May 19, 2010

of Volunteers and Work

So, I'm heavily criticized for my unpopular opinion that open source volunteering is a job. I would like to point out the definitions of Volunteer and Work from I have removed a few irrelevant definitions, like those of 'botany'.

A person who performs or offers to perform a service voluntarily: an information booth staffed by volunteers; hospital volunteers.

A person who renders aid, performs a service, or assumes an obligation voluntarily.

v., -teered, -teer·ing, -teers.
To give or offer to give voluntarily: volunteered their services; volunteer to give blood.

To perform or offer to perform a service of one's own free will.

To do charitable or helpful work without pay: Many retirees volunteer in community service and day care centers.
n. 1. a person who freely enrolls for military service rather than being conscripted, especially a member of a force formed by voluntary enrollment and distinct from the regular army.

2. a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.

3. a person who works for an organization without being paid.

1. freely offer to do something: he volunteered for the job.

2. offer (help) in such a way: he volunteered his services as a driver for the convoy.

3. work for an organization without being paid.

4. commit (someone) to a particular undertaking, typically without consulting them: he was volunteered for parachute training by friends.
You'll note 'service' and 'work' mentioned. Examples include things like 'fire fighters'and 'hospital' workers and 'military personel'. Imagine if these 'volunteers' didn't feel any responsibility for the work they did. ( actually some open source people do like definition #4 here. I've been volunteered several times in this way )

and since it mentions that volunteering is work

Physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.

A job; employment: looking for work.

A trade, profession, or other means of livelihood.

Something that one is doing, making, or performing, especially as an occupation or undertaking; a duty or task: begin the day's work.

An amount of such activity either done or required: a week's work.

The part of a day devoted to an occupation or undertaking: met her after work.

One's place of employment: Should I call you at home or at work?

I don't think these definitions say something other than what I have said. I believe they will be similar to what is found in other English dictionaries.

Ultimately, I do not understand why people are so vehement against this definition for open source 'volunteers'. I can't make you believe this is true, or do it. But my believing it and others believing it hurts nobody. In fact those who are helping and believe it probably produce good, perhaps better, work.

Agree, or disagree, for the most part I don't think I'm going to change anyone. It seems I've only angered good people. My thoughts on the matter aren't going to change. If people want to take their contributions more seriously, that can only be a good thing, in my humble opinion.


  1. Releasing free software is a *gift*, not an act of volunteerism.

  2. really? now that's the first I've heard anyone use that term... in 7 years, but I've had several people refer to themselves as unpaid volunteers.

  3. This article might be interesting -

    _The gift economy and free software_

    I'm sure a google search for "free software gift economy" or "open source gift economy" will find lots of other writing on the topic.

  4. do you really want me to go find links that show open source developers as 'volunteers for organizations'? because I can.

  5. glancing over the article I notice they use the word 'volunteer' twice.

    "Tim Witham is right, certainly, in the sense that the term "gift" doesn't really fit in "gift economy." It's a sort of misnomer in the same way that "Free Software" is -- it misleads if misinterpreted. Of course no one really wants to work for free and we're not slaves, but volunteerism and Free Software programming is not a gift in the sense that no return is expected."

    and work is mentioned 42 times.

    I think it might have proved /my/ point.

  6. Clearly, this issue is one that you are very passionate about, but I don't see what you intend to accomplish with your posts.

    If you are trying to persuade people to change their behavior, I don't think this is a very effective approach. Telling people what they are "obligated" to do rarely succeeds unless you have the means to enforce the obligation.

    If you're venting about your personal frustrations with certain projects, I can see how that would be satisfying to you, but I hope you can see that your tone will only irritate the developers you're trying to persuade.

    If you're just looking for an argument for mental stimulation, clearly you're succeeding and perhaps because the Iron Man aggregator blasts your points to a large group of people who feel the opposite of how you do. But you may find that in the future people who aren't interested just in argument will start to tune you out.

    On the topic of free software and volunteerism itself, I think you are conflating obligations and commitments. Volunteers may commit to an obligation but by the nature of volunteerism itself, they are free to uncommit themselves and rarely does anyone have the means to enforce the obligation.

    However, if someone depends on volunteers to accomplish some goal, it's reasonable to want to understand the strength and duration of the commitment over time.

    If I volunteer for a local fire department, the leaders of the fire department and the members of community would like to know that I take my commitment seriously and won't decide not to respond to a fire alarm because I'm more interested in going to see the latest movie.

    Unfortunately, in open source the level of commitment is usually implied and not explicit. In deciding to use any particular piece of open source software, one has to decide whether they are comfortable with the level of commitment of the author(s) and should ask for clarity (or accept uncertainty) when the commitment is unstated.

    The advantage of open source is that one is not held entirely hostage to an author(s) lack of commitment because the code is available and one can always take it and fix it. And if one doesn't have the skills to do so, then it's even more important to evaluate one's comfort with the commitment of the volunteer author(s) and decide whether non-free software or paid support is a better option.

  7. @dagolden there is a very good point in your post I would like to look at further. Can we make the level of commitment more explicit and less implied?

    I know some CPAN modules contain a pointer about support or commercial support. Could we start encouraging CPAN authors to add such explicit cause to every module? Later we might be able to formalize this and add to META.yaml.

  8. I am thankful for xeno for starting this conversation and provoking dagolden to produce his answer above :) I think xeno, despite irritating everyone, does touch an important subject. There is a need from the side of module users to be sure that they can find help/have a bug fixed etc. if they need it.

  9. I guess I don't need to repeat myself, my thoughts on this are well known at this point. I'm having more problems with the attitude than with the philosophy.

    I still get the feeling that some expect the only difference of proprietary, commercial software products and freely released open source software to be that they don't have to pay for the latter. This is plain wrong in my book. If stating that this isn't the case in all of my modules helps, then I'm all for it.

    I'm a bit astonished about the idea that me releasing a module as open source so others can make use of the time I already spent in whatever way is somewhat similar to someone committing to be a volunteer firefighter. One thing is about saving people and houses, the other deals with information, knowledge and invested time. One is concrete, the other one is abstract.

    I volunteered and committed to publish software I wrote, to release it as open source and give it a license permitting people to do what they want with it so their problems can be solved. That I did.


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