I’ve been reading Mathew Ingram’s musings about Netscape’s decision to pay top contributors for their work (vs. Digg.com, which has stated it is not going to pay top submitters for their work). I’ve also just read The Tipping Point. (yeah, I’m behind, I know)

So I got to thinking…What happens if we apply ideas from the Tipping Point and lessons from open source projects to the Netscape vs. Digg question?

Open source developers work on open source projects for 3 key reasons (amongst others):
A1] have a need for the software being developed
A2] to develop/maintain a rock star status with colleagues
A3] to work on an interesting problem

Why do people want to participate on Netscape or Digg? I’d suggest that 2 key reasons are:
B1] to keep up with news & share their knowledge
B2] to develop/maintain their status as ‘mavens’ or ‘connectors’ (a la The Tipping Point)

While open source projects started out with a developer or two working in their basement on evenings and weekends, most mature open source projects have a core group of developers that are paid to work on the project. [Maybe paying them is a ‘maven trap’ ? ;-) ]

Surrounding this core group of developers are the hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands that participate in the open source community but are not paid to do so. These non-paid developers participate (test the software, create bug fixes, answer questions on forums, etc) for the same reasons that the core developers do. However, these developers are not paid for their efforts in the community, as the capital they saved vs. having to buy the software plus the social capital they gain through the recognition of peers is higher than their capital time investment. When this capital equation tips and the non-paid developer is expending more capital than they are receiving, they’ll either want to get paid, or find somewhere else to expend their capital.

The capital equation is often not balanced, or tipped in favour of the core-developer when they are working for free. Their skills and experience are crucial enough to the success of the project that companies/entities decide to pay them to work on the project full-time (Note how many Linux contributors work for IBM, Novell and Red Hat). And hence, the capital equation is again balanced/tipped in favour of the core developer. One could argue that the non-paid developers contribute an order of magnitude more to the open source project than the core group, and should be paid also. However, the core developers make it possible for the non-paid developers to participate by ensuring that the project is well architected, extensible, scalable, reliable, healthy and turning out high-quality products.

Maybe Netscape has something with their idea of paying the top 1% of contributors (another maven trap). These contributors make Netscape a place where non-paid contributors can go and participate in a community that provides them a capital equation tipped in their favour.