Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.com

Incentives

My friend Forest has been making some good thoughts about open source and incentives. Coincidentally, this month saw a new wave of open source spam because of the tea.xyz project, which encouraged people to try and claim ‘ownership’ of existing open source projects, to get crypto tokens.

The creator of tea.xyz, Max Howell, originally created Homebrew, the package manager for macOS which I use every day. He has put in the hours and days, and been on the other side of the most entitled users around. So I give him a lot of leeway with tea.xyz’s stumbles, even though they’re big stumbles.

Anyway, I think my idea is that murky incentives are kind of good. The incentives for contributing to open source right now, as I do often, are so hard to pin down. Sure, it’s improving the ecosystem, which satisfies my deep sense of duty. It’s maintaining my reputation and network, which is both social and career value. Contributing to open source is a way to learn, too: I’ve had one mentor early in my career, but besides that I’ve learned the most from people I barely know.

The fact that the incentives behind open source are so convoluted is what makes them sustainable and so hard to exploit. The web is an adversarial medium, is what I tell myself pretty often: every reward structure and application architecture is eventually abused, and that abuse will destroy everything if unchecked: whether it’s SEO spam, or trolling, or disinformation, no system maintains its own steady state without intentional intervention and design.

To bring it back around: tea.xyz created a simple, automatic incentive structure where there was previously a complex, intermediated one. And, like every crypto project that has tried that before, it appealed to scammers and produced the opposite of a community benefit.

If I got paid $5 for every upstream contribution to an open source project, I’d make a little money. It would be an additional benefit. But I’m afraid that the simplicity of that deal - the expectations that it would create, the new community participants that it would invite - would make me less likely to contribute, not more.


  • Update: there’s even more chaos from tea.xyz - now people are submitting spam packages to NPM to try to get tokens. It’s all so stupid.
  • Update: read this twitter thread about a maintainer of modules on npm who adds unnecessary self-dependencies in order to boost his download numbers, because those counts are tied to payouts from tidelift.