Crowdfunding and Saturation

Over at Linux Magazine, Bruce Byfield has published an interesting article on Open Source and crowdfunding. Go ahead and read it. It is a brief, insightful and well-reasoned article.

He mentions the saturation effect as a potential stumbling block that may slow or even eventually kill this financing model for Open Source projects. But metaphors that use real world physical objects, as the one Bruce wields to make his point, tend to translate badly to digital products and services, and I’m not sure we can apply the analogy of cars and washing machines to software, much less Free Software.

But let’s assume he is right. After all, I can see where Bruce is coming from: It seems a day doesn’t go by without my inbox being stuffed with announcements of new campaigns on IndieGoGo for open source projects, many of which I have never heard of. As Bruce points out, newcomers, rising stars and old timers alike are adopting in droves the crowdfunding model to jump start their gigs, finance the development of new features, or stomp bugs.

But Bruce’s perception (as is mine) is distorted: We both belong to the tiny subset of users that actually cares about Open Source and bothers to follow the news of who’s doing what on RSS feeds, social media and news aggregation sites. He and I both (and probably you, too, dear reader) belong to a small “community of the willing”, a community made up of people who would actually give, and probably has already given, to a FLOSS project’s crowdfunding campaign. Each news item on a crowdfunding effort rattles through our little clique like a dried pea in a maraca.

Because, here’s the thing, the end-user* adoption for GNU/Linux (excluding Android), the poster child of Open Source, is tops 6% and is going nowhere in a hurry. The group of people that follows Open Source-related news and receives crowdfunding announcements in their inbox (i.e., is in danger of turning away due to the saturation effect) is a subgroup of that, and the number of those that actually give to campaigns is going to be a smaller a subset still. So what are we talking about here? An audience of quite a bit less than 1% of all regular computer end-users? Worrying about “saturation” is so minor compared to the much larger problem of the tiny end-user adoption of Open Source, as to make it irrelevant.

Plus crowdfunding campaigns á la Kickstarter are not the only games in town. There’s Flattr and Patreon for those who want to support their favourite projects with a regular stream of microdonations. There’s Bountysource for financing discrete developments. There’s Pling itself for impulse donations for when you discover new projects. There are several other models users can adopt and that don’t require bugging (i.e., saturating) users to death.

Sure, none of these services is as popular as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, but that just takes us back to what I mentioned was the most pressing problem: the lack of adoption, in this case of alternative crowd-financing models, due to a lack of effective communication directed at a larger audience.

Another issue is whether these financing models can make a project sustainable or not over time, whether the number of donations and the quantities donated can offset the creators’ basic needs, which is usually all that is required. Again, growing the user-base, and hence growing the chances of collecting a regular break-even amount, by improving communication with the outside world could contribute to solving this problem.

If we agree that Open Source should be created primarily by the community and for the community, then it is the community that must also assume the responsibility for financing the projects. This is the very definition of crowdfunding (and not only Kickstarter-like crowdfunding, mind), and is the only way forward to help independent projects survive and become economically sustainable.

But it’s a two way street: unless projects adopt policies that help them reach a wider audience, within our tiny group, as Bruce warns, the crowdfunding singularity is sure to arrive sooner than later.

Do you disagree? Do you think there are other alternatives to crowdfunding for community-driven Open Source projects? What are they? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

* Understanding end-user as the user that uses end-user-designed applications and environments, such as office software, games and graphical desktops.