The Strained Infrastructure of FOSS

The publication Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure by Nadia Eghbal is an interesting commentary on the nature of FOSS in the infrastrcuture of our digital world. It speaks about the challenge of maintaining a shared resource in a sustainable way when no single party feels a particular responsibility for it. This lack of responsibility is abundantly clear in npm issue #19883

There is this nebulous idea of responisiblity for maintenance in FOSS. With a proprietary project, the maintainer and supporter is very clearly the company that is developing and selling the software. That company also has an interest in continued maintenance as it generates profit for them through support contracts. With a FOSS project, maintainers may come and go throughout the life of the project. There is also this idea that someone else will pick it up if I am done with it. One of my fellow students in another class has this pattern of starting a project and then placing it on GitHub under a FOSS license when he grows tired of it. The publication highlight the downside of FOSS which mostly relates to sustainability. Our society is very dependent on money and this presents a challenge for FOSS as a conscious effort is needed for a FOSS project to generate revenue. It either needs paid developers from commercial entities that depend on it or a group of supporters that are doing it for selfless reasons.

The other problem(which is illustrated by the npm bug) is that when a problem is discovered in FOSS code, users react in the same way that they would to a problem in a proprietary product. They complain to the maintainers. Generally this is useful the first one or two complaints but it rapidly devolves into hating on the broken piece of the project and users just saying ā€œI have this problem too. Fix it.ā€ rather than providing actual, constructive feedback.

There was one coherent comment in the chaos which I have included below.

Iā€™m not heavily invested in this issue, but if you want this thread to feature more rational discussion, tweeting about it is probably a bad idea.

I appreciate that reality check within the craziness of the other comments. There was also a particularly refreshing comment which I will only link to as it contains some unkind words.

I would rate the Eghbal report a 3 or 4 out of 5. Most of the less than perfect rating is due to the length of the reading and at certain points the dryness. Overall the report makes good points but is not something I would think to read in its current format on my own time. The npm issue was very hard to tolerate and bordered on infuriating as more and more users piled on to the thread complaining that it was broken but not offering constructive help. As far as the Eghbal reading, the length of the report bothered me though this is mostly in comparison to the previous reading.

After completing the two readings, I have a few questions which are listed below.

  • Why are the issues of maintainability not more widely known and addressed in the FOSS community?
  • Why do people not test their changes before deploying?
  • Is the same level of support really expected from a volunteer project as a corporate backed one? Why?
Written on March 5, 2018