Economics of Volunteer Labor: Three stories from Debian

Accepted Session
Short Form
Scheduled: Tuesday, June 23, 2015 from 10:00 – 10:45am in B202/203


What circumstances allow volunteer projects to flourish? This talk covers three examples in Debian, diving deep into the questions like whose permission is required, what technical background is needed, and more, to highlight lessons of that can help any open source community organize its activities to empower volunteers.


Volunteer economics is the notion that even though open source contributors frequently work without financial cost to a project, there are social, personal, and technical costs that affect their ability to do that work. These costs relate heavily to the question of which open source projects can sustain themselves on volunteer energy.

Debian is one of the world’s oldest open source software communities, dating back to before the term “open source” was coined. As a member of the Debian community, I have witnessed three particular stories that demonstrate the power of these hidden forces.

We’ll start with a brief introduction to Debian GNU/Linux, to help ensure audience members have a basic understanding of the purpose and structure of our community.

We’ll then dive into three stories:

  • The demise of How outcompeted it, through a technical structure that enabled it to grow with fewer people having to collaborate.
  • Why no one uses “apt-get” to install web applications: Although many server, command line, and desktop software packages are available in Debian, very few of today’s open source web applications are. This section provides a brief overview of Debian’s attempts to make web applications packageable, and an examination of where the efforts have & haven’t succeeded, and considers how volunteer incentives to maintain desktop software don’t apply cleanly to web applications.
  • The rise of reproducible builds in Debian: What binary-reproducible builds mean, and within 18 months, how one community member was able to create the volunteer energy required to make 80% of all packages truly verifiable.

We’ll conclude by re-visiting some common, cliche questions people ask of open source — “where are all the designers?” “where are all the documentation writers?” — and consider if these stories provide any answers.

The talk assumes no particular background with Debian or maintaining Linux systems. Some of the topics have technical content, but we will provide the necessary background as part of the talk.


Debian, volunteers, community

Speaking experience

I've spoken at past Open Source Bridge conferences, as well as at a number of events, ranging from the small Creative Commons technical summit to OSCON and I haven't given this talk before, nor proposed it yet to any other conference.