Book Review: Working in Public by Nadia Eghbal

2020-11-06 - Louis-Philippe Véronneau

I have a lot of respect for Nadia Eghbal, partly because I can't help to be jealous of her work on the economics of Free Software1. If you are not already familiar with Eghbal, she is the author of Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure, a great technical report published for the Ford Foundation in 2016. You may also have caught her excellent keynote at LCA 2017, entitled Consider the Maintainer.

Her latest book, Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, published by Stripe Press a few months ago, is a great read and if this topic interests you, I highly recommend it.

The book itself is simply gorgeous; bright orange, textured hardcover binding, thick paper, wonderful typesetting — it has everything to please. Well, nearly everything. Sadly, it is only available on Amazon, exclusively in the United States. A real let down for a book on Free and Open Source Software.

The book is divided in five chapters, namely:

  1. Github as a Platform
  2. The Structure of an Open Source Project
  3. Roles, Incentives and Relationships
  4. The Work Required by Software
  5. Managing the Costs of Production

A picture of the book cover

Contrary to what I was expecting, the book feels more like an extension of the LCA keynote I previously mentioned than Roads and Bridges. Indeed, as made apparent by the following quote, Eghbal doesn't believe funding to be the primary problem of FOSS anymore:

We still don't have a common understanding about who's doing the work, why they do it, and what work needs to be done. Only when we understand the underlying behavioral dynamics of open source today, and how it differs from its early origins, can we figure out where money fits in. Otherwise, we're just flinging wet paper towels at a brick wall, hoping that something sticks. — p.184

That is to say, the behavior of maintainers and the challenges they face — not the eternal money problem — is the real topic of this book. And it feels refreshing. When was the last time you read something on the economics of Free Software without it being mostly about what licences projects should pick and how business models can be tacked on them? I certainly can't.

To be clear, I'm not sure I agree with Eghbal on this. Her having worked at Github for a few years and having interviewed mostly people in the Ruby on Rails and Javascript communities certainly shows in the form of a strong selection bias. As she herself admits, this is a book on how software on Github is produced. As much as this choice irks me (the Free Software community certainly cannot be reduced to Github), this exercise had the merit of forcing me to look at my own selection biases.

As such, reading Working in Public did to me something I wasn't expecting it to do: it broke my Free Software echo chamber. Although I consider myself very familiar with the world of Free and Open Source Software, I now understand my somewhat ill-advised contempt for certain programming languages — mostly JS — skewed my understanding of what FOSS in 2020 really is.

My Free Software world very much revolves around Debian, a project with a strong and opinionated view of Free Software, rooted in a historical and political understanding of the term. This, Eghbal argues, is not the case for a large swat of developers anymore. They are The Github Generation, people attached to Github as a platform first and foremost, and who feel "Open Source" is just a convenient way to make things.

Although I could intellectualise this, before reading the book, I didn't really grok how communities akin to npm have been reshaping the modern FOSS ecosystem and how different they are from Debian itself. To be honest, I am not sure I like this tangent and it is certainly part of the reason why I had a tendency to dismiss it as a fringe movement I could safely ignore.

Thanks to Nadia Eghbal, I come out of this reading more humble and certainly reminded that FOSS' heterogeneity is real and should not be idly dismissed. This book is rich in content and although I could go on (my personal notes clock-in at around 2000 words and I certainly disagree with a number of things), I'll stop here for now. Go and grab a copy already!

  1. She insists on using the term open source, but I won't :)