Starting A Successful Open Source Project
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.
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.