Open source reveals the value of social norms

Lately, I’ve released a few books that have piled up on my must-read list. One of my favorites is actually a recommendation from my technical sales professor at SAIT (my local polytechnic college): As expected irrationalby Dan Ariely.

My professor recommended it because of his knowledge of behavioral science, specifically the factors that influence a buyer’s decision-making practices. And it reads quite satisfactorily for that. However, as an open source enthusiast, I found one chapter particularly interesting.

The cost of social norms

In Chapter 4, “The Cost of Social Norms, Ariely discusses social norms and market norms. Social norms are the rules of behavior that a group or society considers acceptable. Market norms are what one is willing to accept (or give) payment for; they generally reflect (in some form) commercial transactions.

For example, a social norm might be that a friend asks you to help them move or brings a bottle of wine to your friends when they ask you out for dinner. Ariely describes social norms as “warm and fuzzy” and not requiring immediate reimbursement.

But he describes market norms as neither warm nor fuzzy. They are sharp, devoid of feelings or emotions, and transactional in nature: rent, wages, prices, interest, and other costs and benefits. With market standards, you get what you pay for. Ariely begins the chapter with this:

You are at your mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and what a sumptuous toast she has put on the table for you! The turkey is roasted until golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and just the way you like it. Your children are delighted: the sweet potatoes are crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite pumpkin pie recipe has been chosen for dessert.

The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt and sip a glass of wine. Looking affectionately across the table at your mother-in-law, you stand up and pull out your wallet. “Mom, for all the love you put into this, how much do I owe you?” tell you sincerely. As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of cash. “Do you think three hundred dollars will suffice?” No, wait, I should give you four hundred!

This is not a picture that Norman Rockwell would have painted. A glass of wine falls; your mother-in-law gets up, her face flushed; your sister-in-law gives you an angry look; and your niece bursts into tears. Next year’s Thanksgiving celebration, it seems, could be a frozen dinner in front of the TV.

In this paragraph, Ariely illustrates the mixing of a social norm (an invitation to dinner) with a market norm (paying the cost of dinner). Throughout this chapter, he demonstrates the value of social norms.

For example, he discusses an experiment in which lawyers are offered a reduced pay opportunity for providing legal advice to clients who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Lawyers choose to offer their services free of charge. They felt that if the intention is to give legal advice to those who need it but find it hard to afford it, then the moral thing to do would be not to charge them at all. In this case, then, they used their salary funds to build communities and market their volunteer efforts. Thus, this social norm helped establish the pro bono bars that we see in the legal profession today.

In another study, two groups of college students were given identical group assignments. One group received a version of the mission developed with market-standard wordings, the other with neutral wordings. The question behind this experiment was: Would thinking about money and market norms in this way be enough to change student behavior? Professors later found that students given market standard homework were less likely to ask questions, took longer to seek help, were less likely to help others , were more likely to select tasks that required individual contribution rather than teamwork and generally behaved in a more selfish and self-reliant manner.

Time and time again, Ariely illustrates that market norms entering our considerations can push social norms aside and actually displace them in ways that damage relationships (think back to the example of Thanksgiving dinner and what your mother-in-law may resent after you offer to pay her for dinner).

Find the right balance

Now, what does this have to do with open source?

Well, open source projects operate on both social standards and market standards. On the one hand, we see corporate sponsors or contributors who get paid to write code; on the other, we see several highly skilled and intelligent people contributing not for monetary gain, but because they value the community and the goodwill goal of the project. These people identify with the altruistic ideal of giving back to others and the recognition that comes with it.

Open source contributors willingly sacrifice their limited free time to give away their skills and intellectual property for free. And why? For what the hell? Why would someone choose to do it for free when they could be paid to do it?

Because, as Ariely and the open source community illustrate, social norms are stronger than market norms. In The open organization, Jim Whitehurst says that opening up your organization by applying open source ethics can engage and enable employees to add value to your business in ways that go beyond management strategy. traditional. For example, Red Hat’s partner ecosystem is a community of competing companies that work together and contribute to each other’s products, despite being rivals in the marketplace!

Unsurprisingly, Ariely actually refers to Linux and open source in this particular chapter:

Open source software shows the potential of social standards. In the case of Linux and other collaborative projects, you can post a bug issue on one of the message boards and see how quickly someone, or often several people, will respond to your request and fix the software, using their own free time. . Could you pay for this level of service? Most likely. But if you were to hire people of the same caliber, it would cost you an arm and a leg. Rather, members of these communities are happy to volunteer their time to society as a whole (for which they get the same social benefits we all get from helping a friend paint a room). What can we learn from this that is applicable in the business world? There are social rewards that strongly motivate behavior – and one of the least used in corporate life is the encouragement of social rewards and reputation.

This social standards movement has recently multiplied with the evolution of company policy on work-life balance. Google helped pioneer the practice of bridging social and market norms by offering social benefits such as gourmet dining on campus, on-site health and wellness services, or 20% time allotment for personal projects. Now, on-site fitness facilities, subsidized public transit, or healthy snacks are becoming more common among some companies, which are beginning to see the value of the employer-employee social relationship.

On a related note, Ariely mentions startup culture. The level of work startups get from their staff when social norms (like the excitement of building something together) are stronger than market norms (salary increases with each promotion) is remarkable, he says.

Ariely also mentions the emergency and essential services professions: salary alone will not motivate people to risk their lives. Policemen, firefighters, soldiers, they do not risk death for their weekly salary. Rather, it is social norms (pride of their profession and sense of duty) that motivate them to risk their lives and health.

The value of social norms

So how does this benefit open source? What impact do we see from social and market norms? Well, let’s take the Linux kernel for example. It started entirely as a socially driven project that has now become a hybrid of both forces. However, Linux development is still primarily driven by social norms. Kernel history statistics of the latest version (collected by Greg Kroah Hartman) show massive impact from both market and socially motivated contributors:

  • 430 companies have contributed Linux kernel versions 3.15-4.0
  • 3,711 developers contributed
  • Over 19 million total lines of code for the project (although this metric only tells part of the story of project size or complexity)
  • On average 193.71 changes are made per day, i.e. 8.07 changes per hour

This predominantly social effort has become the largest collaborative software project in the world; it is the main operating system through mobile devices, data centers and in the cloudand has recently been upgraded at $5 billion.

That’s a staggering amount of impact and value from social motivators.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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