A few years ago I read a fascinating article about the cycle of how subcultures grow, mature, and die. The whole thing is worth a read (as well as the whole site), but here’s the abridged version:
- Creators invent something new and cool, attracting fanatics who validate them and help spread it around. These people are the “Geeks.” I would guess that most current users of KDE software are in or near this group.
- The coolness attracts “Mops”–normal people who want to enjoy the cool thing with minimal effort or investment. They dilute the coolness by demanding that it be simplified, sanitized, and mainstreamed for them. In KDE terms, these people would be our non-technical friends and relatives.
- At this point, the Geeks may start to quit because the coolness has been destroyed by the Mops. However sometimes the Geeks realize that Mops are key to expanding the cool thing even further.
- At this point Sociopaths will appear–people who participate in a system for the money or power games. They figure out how to monetize the Mops, allowing some Geeks to go pro and create the cool thing full time.
- Sociopaths increasingly exploit both the Geeks and the Mops, because they’re in it for the money and social power.
- The Geeks increasingly burn out because they’re spending their time unpleasantly interacting with exploitative Sociopaths and compromising their original vision to placate demanding Mops who provide their income.
I’m old enough that I’ve started to notice this cycle play out in various hobbies, subcultures, and even commercial companies I’ve been involved with: they start out small and cool, but along the way, mainstreaming and commercialization seem to corrupt everything.
I’ve also noticed that many FOSS projects seem to avoid this cycle and the dark fate at the end. Not all do, but some seem to. Why? How?
How FOSS helps
In the FOSS world, Mops are not easily monetized. The product is given away for free, after all! Only mildly Geeky Mops will be attracted, and the more entitled mainstream Mops can be told to pound sand when they start to demand more. They didn’t pay anything, so they’re not entitled to anything.
As a result, many FOSS projects are able to preserve their stable niche status because they explicitly reject a strong Mop appeal, limiting the attractiveness for Sociopaths. To tie this fairly theoretical discussion back to the software world a bit, Arch Linux is a good example: not having an installer acts as a gate to keep out low-investment Mops, ensuring that the project remains safely in the hands of the Geeks.
However this kind of gatekeeping–intentional or not–has a drawback: if the gate is too strong, the project may shrink over time as the original Geeks get bored or driven away by internal politics. Because the pool of Geeks is fairly limited, Geek-only growth largely involves poaching from other Geek projects; it’s a zero sum game.
What to do? Is it really a matter of keeping out the Mops and staying small, or letting them in and burning out after growing huge? And how am I able to reconcile knowledge of this cycle with my stated goal to get KDE Plasma onto every computing device on planet Earth? Earthlings are mostly Mops, after all.
How KDE can do it
Well first of all, I acknowledge that my goal is more aspirational than realistic. 🙂 Better to shoot for the moon and fall short, I think. I’d be pretty happy if we get Plasma to 15% global market share. That’s enough to be a major player with a direct and ongoing positive impact on human civilization.
Anyway, here’s how I think KDE can avoid the cycle, and grow powerful without being corrupted:
Attract all the Geeks
You may notice how many sysadmins, software devs, and general nerds have Apple computers outside of the FOSS world. In the early 2000s, Apple attracted a huge number of Geeks by pairing support for power-user workflows with an attractive user interface and high reliability. This was the “It Just Works” factor, for people who were doing work. It allowed Apple’s ecosystem to maintain a favorable Geek-to-Mop ratio, at least until the iPhone took off. KDE can realistically follow this path as well. I myself am a former Apple nerd. We can convert them. And the more Geeks KDE has, the more engineering talent it will accumulate, and the more Mops it can safely support.
Minimize the project’s reliance on Mop money
This avoids creating a financial incentive to dilute the product, and it reduces the project’s appeal to Sociopaths (at least, the ones who are attracted to money). KDE already has this pretty well covered, because we don’t sell products directly to consumers for money–with the exception of Krita on the Windows store (to my knowledge), and even then there are simple ways to get Krita for free if you want. The existence of a free version is a pressure valve.
Preserve the KDE community’s gravitational center for development
Today KDE benefits from outside companies paying people to work on KDE who are benevolent: Blue Systems (my employer), Enioka Haute Couture, KDAB, SUSE, the city of Munich, and various others. But it won’t always be this way as KDE rises in importance.
Large companies with little exposure to the FOSS world, but who use or sell products with KDE software, will want to hire their own engineers to contribute to KDE so they don’t feel like they’re shut out of the development of a product that significantly affects them. If enough of this happens outside of KDE itself, we run the risk of the project being taken over by sheer weight of outside contributions by large companies.
This is why I feel so strongly that the KDE e.V. should start hiring community members for technical roles. With the KDE community itself clearly in charge of the gravitational center of paid engineering, these outside companies would find it more convenient to simply pay money to the e.V. to strengthen those development efforts, join a sort of technical advisory board, or pay for priority access to engineering resources to fix bugs affecting them (not features, only bugs). These could give those companies the the “seat at the table” that they’re looking for while keeping technical decision-making firmly in the hands of the community. The project would be able to remain independent more easily.
It’s not a problem we urgently need to solve right now, but it will be in the future if we’re as successful as I want us to be. I think it behooves us to do it now rather than later.
Hire Geeks, not Mops
Whenever someone is paid to work on KDE stuff–either by the KDE e.V. or anyone else–always prioritize hiring KDE community members over outsiders. There’s always the risk that the outsider is a Mop who just wants a paycheck rather that someone who truly believes in KDE. Those with the privilege of being paid to work on KDE stuff should be people who go above and beyond because they love it.
Foster a culture of resistance to Sociopathy
KDE will probably never be an institution where you can get rich quick, and I see this as a good thing. But not all Sociopaths are in it for the money; some crave power. An important project like KDE will still hold appeal for the type of Sociopath who wants to push everyone around as the king of a little digital fiefdom. We need to keep these people out.
Unfortunately, while Geeks are generally good at noticing when Sociopaths show up, they are generally terrible at kicking them out. Geeks can be conflict-averse, or believe that the Sociopaths can be reasoned with, reformed, or safely tolerated because they do some good work. They cannot be.
KDE needs to maintain and expand a culture of resistance to Sociopathy by teaching its members to harden themselves against Sociopaths and and use some of their own tactics against them when they show up. Nobody should be the king of KDE. KDE should not have a king! Central leadership is a risk factor, as I blogged about earlier.
What it all looks like
KDE will attract as many Geeks as possible through our continued commitment to technical excellence and supporting power user workflows in our software. We minimize the risk of demanding Mops burning everyone out by not selling anything to them directly and maintaining a favorable Geek:Mop ratio through our attraction of lots of Geeks. We start paying for engineering talent, but we hire insider Geeks, not outsider Mops. And we do it within KDE itself. Then we remain vigilant for Sociopaths craving power, and we kick them out so that KDE can remain a safe place for the Geeks.
So who’s ready to take over the world with love and positivity and user-empowering high quality software?