January 2010

"I reject the notion that any user is a freeloader or a leech. At the very least, they are vectors for your software, getting it out there in real-world environments to show to other potential users."

Brian Proffitt, Community Manager of Linux Foundation

Passive participants in open source ecosystems should not be viewed as leeches as they contribute value to the ecosystem. Every eyeball has value. By better understanding the roles of passive participants in the ecosystem, keystone companies can assign resources, such as community managers, more effectively and better leverage the value these participants create. The next challenge is to better quantify the value of passive contribution.

This article discusses how passive participants in open source ecosystems play an important role in value creation in the ecosystem. It examines why the value they add is not well captured by current measures and suggests areas of future research, the outcomes of which would enable keystone companies to better position themselves.

Passive Participants in Open Source Projects

In her recent keynote speech at OSCON 2009, Kirrily Robert talked about the participation of women in open source projects. She interviewed female participants in two open source projects: Dreamwidth and AO3. She reports: "So, what can we learn from this? Well, one thing I’ve learnt is that if anyone says, “Women just aren’t interested in technology” or “Women aren’t interested in open source,” it’s just not true. Women are interested, willing, able, and competent. They’re just not contributing to existing, dare I say “mainstream”, open source projects."

What about passive participants? Is contribution to the code base the only way to measure participation in a software project? Gender equity issues aside, is it fair to assume that someone who doesn't contribute to the code of an open source project is not interested in technology or not interested in open source? Are contributors the only stakeholders in an open source ecosystem? Do they generate all of the value?

Franck Scipion of 55 Thinking talks about numerous other roles for participants in an open source ecosystem. He describes roles that include new user support, collaboration facilitator, know-how sharer, evangelist, trainer, event organizer, donor, and users. From the perspective of code commits, these participants are all passive and these contributions to the open source ecosystem are not measured by the traditional scales. Yet they are clearly doing something important to contribute to the health of the ecosystem. Why are these roles marginalized?

Bill Snyder at InfoWorld writes about "open source leeches". He describes the debate over the perception that those who don't contribute back in the form of code contributions are considered "open source vampires". This perspective only makes sense if you assume that roles are clearly delineated as developer and user. In this model, developers shoulder all the work and manage the projects. They contribute source code, debug problems, debate the merits of new features, and add them as needed. Developers are the key players who chose the direction of a particular project and are the primary actors responsible for its success or failure. Open source projects are by developers, for developers.

Following this model, passive participants merely use the software. The developer community regards users as people who only take what was freely available and make no real contributions back to the project or community. Non-developers are often spoken of in disdain as problematic and opportunistic. Passive participants are thought to have nothing to offer open source projects. They are just freeloaders benefiting from the open licensing terms.

Where does this perceived divide come from? It may be the social barriers that grew in developer communities that made it such that only people who could write code, and who fully understood the internals of the open source project in question, could participate in development discussions. There is still frequent debate about open source elitism that is thought to separate the classes of participants. In this divide, developers rebuke users for simply taking the work of others and giving nothing in return and the users rebuke the developers for not understanding the mainstream's wants and needs and for keeping development restricted to a small circle of people.

This divisive model misses the complexity of open source ecosystems. While some of its points may have validity, value generation in the ecosystem is not controlled purely by these factors. Passive participants are essential to value generation.

Users Provide Value

The emergence of the participatory Web has changed the nature of engagement in open source projects and is in the process of changing the definition of the roles different participants play. At the same time, open source projects are continually building upon one another, and combining in new and innovative ways to address business needs. Ecosystems have formed around some of the larger open source projects, and users make a significant contribution to the overall health and success of the projects.

In 1998, Netscape paved the way as the first widespread commercial open source success. It redefined the open source game, showing that companies could participate in, and even lead, open source projects and be successful. Netscape turned the traditional software business model on its head. It was in this breeding ground of new potential that the traditional model of participation in open source projects began to erode.

