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Starting A Successful Open Source Project

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So, I started TiddlyWiki back in September 2004. It is now, by many measures, a moderately active and successful open source project. The forums are busy, the ecosystem is vibrant, and many people get a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment from using TiddlyWiki, improving it, and helping others to do so.

Sometimes, people ask me how they can start a similar project, particularly how they can build an open source project around an idea that they’ve got. For a long time, the question used to make me stop short and give the glib answer that I didn’t know, because it had happened to me by accident. I’m acutely aware that I knew next to nothing about open source until long after I first published TiddlyWiki, and I felt that my experience was so specific to TiddlyWiki that it wouldn’t help anyone else.

Now, though, with the benefit of hindsight, there might by now be a few things I can generalise from my experience. Perhaps. Anyway, I’ll try for three things fairly simple observations for the moment.

1. You have to be fearless, if not reckless. In my case, for the two years or so that I was precariously working full-time on TiddlyWiki, I didn’t earn anything like the money I’d earned in my previous jobs. The only way I could survive was not to put away any money to pay the tax bills that I was building up but to spend everything I was earning on day-to-day living and bills. You can juggle things in the UK so that you don’t pay tax on your income for two years if you’re careful, but my cunning plan was clearly not something that a fully trained accountant would advise anyone to do. Especially given that I had no indication of any future payout that a happy-go-lucky angel investor would recognise, let alone one to impress the friendly tax man. Living hand-to-mouth is never fun, but I got huge motivational sustenance from the enthusiasm of the other people who were putting so much into the project. I reasoned that dozens of strangers wouldn’t be investing in it if TiddlyWiki were without serious merit, and my natural blind optimism filled in the leap that something of serious merit would eventually allow me to pay my bills.

2. You have to build the thing before they will come. An idea alone is not enough. In the case of TiddlyWiki the first proof-of-concept version that I released in September 2004 has around 850 lines of JavaScript code, much more than a trivial proof of concept or a wireframe sketch. I then worked on TiddlyWiki for around 9 months as a pretty much solo effort, driven by the bug reports and feature suggestions that I was receiving. For all of that period, it would have been hard for me to describe TW as an open source project in anything other than license terms (back then there was no subversion repository, no mailing list and no bug tracking system). It was only when TiddlyWiki itself was mature enough to sustain a user community that the demand built up for it to become a proper open source project.

3. You have to make it easy for your users to find and use your source code. In the case of TiddlyWiki, the website is the product is the code is the documentation, which has neatnesses of its own. But there’s more than that: one of the things I’ve learned from working with the TiddlyWiki community is that there are an awful lot of almost-programmers out there: people who couldn’t reliably tell you much about the syntax of JavaScript but have enough wit and common-sense to splice and modify samples of code. Especially if they have the means to try out their changes easily and safely. Give them these tools, and these people can do wonders. In contrast, many open source projects have much more complicated installation, build and execution requirements. It’s often surprisingly hard just to locate the source code and browse your way to a particular part of the codebase.

A great example of how successful TiddlyWiki has been at lowering the barriers to contribution is the Digital Supplement for “Web Campaigning” by Kirsten Foot and Steven M. Schneider” (MIT Press 2006). The authors have published their source materials as a TiddlyWiki file that fellow researchers can download and use to begin their own work, use as a template or indeed study while on an aeroplane. The really interesting thing is the way that Steven assembled their own unique customisation of TiddlyWiki, consisting of a handful of off-the-shelf plugins and one that he wrote himself to handle their unique requirements for footnotes and endnotes. The macro isn’t particularly complicated in programming terms, but it radically simplifies the annotation of data, and demonstrates a beautiful blurring of boundaries between programming and writing.


Written by jermolene

August 5, 2007 at 8:08 pm

Posted in jerm, opensource, tiddlywiki

2 Responses

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  1. Hey Jeremy,

    Is there a fourth one about not trying too hard to keep control of the direction your project develops in?



    August 9, 2007 at 4:16 pm

  2. “In the case of TiddlyWiki, the website is the product is the code is the documentation, which has neatnesses of its own.”

    That’s a large part of the sheer brilliance of the TiddlyWiki. Even having been a software professional for a long time, it really stands out in that regard. Well done.

    [I know this is an old post, but I just wanted to offer my appreciation for this wonderful little-yet-powerful tool.]


    December 16, 2008 at 11:42 pm

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