The Passion of the Community

UPDATE: Added direct link to Roberto’s post.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a firestorm erupt over Roberto Galoppini’s open source multilevel marketing suggestions in this post by CNET blogger Matt Asay:

Users promoting the software that they’re already adopting, but getting paid something for it.

One of the underlying tenets of open source is the passion of the communities that form around specific (and popular) projects. Adoption is, in large part, driven by The Breck Principle: You tell your friends, they’ll tell theirs, and so on. Of course, in order for that to happen, the software needs to be well-written and useful.

Roberto floats the idea that project leaders and companies can spur greater adoption of their products by employing the basic ideals of pyramid marketing schemes. Pay your best users to promote your software within their communities, who recruit new users to do likewise, with each newer user getting a smaller promotional payout and the original evangelist making more dinero as the foundation of his or her pyramid gets bigger.

In a normal proprietary software setting, I’m not sure anyone would blink an eye at this approach. In fact, the way affiliate marketing dollars are allocated, it’s basically already being done. The problem with this approach is that the money corrupts, forcing software on users at the expense of choice. The reason Dell and HP sell Windows-based systems is not because it’s a better operating system (this is not to debate the merits of Windows versus Linux), but because Microsoft spends bucketloads of marketing dollars to make it fiscally irresponsible to explore other avenues. And those dollars don’t stop at the computer makers. They funnel down through channels and across applications. Take Microsoft’s “pyramid” marketing dollars away and I suspect the Dell and HP marketing budgets would be drastically smaller. This is not an indictment of Microsoft (nor Dell or HP). It’s how they market. And there’s no denying it works.

Is it a model that could work in open source? Would it create a caste system within open source between those projects that have marketing dollars and those that don’t? Does it usher in a new phase in the lifecycle of open source software that puts a premium on marketing at the expense of great software?

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