A Sense of Entitlement

I've finally decided to write a bit about a topic that has bothered me for many years as a participant in the Free Software community (it applies equally well to Open Source if you prefer): User Entitlement.

Some of you out there know what I mean. You maintain an application in your spare time as a volunteer. You field trouble reports and RFEs and do your best to implement, at minimum, the suggestions that matter to you, all while holding down a job and meeting your personal and family obligations. But for a minority of users, that's not enough; they expect you to implement features that don't interest you and fix bugs you can't reproduce. In short, they expect you to provide support. While one tries never to be rude, at some point the urge to point out the obvious becomes overwhelming: you have the source, you obviously care a lot about this, and nobody else has the time or inclination to do anything about it! Instead of repeatedly asking when I'm going to implement your change, why not implement it yourself and send me a patch?

Of course, the inevitable response to this suggestion is that the user in question is not a programmer. This is a subtle but important fact that has changed the way the community functions over the years; in the beginning, we were all programmers. Now programmers are a minority of Free Software users, just as we are a minority of software users in general. The commons model breaks down under these conditions; many users have little to offer the community as a whole. Bug reports and testing are valuable services, true, but some users are just that - users. Not testers. Not contributors. Not developers. Just users; they use the software, expect (rightly) that it will work as advertised, and become unhappy and demanding if it does not. This looks a lot more like a customer than the fellow co-op shareholder the model would suggest.

I don't mean to suggest that this behaviour is representative, but it certainly has increased as the pool of users has expanded. How will Free Software projects in the future deal with the influx of Users? Much work has been done, mostly in economics, on the subject of managing cooperatives and commons; I believe this work is directly relevant to the Free Software community. I'll get more into some of that work in my next post.

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