How open source strikes the right balance between social and market norms

Lately, I’ve been knocking off a few books that have accumulated on my “must-read” list. One of my favourites came recommended by my technical sales professor at SAIT, “Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. It’s a New York Times bestseller. It was recommended based on its insights around behavioural science, specifically what factors influence a buyer’s decision making. And it reads quite satisfactorily for that. However, as a linux enthusiast, there’s one particular chapter that stood out to me.

Chapter 4: The Cost of Social Norms: Dan talks about social norms and market norms. Social norms are the behavioural rules that are considered acceptable in a group or society. While market norms are what one is willing to accept (or give) payment for, usually reflective in some form of business transaction. A social norm may be a friend asking you to help them move, or bringing a bottle of wine to your friends place when they’ve offered to host dinner. Dan describes them as “warm and fuzzy”, and instant paybacks are not required. A market norm is neither warm or fuzzy. They’re sharp-edged, devoid of feelings or emotion, and transactional in nature. Rent, wages, prices, interest, and other costs-and-benefits. With market norms, you get what you pay for. Dan starts off the chapter with this rhetoric:

“You are at your mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for you! The turkey is roasted to a golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and exactly the way you like it. Your kids are delighted: the sweet potatoes are crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite recipe for pumpkin pie has been chosen for dessert.

The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt and sip a glass of wine. Gazing fondly across the table at your mother- in- law, you rise to your feet and pull out your wallet. “Mom, for all the love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” you say sincerely. As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of bills. “Do you think three hundred dollars will do it? No, wait, I should give you four hundred!”

This is not a picture that Norman Rockwell would have painted. A glass of wine falls over; your mother-in-law stands up red-faced; your sister-in-law shoots you an angry look; and your niece bursts into tears. Next year’s Thanksgiving celebration, it seems, may be a frozen dinner in front of the television set.” [1]

In this paragraph, Dan illustrates mixing a social norm (a dinner invitation) with a market norm (paying for the cost of dinner). All throughout this chapter, he demonstrates the value of social norms. From lawyers turning down reduced rate wages in favour of pro-bono cases, to students given assignments wrought with market norm wordings – who became less likely to ask for help, and less likely to offer help to others. Time and again, Dan illustrates how once market norms enter our considerations, social norms depart. And how once a social norm is displaced, how damaging that can be to the repair of that relationship. (Think back to the Thanksgiving dinner example, and how you’re mother-in-law may feel after you offered to pay her for dinner).

Now what does this have to do with linux and open source? Well, the linux community functions on both social and market norms. On one hand you have corporate sponsors or contributors who are being paid to write code, yet on the other hand you have several highly skilled, intelligent people who are contributing not for monetary gain, and instead because they value the community, and the purpose. They identify with the altruistic ideal of giving back to others and the recognition that comes with it. They happily sacrifice their limited spare time to give their skills and intellectual property away for free. And why? What on earth for? Why would someone chose to do that for free when they could be getting paid to do it? Because, as Dan and the open source community illustrate, social norms are stronger than market norms.

Unsurprisingly, Dan actually references linux and open source in this chapter:

“Open-source software shows the potential of social norms. In the case of Linux and other collaborative projects, you can post a problem about a bug on one of the bulletin boards and see how fast someone, or often many people, will react to your request and fix the software — using their own leisure time. Could you pay for this level of service? Most likely. But if you had to hire people of the same caliber they would cost you an arm and a leg. Rather, people in these communities are happy to give their time to society at large (for which they get the same social benefits we all get form helping a friend paint a room). What can we learn from this that is applicable in the business world? There are social rewards that strongly motivate behaviour — and one of the least used in corporate life is the encouragement of social rewards and reputation.” [2]

This social norm movement has proliferated recently with the evolution of corporate policy surrounding work-life balance. Google helped pioneer bridging social and market norms by providing social benefits such as gourmet meals on campus, on-site health and wellness services, or the 20% time allotment to personal projects. Now on-site fitness facilities, subsidized public transit, or wellness snacks are commonplace among companies who are beginning to see the value of the employer-employee social relationship. Dan mentions start-up culture, and how remarkable the level of work start-ups get out of their people when social norms (such as the excitement of building something together) are stronger than market norms (salary increases with each promotion). Emergency and essential service professions are also mentioned – salary alone will not motivate people to risk their lives. Police officers, firefighters, soliders – they don’t risk death for their weekly pay. Its the social norms – pride in their profession, and sense of duty that motivates them to give up their lives and health.

So, how does this benefit open source? What impact do we see from social and market norms? Well, let’s take the linux kernel for example. It started out entirely as a socially motivated project –  that’s now evolved into a hybrid of both forces. Albeit still predominantly driven from social norms. We see massive impact from both market and socially motivated contributors. From the latest release, with kernel history statistics gathered by Greg Kroah-Hartman we see that:

This effort has grown to be the largest collaborative software project in the world, and has recently been valued at $5 billion dollars. That’s a lot of impact and value from social motivators. 🙂



1 Ariely, Dan. “Excerpted from Chapter 4″ The Cost of Social Norms. Web. Dec 10, 2015.

2 Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. Print. pg 75-102