Here I am at the HBS/MIT Sloan Free/Open Source Software Conference, able to leech off of the Harvard Business School wireless network. We just finished talking about motives for participation in Open Source, and of course for the economists the question is “Why are these people volunteering?” The answer (again for the economists) is that they must be getting something out of it. This is perfectly reasonable as far as it goes (though the impulse to treat co-operation and volunteering as a weird social anomaly has its pathological side). But although the panel was organized around the question of Developer motivation, and we heard some good data on motives for participation, I remain unconvinced that framing the problem this way is a the most productive approach.

The problem is that motives are too labile. They are fluid and shifting and—worst of all—if you ask people why they’re doing x, they’ll usually give you a list of motives as long as your arm, or check off most items on the list of motives that you present them with. This showed up in much of the data the speakers presented—the histograms were all flat, so to speak, with most people checking off most motives.

This is consistent with reseach in the voluntary/nonprofit sector (where the existence of voluntary activity is not thought of as some weird anomaly to be explained away). There we find that (1) motives are too plural, with the limited exception of (2) altruistic motives, which aren’t culturally plausible. (If I sell my kidney to a stranger for $20,000 people can understand my action even if they disapprove; if I give it away to a stranger they’re likely to think I need psychiatric help.) A much more robust approach focuses on mechanisms of organizational recruitment and retention. The best predictor of whether you’ve volunteered time or money recently is whether you’ve been asked. So we need to know much more about the organizational side. Volunteerism has been a constant in the software/hacker community since its inception, yet the open-source explosion is a comparatively recent affair. My intuition is that the real causal traction is in social organization or institutions, not individual motives. Interestingly, this view is supported by some of the people involved in the comunity. Jeff Bates, of OSDN, was a commenter on the last session and said he wanted to know how a project aggregates people. This seems like exactly the right question to me.