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The Parallel Lives of Open Source and Social Networks

Early today, just after my morning run, my brother forwarded to me an article from the NYT about making money with Open Source software. For many in the tech community, this is a bit of old news. The summary version is that you really can’t make money with free software. Stated simply, people want something to help them get their job done, not free software. Think about names like MySQL, Drupal and yes SugarCRM, all fit into this category.

About 10 minutes later, I am scrolling through my Linkedin feed, another morning ritual, and there is an article, referenced by a connection. The article is about how Linkedin has “Lost its Luster”, the theme, hit the nail on the head. Linkedin has unfortunately, progressed from one of the most valuable social networks to business professionals, to almost ‘just another network’. More people, more noise, more content, we need more filters, rinse and repeat.

How are these Topics Related to Each Other?

In order to survive, progress from ‘free’ to making money, both of these business models pissed-off a great many people. In the world of open source, the idea was to rally the troops to build something cool, that is open and available for everyone to use. Then, it did not quite work as planned, to quote the NYT article:

Get a software project going that outsiders can work on, and with your own team sell proprietary stuff that makes the open source project actually useful.

In other words, open source basically follows the 80:20 rule of developing almost anything. You can get just about there, but the ‘spit and polish’ required to go mainstream takes a bit more effort than anyone wants to put into the software. Then people change jobs, when they leave, you realize that the enterprise <something> is running on a 10 year old Dell Server under a desk. The management team is now jaded on open source, and that is something very hard to over come. The company, who “makes” the software is trying to figure out how to make money. They throw it onto the cloud, spend money to polish it up, rebrand it a little, sell subscriptions, support services or consulting services and now it makes money… except, all the people who helped get it to that point are yelling and screaming in IRC ‘how dare they’!

What About Social Networks?

While the article I reference above, and quote below, talks about Linkedin, it could be stated (and has) about Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Google+.

LinkedIn is successfully manipulating me. I’m spending more and more time on the site, viewing more pages, contributing more data (including data about other people) and ultimately driving up LinkedIn’s advertising revenue. At the same time though, LinkedIn is delivering less and less of what made it valuable to me in the first place.

The way in which these Networks grew up was to slowly gain trust and encourage you, the user to add more and more data, spend more time on the site and then WHAM! advertising, gamification, strangers trolling, unwanted solicitations, er connections. The same people who helped to build of these networks are now disenfranchised, annoyed and they are yelling and screaming in Skype ‘how dare they’ – oh, the irony.

The summary version is that Facebook announced its numbers yesterday and they tell an interesting story. Looked at from a yearly perspective, $11B (yes, B) in annualized advertising revenue 1/6 of the total Television advertising number. These platforms, whether we are talking about Open Source or Social Networks were built by the early adopters, but they were not meant for us. In the open source world, there will always be the purists. However, mainstream business really just wants something that works and they prefer not to have to build it themselves – sorry. In the world of social networks, just deal with it, complain if you are paying, or move on – obnoxious, maybe.

Yes, I had my own small part in both, but I learned a lot, so it is ok. I disconnected FourSquare, yesterday, no interest in Swarm, but I like Slack. This is all about value exchange, and I will continue to play, learn and adopt or adapt as needed. I will skip Snapchat, dabble on Instagram and well…see what comes along next. One additional point, one of the biggest differences between the first Internet bubble and where we are now, is that companies can now quickly spin up servers in the cloud, which by the way, is all based on OS. Open Source enabled a whole generation of innovation (including many of the Social Networks referenced), we cannot lose sight of this point.

(x-Published on Linkedin)

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