Open-source busking


Browse around a few popular open-source projects and you'll inevitably stumble across the cardboard sign and upturned hat of an open-source busker. These are developers who have added a widget to their project pages so that fans of their work can pledge a small amount of money on a monthly basis. The idea is that these small amounts allow users to show support or express gratitude for the author's work. Frequently these widgets are accompanied by a patronizing request to "buy me a coffee and support my project". There's even a "Buy me a coffee" website, tagline is Get the support your work deserves (note to the site's copywriter, is the target audience starved for coffee or support? I'm unclear on which).

These programmers are holding out their hats and asking, "brother, can you spare a dime"? But they're not indigent, in fact most of them have full-time jobs. So maybe it's more like my 4-year-old son asking "can I have candy?" after dinner. My instictive reaction is to run like hell from these kinds of developers and their projects. Because this practice is in direct conflict with my own experience that hard work is its own reward, and that the only things worth doing are worth doing as an end in themselves. And just as my son's dinner is what provides him with the nutrition his body needs, the work itself is what sustains high-quality open-source projects in the long run.

The developers asking you to buy them coffee aren't driven to this behavior out of necessity. Waitresses depend on tips, software engineers do not. These software engineers are trying to satisfy a personal need for acceptance. A hit of dopamine when they get a notification that someone is willing to support them in a (somewhat) tangible way. It's not about sustainability. It's about mutual recognition, belonging, being part of a scene. It's insular nerd culture. It's "while you're here, check out our splashy landing page and be the first to star our project on GitHub."

As I was thinking about all this, I remembered why, the lucky stiff. why became an idol of sorts for a whole crop of developers during the web 2.0 era. He then became even more famous in 2009 for deleting all his work and vanishing from the internet. I remember sitting in my office in 2010, and there was this guy who was attempting to copy why's quirky/whimsical style, and our sys-admin absolutely crushed by him saying, "Ah, so-and-so, you're just trying to be why." Maybe we were wondering who the next why would be. Maybe it could be me?

In the last 10 years I've seen a few people flame out spectacularly, while others have quietly wiped away all traces of their work before vanishing into the gray sea of cubicles. Ever-present, the countless sweaty tryhards, who have seen what can be bought with reputation in the software community, and are trying -- one github star at a time -- to emulate this kind of success for personal glory.

Maybe that's too absurd. But ask, what's behind all these slick landing-pages with bespoke fonts and their pleas to sign up for a newsletter? Are they onto something big? I see nothing but desperation. The landing page has been developed, refined and A/B-tested. Behind it is a mist of vaporware, empty GitHub repositories ("we're in stealth mode!") and a dragon's hoard of ".io" domain names serving up blank "nginx" responses.

I don't want to be a part of this. I don't want to see this become accepted as normal. Isn't it embarrassing to ask for coffee when you're employed full-time as a programmer? A $100K salary (median for developers) means that $5 tip you are grifting for is about what you'd make while walking to the break-room, puring yourself a coffee, and walking back to your desk. Wouldn't you feel ashamed to lay in bed at night and soothe yourself with thoughts of all the tips you might get? Maybe if you tweak the landing page just a little.

I admire outsiders. While the next great JavaScript framework is out there panhandling for stars, there are plenty of programmers content to focus quietly on their oeuvre. And then there are all those whose work may never be seen, whose work is known indirectly through the artifacts that brilliance inevitably produces. I hope they stay unknown. Remember what happened to why?

That's why this isn't really about tips, I guess. It's about authenticity and principles coming into collision with market forces (because reputation is a commodity). It's about the culture that has sprung up around GitHub, and its effect on upward mobility for programmers. It's about the unbelievable pace of change, the constant stream of new this, new that, better this, faster that. Why? Because so many people are trying to make a name, to make their mark, to be loved.

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