trust kid opensource

The Role of Trust in Open Source

I still remember the first time my parents deemed me old enough to stay at home by myself. I felt an incredible feeling of power and responsibility. I also felt strangely free. I could do just about anything I wanted and I had the entire house to myself. Of course my parents had only run to the store and would be back in only a few minutes but for those few minutes I was master of my domain. My parents left me alone because they trusted me. They trusted me to not get in trouble and to not burn the house down! So what does trust look like in open source and how does that trust effect volunteers and contributors?

Trust Can Be Scary

Just as with everything there are two sides to every story. As a young boy staying home alone I may have been scared (a bit) by the prospect of being left alone and the weight of the responsibilities which came along. But fear was probably not that big of an actual issue for me. Fear can be a powerful motivator and most likely encouraged me to act even more responsibly. The experience wasn’t necessarily a scary one for me.

For my parents however, this was an incredibly scary moment. They were leaving everything they owned to a child. A complete and total novice who lacked experience and the years of wisdom they already held. They had to place their trust in someone else who they clearly knew to be not as mature as themselves. Trust for them was a very scary and intimidating thing.

Open source communities live and die on trust. For the most part open source communities consist of two types of people. Those who have been “around the block” and have worked in the community enough to have experience and those who are the “newbies” or the newcomers who have yet to demonstrate their expertise in the community. These two personalities mimic very much the dynamics of the relationship I had with my parents when they let me alone for the first time. The seasoned community contributor at some point must place trust in the younger, less-experienced volunteer. This can be an intimidating and scary step. Many things could go wrong (and they might). But the very act of placing trust in another person demonstrates their value to the community. And it must be done for the open source community to continue to grow and expand.

Trust Takes Time

My parents didn’t wake up one morning and just walk out the door tossing me the keys as they left. Their trust was based on watching me grow and mature over years of lessons learned and time spent interacting with them and others. They watched me handle situations and problems and used that knowledge as part of their foundation of trust.

Obviously in open source we’re not waiting years before trusting people. But the principle is still a valid one. We must take time to get to know others. Open source volunteers need to interact with one another. When we take the time to learn more about someone we build a strong foundation for trusting them with more responsibilities. Trust in open source requires a community of people interested in learning from each other.

Trust doesn’t happen overnight (usually). And it doesn’t happen without work. New volunteers must work on building their reputation by doing little tasks “around the house” and taking on responsibilities which will allow the older contributors the opportunity to watch how they handle situations and problems. These little things are the foundation which trust can be built on.

Trust Empowers Open Source

I mentioned it earlier but when my parents left me alone I felt an incredible sense of freedom and responsibility. I was “king”. Did I do anything crazy? Absolutely not. I knew if I blew it I would be waiting a significantly longer time before being given another opportunity. And yet I felt incredibly empowered. I could make the decisions and run the show.

Both of the previous points can be applied mostly to the parent, or the older volunteer, this point however is very firmly affixed to the new contributor. Here is the opportunity to allow them to show what they can do. New contributors are empowered to contribute to open source because of trust. Once they have this responsibility given to them the power is shared. The community is strengthened. And the cycle continues.

Open source communities are completely empowered by the trust that exists inherently in their volunteers. Without trust the entire intricate network of relationships and people dissolves. I mentioned in a previous post, people are the true value of open source, and if the bond of trust between those people falters the entire network of relationships and ultimately the community fails.

Trust Breeds Success

But rather than looking at the negative side of lack of trust I prefer to look at the positives when trust is placed correctly. When a community of volunteers effectively follows this pattern of placing trust in newcomers, giving them responsibility and decision-making opportunities they encourage growth – personal growth and community growth.

The new volunteers who demonstrate their maturity and responsibility when trust is placed in them will then in turn grow into the seasoned volunteer and will look for other people they can nurture and place their trust. As I said before it’s a cycle. This cycle when followed correctly encourages growth by its very nature. The community grows and even more importantly – the relationships that underpin the community grow. And that’s what open source is all about, people and relationships.

Trust is the bond of a good relationship. Open source is valuable because of the people and trust is what holds those people together. Therefore trust is the bond of open source.