Prior to the open sourcing of its code, Netscape had been giving away its browser for free. The management team quickly realised that in order to compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, Netscape needed to put its browser in the hands of every single potential Internet user, and that the best way to do this was to give it away for free. The large number of users, in turn, would help fuel sales of Netscape’s server products to companies who wanted to build an Internet presence and conduct e-commerce. The non-paying users of Netscape’s browser played an integral role in the company’s strategy.

When Netscape released its browser code as open source, many users fell into the traditional open source roles of developers and non-contributing users. But, new user roles began to emerge. The advocate user came into being. These users do not contribute directly to a program's source code or development. But, after using the program, they spread the word by recommending it to their friends and colleagues. In this manner, they increase awareness of the product and bring in more users who may, in turn, make contributions in code or in another ways.

Advocates are just one class of user that has begun to emerge as an important player in open source projects. They add value to the project not through code contributions or feature testing and implementation, but by spreading the word about the project and adding value to the brand by increasing its awareness. In the case of Netscape, its brand was its most valuable asset. The strength of its brand led directly to its acquisition by AOL in the spring of 1999, in a deal worth over $4 billion dollars.

The popularity of a brand can be directly influenced by the number of people who use the brand’s product. By allowing users to use and freely distribute the product, they become distributed marketing and promotional agents for the company. Companies should encourage and nurture user participation to improve their branding strategy and the reach of their market. Users are particularly useful for viral marketing through word of mouth referrals. This form of marketing greatly hastens the adoption of new products.

More than ten years later, observers of open source participation still see average users as unable to help themselves, let alone contribute anything meaningful. It is assumed that all users of open source software must have a profile that is comparable to a developer's in order to do anything other than "passively consume".

Emerging User Roles

The participatory Web has put the Internet into the hands of the user. It enables anyone to readily generate and post content in a broad array of contexts. It has helped thousands of communities to grow and thrive around interactive products and services. For open source projects, it has also created a new class of user: the non-code-contributing user.

Originally, the only contributions a participant in an open source project could make were in the form of code. They could debug a problem or implement a new feature and submit the revised source code to be included in the project’s next release. The technical barrier to entry effectively prevented non-programmers from participation. In recent years, non-programmers can add value to open source projects without ever writing a line of code.

Aside from the value that users generate with word of mouth and other promotion of open source products, projects benefit from the complementary works that non-code-contributing users create. In the Netscape context, this might come in the form of web pages. Every user who creates a web page and puts it on the Internet for other people to access is indirectly adding value to the Netscape browser by increasing the number of pages the product can be used to access. If there were only 10 web pages in the world, the Netscape browser would not be very useful. As the number of web pages grows into more content that any given person might want to access, that growth adds value to the tool they will use to access that content.

A more direct example can be seen with the virtual world Second Life. Users purchase land and build on it in a 3D environment. This building is more akin to graphic design or visual arts than it is to programming. Users create objects and share them with other users. They then use the space and their creations to offer services and games, run businesses, trade currency, and generally create all kinds of complementary products and services that make the experience of using Second Life’s virtual world more appealing. Second Life released the code of their viewer as open source. This move promoted the development of hundreds of diverse third party applications and interfaces such as 3D headsets, terminals for the blind and Skype plug-ins. It has spurred the development of complementary assets that add value to their core product and brand. The parent company, Linden Lab, continues to generate significant revenue from network services provided within Second Life, and has attracted tens of thousands of new users through its open source efforts.

Users have played a central role in the Second Life ecosystem. Without the critical mass of users creating interesting spaces and using the project, all of the development work and code contributions that went into the product would go unused. These participants played a role in the coming into existence of all the derivative and complementary products that have and will emerge from the ecosystem. Without the passive participants, these products would have never existed, and the value capture for the companies that created them would not have occurred.

