Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Open Source ≠ Web2.0

Ok. I agree with Terranova's framing of the 'new web' (or 'web 2.0' as it's been popularly termed) as a field reliant upon user generated material – companies now offer platforms through which users exchange selfmade content, as is apparent with youtube, myspace, facebook, etc. But the assertion that the Open Source movement reflects “further evidence of this structural trend within the digital economy” (113) overlooks many key principles of the legal premises of Open Source and the ideologies which underly them.

Open Source software is fundamentally more free than the Freeware Terranova lauds for being “freely distributed and [not even requesting] a reward from its users”. Not only is Open Source software freely available like Freeware, but so is the recipe that made it, and all of the tools needed to alter it or appropriate certain parts of it for use in other open source projects. So if for example you're writing an open source media player, and you need it to decode mp3 files, you can find another open source mp3 player and directly take the mp3 decoding part of the code for use in your program (so long as you provide credit where due, and in turn release your software under Open Source license). This public offering of source code to encourage further experimentation places Open Source in a wholly different field than Freeware and Shareware, both of which maintain a curtain between the end user and the underlying code which operates beneath the surface of the software they offer.

Now, while a select few Open Source projects have corporate backing (ex Sun's Open Office / Star Office suite which provides a free replacement for MS Office), the vast majority do not. To begin with, the Gnome, KDE, and XFE linux desktop environments (all of which provide free OpenSource equivalents to the kind of ClosedSource environment one pays for with Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OSX) are all run as open source non-for-profit organizations. Hundreds of thousands of individual software packages also exist within this open source framework divorced from corporate roots, many of which the average pc or mac user may already be familiar with such as GIMP (equivalent to Adobe Photoshop), audio manipulation tools like Audacity and Ardour (similar to Protools), and the 3d modeling suite Blender (similar to multithousand dollar commercial suites like Maya, 3DS, & Softimage).

Furthermore, corporate software is often Open Sourced these days not in the hopes of shifting labor onto unpaid cyberjunkies, but instead for the sake of publicity. Embracing Open Source can have profound effects on the public image of a company, allowing the corporate entity to affiliate itself with the positive connotations born of grassroots Open Source initiatives. It's really a lot like the “BUY RED” campaign recently spearheaded by GAP, which allows companies to sacrifice a small amount of their profits in order to ally themselves within the consumer's mind to notions of humanitarian aid and eradication of the global AIDS epidemic. Going Open Source lends a company the appearance of greater translucency and community involvement, which can in turn drive sales.

AND In cases where corporate entities have arisen from within the open source movement, the great majority have simply served as means of organizing tax infrastructure, not as vehicles of commercial gain. One of the largest such corporations which jumps to mind is the Mozilla foundation, initially responsible for maintaining the Mozilla and Firefox web browsers, as well as the Thunderbird email client – the corporation is registered as a non-profit organization under Californian tax code IRC 501(c)(3).

Given this vast majority of non-commercially driven Open Source activity, it seems inaccurate (to say the least) for Terranova to imply that the movement as a whole reflects the 'new web' structure of corporate platforms populated with user-generated content. To say that Open Source projects generate “either a product that gets you hooked on to another one or makes you just consume more time on the net... consume bandwidth” (as Terranova quotes Horvarth on 114) is ridiculous. In the vast majority of Open Source projects, no corporate platform facilitates the generation of content ; there really is an exchange of code for the sake of free exchange. And while at times open source packages may be appropriated within corporate distributions of Linux (like Novell's SUSE or SLED) which offer paid service and support, this relationship between producer and corporation seems quite different than what we see on facebook or myspace, where the production and exchange of content is wholly dependent upon the existence of those corporate platforms! Your facebook profile wouldn't exist without facebook, but the Audacity audio editor is still going to be freely available open source software contributed to and improved by volunteers around the world regardless of whether or not Novell decides to include it in their latest distribution of a commercial SUSE package.

The Open Source movement just isn't structurally equivalent to that of the Web 2.0 revolution of user generated content, and Terranova's conflation of the two greatly disregards much of what the open source community has accomplished on its own.

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