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Confessions of an open source advocate


The not-so-scary ghost of Sharing Your Stuff (ghost picture from The Noun Project)

The other day I was talking to a friend who does more open source hardware and technology projects than almost anyone I know.  After some discussion about a very cool project he's been working really hard on lately, he apologetically admitted that he was afraid of putting the project out into the world.  The fear was so internalized that he could only provided guesses at its exact cause.

I've had this conversation a few times before, and I also have fears when putting a project out into the world that I've been working hard on.  But building a thriving open source community for hardware, science and technology is going to take some intrepid folks who follow their passion instead of following their fear.  Here's the big fears I've seen and some thoughts on pushing through them:

Fear of failure.  Once you put your project out there you may find no one is interested and all those hours you spent coiling wire for your Ven der Graaf generator went completely unappreciated.

Do what you do because YOU want to (not because you think others will find it cool), and set expectations low from the start so all you can do is exceed them.

Fear of repeating others' work.  You upload your last 5 months hard work and then someone makes an offhand comment like "oh, this is just like website X", which you never saw but now realize that you spent the last year replicating what website X already did.

Do your homework and realize the value in gaining personal experience, even if it's already been done.

Fear of losing control.  This might happen.  Your great idea/concept/toy/software/hardware may get scooped up by others and taken in a completely different direction.  Unless you have all day to devote to it, you may not be able to keep up.

This really only happens if your successful, so consider loss of control a sign of success and start on your next project that you can lose control of!

Fear of loss of income.  You designed a simple, cheap machine for turning a Pomegranite into a well organized stack of little juicy balls in 5 seconds flat with no mess?  Wow, you're amazing!  Surely you can sell it and make a boatload of money, but you want to open source the design too.

Get you ducks in a row with a distributor and manufacturer so you're first in the market with the best price, or maybe even crowd fund the initial run (kickstarter, indiegogo, rockethub or scifund challenge, pietridish, etc.).  Make sure people know who made it, and leverage that fame to do other awesome stuff that you want to do.

Fear of ambiguity.  Where, exactly, do I post my 5 pages of notes, 21 drawings, and 2 CAD files?  Most sites (Instructables, Make Projects, and others) are for finished projects, but you want yours to continue to live on with changes and additions from the community.  GitHub is really cool, but it's for software geeks who speak gibberish that you don't understand.  Plus, it doesn't have good tools for uploading big files.  There's a forum which is really relevant to my project, but forums are like bedroom closets - if I didn't actually watch it get thrown in, you'll probably never be able to find it again.

Hmmm... tough one...  There's two sites I know of, Initiatr and opendesignengine which are light-weight project management sites for groups working on open source projects.  Try them out, see how it goes.

Fear of responsibility.  When your open source widget breaks, they will come emailing you to fix it.  Welcome to the wonderful world of customer service.

Be EXTREMELY clear about your willingness of provide support from the beginning, and help progress the project to a solid, working design that doesn't need much additional support.

In writing this post I had both the Fear of Failure and the Fear of Repeating others' work (I'm sure this list has been made many times).  But I think it's still useful, so I'm posting it, and I hope you post too!

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