Suggestions for Companies

Since its founding in 1998, the Open Source Initiative has encouraged the software industry to re-evaluate intellectual property strategy. Many companies have been in a similar position to that of Netscape in 1998. They have an existing product, a growing user base with different motivations and skills, and revenue generation mechanisms. By taking a fresh look at the different classes of people who participate in the ecosystem they have built around their product, and broadening the operational definitions used to classify them, they are now in a position to be able to begin to quantify the value of passive users. The industry is full of data that is suitable to case studies of such situations.

Managers of companies considering open source strategies can begin planning and analyzing how to structure their open source projects to get the optimal benefit of all the different classes of users. By better understanding the different user motivations, and how different users add value to their core offering, they can increase their likelihood of success and strengthen their brand. Open source users contribute through code development, marketing and promotion, and complementary product creation. They also act as idea generation factories to help the company innovate better and build products and services that better meet the needs of their customers.

The biggest challenge in leveraging this untapped resource is changing the mentality of developers in the open source communities who have long enjoyed the center stage. Technology author Chris Pirillo describes the issue succinctly: “What would the world of software be like if the inmates were running the asylum? I'd argue a lot more useful, and a lot more beautiful. But users are usually in the back seat when it comes to the evolution of a utility – from beginning to end. Let me put it to you this way: software is useless if there isn't anybody using it. The world of software is getting larger by the day, and more people are finding new and different ways to improve lives with digital code. Programmers suffer from a miscalculation of a user's wants, needs, and desires. As a power user, I expect better, I expect faster, I expect smarter, I expect more. When I see a new piece of software that holds promise, I call out its shortcomings in the hopes it will be closer to perfection with the next revision.”

It is this culture gap that must be overcome to get the most out of the user base of an open source project. Dedicated community managers are one option as they can help focus the energy of the community towards achieving shared goals. They can also help increase inter-group communication, and help the community grow.

Further, the distinction between passive and active participants may be blurry. It is unclear how to best separate classes of participants, as their roles might be circumstance based. Is a code contributor both a developer and a user? Does it matter how much code they contribute? Further research into understanding roles would help quantify the dimensions of contribution.

Traditional consumer marketing metrics can also be used to learn about one's user base. By better understanding the users, companies can create more useful products that better meet user needs. Different types of users behave differently, and it may be possible to encourage them to participate in ways that relate to their interests. For example, innovative users tend to adopt technology more readily, don't mind bugs and crashes as much, and are willing to put in the time to help report errors and suggest improvements. Users who are highly involved with the product are more likely to be able to identify novel uses for the product as they have integrated it more in their life. Loyal users may not be technically savvy, but will gladly wave the banner of the company, promoting the product far and wide and bringing in new users. There are many other passive participants such as event promoters, designers of complementary products, documentation creators, and financial donors.

By carefully partitioning the participants of an open source community using standardized measures, a keystone company could assign its community management and marketing resources more effectively. It could better leverage the inherent value in the user community, and potentially improve the value creation in the ecosystem.

The Challenge of Assessing Value of Passive Participation

Passive participants add value to an open source ecosystem. The challenge is in assessing that value. What is the dollar amount, on average, that each participant adds to the ecosystem? How does that amount vary based on the type of participation? Is it easier to extract value from an open source ecosystem that has more passive participants? The answer to these and many other related questions is of great interest to companies as it defines their positioning strategy and community management practices. If it were possible to better quantify the value of passive contributions, the model of value creation in open source ecosystems would be strengthened, and would improve the ability of keystone companies to strategically position themselves in the ecosystem.


Companies that make the mistake of discounting the passive participants in their open source community miss out on a valuable resource. It is time to reshape the classical definitions of roles in open source ecosystems. Passive participants should not be viewed as leeches. They contribute to the ecosystem in many ways other than code. As our understanding of how open source ecosystems work improves, the next challenge is to better quantify the value of passive contributions. By better understanding the value of every eyeball in the open source ecosystem, keystone companies can make better strategic positioning decisions, and create more value in the ecosystem.


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