Open Source Virtual Signaling? Or, Why Do You Really Like Open Source?
Open source software is everywhere these days — from Microsoft to government agencies to (maybe) your car. In a world where open source is so pervasive, I can’t but wonder: Do the myriad companies that now push open source really believe in it, or is it mere virtue signaling?
This is a fair question to ask. Many of the companies that are now very publicly promoting open source were once antithetical to open source.
The most obvious example is Microsoft, which in the 2000s sued various open source companies and most likely was the funder of a 2004 report whose author claimed Linux source code was largely plagiarized.
Today, Microsoft has declared that it “loves” Linux. It supports open source operating systems in the Azure cloud. It has extended support for some of its major software platforms, like SQL Server, to Linux. It has helped to develop a subsystem for running Linux applications on Windows.
Google is another, somewhat less dramatic example. Google has long claimed to be open source-friendly, yet the vast majority of the code that powers Google’s business was never open source. Indeed, one could argue that Google did much to bring about the current world where most applications are cloud-based and delivered in such a way that (as Richard Stallman has pointed out) users’ rights are highly restricted whether the application source code is open source or not.
Then there are the likes of Facebook, another completely cloud-based application that does God knows what with the data users upload to it, yet proudly contributes to other open source projects. Or Netflix, which has probably made the most important contributions to the open source community of any company whose main platform is not itself open source. (I feel kind of bad criticizing Netflix for its open source contributions, because they appear genuine, but it’s worth mentioning because it still fits my argument in this article.)
Why Do Open Source?
An optimist would say that companies like these contribute to open source projects, or open source their own internal projects, because they believe in the importance of open source and want to help expand the open source community.
A pessimist would then point out that if these companies really believed in open source, they’d open up their entire platforms. Instead, the common practice is for a company to cherry pick a few open source tools that it uses to build its main platform, then contribute to them.
In other words, these companies claim to love open source. They very publicly support open source in certain limited contexts. But the bread-and-butter of their business is very much closed-source software.
That’s kind of talking about how great vegetarianism is and eating tofu once in a while, but mainly subsisting on steak.
Open Source and Virtue Signaling
I’m kind of a pessimist, and tend to think that when most companies (beyond those whose main product is actually open source) contribute to open source, they’re doing it primarily to build a positive image for themselves within the developer community.
In other words, they’re what you might call virtue signaling. That term that has been applied most frequently in religious and political contexts, but I think it fits the patterns you see within the open source ecosystem, too.
Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with contributing to open source in a self-serving way. There’s no law that says that only companies that truly believe in the open source philosophy — whatever you believe that to be — have the right to support open source projects.
Plus, you can make the case that supporting open source projects is always a good thing, no matter what the motives behind the support.
Still, it’s worth thinking more about why everyone and their brother seems to be launching or contributing to open source projects these days. It would be nice to think that the unprecedented momentum within the open source community reflects a widespread and genuine commitment on the part of organizations far and wide to grow the open source code base. But some days I think it’s primarily a result of self-serving virtue signaling, for better or worse.