O’Reilly: pragmatism in practice

Someone (on Twitter, probably) pointed to Tim O’Reilly explaining Why I Love Twitter. Well worth reading for his viewpoints, including:

  • Twitter works like people do: you don’t have to ask permission, you don’t have to become friends.
  • Twitter is about quick hits, not extended discussion.
  • Twitter transcends the web — it moves easily to different interfaces, even to different devices.

Browsing the comments, I found further thoughts from O’Reilly — not about Twitter but rather the larger sphere of open source. You can find them at the post I link to above, but I’m reproducing one chunk of his thinking here.

He underscores something worth holding on to: rather than looking back (like “replacing X”), work on looking forward (“accomplishing Y”).

If you’ve followed my career as an open source advocate, you should have noted that I’ve always had mixed feelings about free and open source projects whose goal was primarily to create an open version of something else. I feel this way about the GNU vision, projects like the Gimp, and every other free software that’s “against” something instead of “for” something, or that tell people they “ought” to use one piece of software rather than another.

It’s always seemed to me that the most interesting open source projects have their own wellspring, their own itch to scratch.

That’s why I’ve always been a bigger fan of the BSD/Apache free software tradition, which doesn’t look on commercial or even proprietary software as an enemy, but as a choice that reasonable developers can make.

I do agree that open standards and interoperability are good, but I also believe that “open enough” is often “good enough.” Twitter is a network citizen in a way that, say, Facebook or Apple, is not.

I also don’t buy the idea that control by a commercial entity automatically means software is bad. Most open source projects are controlled by a single entity! Just try forking emacs or gcc or the Linux kernel! Sometimes a fork happens to free software projects, but it’s usually because a project has stagnated, not because someone just wants to pull in a different direction. And when it does happen…it’s often destructive, not constructive.

The question is whether the entity in question is a good citizen or not, or whether they abuse their power.

So, for example, I support Apache over IIS and Firefox over IE, because it is clear that Microsoft was trying to control the browser as a way of controlling the web.

I don’t think we have that worry with twitter.

I was especially struck by the non-dogmatic tone of “I also believe that ‘open enough’ is often ‘good enough.'” And O’Reilly reminds me to pay attention to the itches that I should be scratching.