Motivation in open source

True motivation comes from internal rewards

I have always had a passion for human behaviour and motivation. Why do people think, act and behave the way they do? Is money the primary driver for accomplishing great things? I refuse to believe that.

To get a better understanding, I decided to deep-dive into what motivates developers to participate in open source communities – a field where contributors often don’t get paid for their achievements.

The book shows how true motivation almost always comes from intrinsic rewards rather than external ones and was published by Lambert Publishing. If you’re interested, you can get it at Amazon.

Motivation in open source

Introduction chapter

The alarm clock wakes you up in the crack of the dawn, forces you to drag yourself to work. To many people, going to work feels like a punishment. When the clock finally turns 5, the liberation in your heart is synonymous to a prisoner who has been sitting behind bars for a crime that he is not responsible for; you can finally leave the chair that you have been sitting in for the past 8 hours with handcuffs over your wrists, preventing you from doing what you really like. The jury that has judged the prisoner could resemble the norms of our society if you were not doing your duty.

After work you have a couple of hours left of the day to do what you love before you have to go to bed and prepare yourself for the next workday. Your hobby, the interest that is intrinsic stimulating to you, is subordinated to the social peer pressure from society. Work and hobby have for centuries been mentioned as either or, like if we were talking about Ying and Yang or God and Satan.

However, the world has changed, and a new era is striving to leave the inhibitory shell behind and see the light of the day. A whole generation of individuals has grown up with constant access to communication and information which have created transparency that blurs the distinction between work and leisure. This phenomenon is especially obvious in open source software development.


An Era of Scarcity

The post-war generation was raised in an era of scarcity where it was honourable to put your time in and serve the higher powers of the greater good (Turner et al.). This view often made it impossible to unite your passion with work, and the motives could therefore rarely develop into intrinsic. Turner & Baylor describes the focus of the “boomers” as “feeding the giant machine of consumption” – work transforms into money that people can spend. When status is the same as owning, the society has its population in an iron claw.
While human owns physical mass, the society owns them.

Plato mentions “Askholia” – slavery (Himanen). As Himanen puts it: “The evening was the leftover of the day, the weekend the remainder of the week, and the retirement was the leftovers of life”. Programming has for long been regarded as leisure time activity, but you no longer have to be a hacker to develop open source software. A survey made by Ghosh shows that half of the developers in his study of open source developers were paid (Ghosh).


The Amateur Explosion

An explosion of creativity and altruistic behaviour has occurred that promotes amateur innovation (Shirky). The digital culture that has arisen has many names. One is Generation Generosity, a subculture which is disgusted by greed and is eager to share, give, create, engage and collaborate in large numbers (Trendwatching). The new generation is community-oriented, gets pleasure of giving instead of taking and is characterised by speed, freedom, openness, innovation, mobility, authenticity and playfulness (Tapscott & Williams).
Sharing a passion and receiving recognition are the new symbols for status (the word “amateur” heritages from the Latin word ”to love”) (Pressley). Csikszentmihalyi refers to Deci, who found that when people were giving money for doing things they enjoyed, they lost interest faster than when they were not rewarded (Csikszentmihalyi).

Steven Pressley has a more cynical view of the amateur culture. While she describes the conventional interpretation as the amateur doing something out of pure love, Pressley means that amateurs don‘t love the game enough. If they did, they wouldn‘t do it as a sideline. Herzberg, on the other hand, means that “the hobby becomes a substitute for the job in the sense of satisfaction, but the hobby can’t give the complete sense of growth, the sense of striving towards a meaningful goal, that can be found in one’s life work” (Herzberg).


The Goal of this Book

Building upon the pride heritage of these thinkers and writers, my purpose of this book is to investigate how paid and unpaid developers are affecting each other with their presence and how intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are correlating when paid and unpaid contributors meet and work together. Knowing the answer to this would be useful since the open source in fast pace are becoming an accepted way of working (not only within software development) and the efficiency of the proved effective open source method might be affected if paid and unpaid contributors are influencing each other‘s motivation.

I also want to see if the paid contributors intrinsic motivation may be gained when paid and unpaid developers working together since it is my personal belief that work that is rooted in your heart always will be more qualitative than work done for money. If intrinsic motivations can be increased at those who are extrinsically motivated, it is my theory that both productivity and quality may rise.


Lambert Publishing

Publish Date
January 2012

Page Count



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