cross pollination, perhaps we can borrow from scientific methods – where citations are a major metric for how influential a paper, individual or group is. Is there a way of tracking the movement of code and ideas in free software?

3 thoughts on “Free software projects are not products

  1. Two years ago, a student from MIT designed an experiment about a networked programming tool (around processing) which tracked movement of code on a small scale. It had good ideas inside (a visual browser, code highlighting from copy & paste from others, metatags in comments, etc.). See for details. Sadly, it seems the project is asleeped since.

  2. That’s a very nice project. It would be nice to have a peer to peer version of that kind of thing. In some ways this resembles powerbooks unplugged: and their ideas for sharing or passing around code during a livecoding performance.

    Also – your website design is awesome!

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