Unpaid labor in academic and free software communities

There are many aspects of my current free software development work that are (thankfully!) very different from my previous life as an academic. But one way in which they’re similar is the way that one’s relationship to one’s own paid and unpaid labor is connected to one’s career progress, and the personality types that this structure attracts.

I’m a known advocate ([1], [2], [3]) for fostering a symbiotic relationship between my paid client work and my unpaid work on free software projects. And while I’m emphatic that there’s value in having these two parts of my career separate from (yet supportive of) each other, the separation embodies an unavoidable tension between what I’m paid to do and what earns the respect of my peers. If people know who I am, it’s probably because of volunteer work I’ve done for WordPress, not because of my client work. As such, there’s continual internal pressure for me to focus more of my mental and emotional energies on the unpaid work. Yet it’s important not to yield completely to this pressure, since my paid client work is critical, both in terms of the financial support and the technical inspiration it gives to my work on the free software projects. Balancing these two pressures is something I’m constantly struggling with.

The relationship between labor and rewards in academic work is similarly structured. Most academics are paid primarily for teaching duties, with service and research being important but often secondary, at least as far as the official job descriptions are concerned. Yet the system of advancement in academia is structured in such a way that one’s research and publication record is of paramount importance. And in many cases, volunteer labor – things like peer review and service to professional societies – is critical to one’s reputation as a scholar. Anyone in the academic world will recognize the tensions that this arrangement can produce.

The peculiar motivations baked into free software development and academia tend to attract similar sorts of overachievers. To rise to the top of your field, you’ve got to do large amounts of unpaid labor, while still doing enough of your paid labor to keep your job. This means that the most successful people tend to be those who are spending the greatest amount of their spare time working for free. A couple of consequences fall out of this arrangement. First, people who are already in a position of privilege (financial and otherwise) are able to climb the career ladder more easily. This setup also means thatt successful people are likely to have a sense of self-worth that is closely connected to their work. And these factors mean that successful academics as well as free software contributors are more likely to suffer from burnout.

Last year, DHH of Ruby on Rails wrote an interesting piece on “the perils of mixing open source and money”. I’m very sympathetic to many of his points about motivation: the tenor of a free software project, and the quality of the software that results, is largely a consequence of the fact that the creators of the software are not primarily motivated by financial concerns. This is something that academics figured out a long time ago. As such, I think that it’s important to continue to foster “reputation cycles” and other structures that help to enable talented developers to devote energies to free software without directly paying them for it. At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of tensions I describe above, because the separation of paid and unpaid work in this area can tend to be personally destructive at the same time that it’s valuable for the (software/academic) projects as a whole.

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