Flywheels and spinning plates

Cables and Flywheels of San Francsico by Mike Sweeney
Photo by Mike Sweeney and shared under Creative Commons license.

Interesting conversation tonight with Greg Wolff and his wife about capturing social capital as a dynamic kind of “currency”.

I didn’t follow the discussion in its entirely, but going off on my own tangent, I did come up with a rather interesting framing of the idea… at least insomuch as it relates to the gift economy and participation in open source communities.

The example given had to do with choosing, let’s say, an ice cream store to shop at. Everything being equal save the size of the crowd gathered outside, the very size of the crowd (or social capital as defined by the amount of accrued activity) could well determine which shop you’d buy your ice cream from. Essentially, the premise is that in numbers lies preference, wisdom or the promise of something better.

Applying this to open source projects and open source communities, it does seem to be true that the amount of momentum or potential attention such projects or communities can generate determines its attractiveness or recruiting-slash-staying power (obviously quality, opportunity and interestingness also play a role among other things).

Spinning Plates by  MerWhat’s interesting about this observation is that it can be modeled by imagining, first, a vast number of simultaneously spinning plates, representing all active open source projects. When someone sees a “plate” faltering, there is an opening to get involved and to contribute productively, keeping the plate “spinning”. Should there be a lack of interest or a lack of talent over time, that “plate” (or project) will fall (essentially going dormant). Now, fortunately, the value and progress made on that project has not been lost, since, as it is open source, anyone can come along later and start up the plate spinning again. An important principle in play here is the “conservation of attention” within a system run on social capital. Knowledge-based systems are infinite; what is limited is attention spread across knowledge-amassing projects. In thinking of open source projects as spinning plates, they require attention in order to keep “going” or producing more knowledge.

The second part of this observation is that, similar to the plate metaphor, successful open source projects operate like flywheels, spinning faster and faster in perpetuity the more that people join up and contribute.

However, this only works to a certain degree. If an open source project builds a community of active contributors and “gets the flywheel going” but then is unable to build infrastructure to harness the additional marginal effort that is contributed as social capital, eventually the excess social capital will dissipate and spread to other spinning plates (or open source projects). The result is something of a self-correcting equilibrium state where projects will continue to grow and flourish so long as they are able to sufficiently spend the capital that is being amassed.

This is a reflection of the self-healing, decentralized aspects of open source projects, where if they can not build large enough “buckets” to contain the magnitude of contributions directed their way, they will grow temporally only to revert back to a smaller and more manageable size.

In other words, if a project needs me for something and acknowledges and shows appreciate for my work in the context and view of other contributors, I’ll be happy to contribute more (to continue helping to spin the flywheel). If instead, I give my “gifts” of work to a project and they ignore, reject or otherwise devalue or fail to acknowledge what I’ve contributed, I will likely abandon the project and seek a more receptive audience elsewhere, that will compensate me with social capital in exchange for the work that I am willing to do — monetarily speaking — for free.

My contributions should be valued in direct relation to the degree that I am able to help “spin the flywheel”. And insomuch as the project is one that others are willing to work on, there is a derivation of social capital that comes predominantly from the shared experience of working together with peers. Thus I am able to produce more “wealth” (in terms of social capital) for myself and for others by giving away my work freely and by working on projects in which many others are willing to do the same.

In this we find one of the motivating factors for working in open source and reveal how people come to decide on which project(s) to contribute to: namely, the degree to which one can earn and spend social capital, both individually and collectively. The degree to which one derives personal satisfaction from the outcome of this exchange will in turn determine the longevity and ongoing success of a project.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

3 thoughts on “Flywheels and spinning plates”

  1. Pingback: CodeCorps
  2. Somewhere in there is the reason why women don’t participate in open-source projects at nearly the rate of men…

  3. No blog entry on the recent release of oAuth?

    I am embarrassed for you! Get blogging about it.

    The oAuth site is pretty sparse.. can you get some peeps to post tutorials/articles on implementation and usability of the spec include real life applications using oAuth?

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