The Labor of Maintaining and Scaling Free and Open-Source Software Projects


Download PDF here.

Abstract: Free and/or open-source software (or F/OSS) projects now play a major and dominant role in society, constituting critical digital infrastructure relied upon by companies, academics, non-profits, activists, and more. As F/OSS has become larger and more established, we investigate the labor of maintaining and sustaining those projects at various scales. We report findings from an interview-based study with contributors and maintainers working in a wide range of F/OSS projects. Maintainers of F/OSS projects do not just maintain software code in a more traditional software engineering understanding of the term: fixing bugs, patching security vulnerabilities, and updating dependencies. F/OSS maintainers also perform complex and often-invisible interpersonal and organizational work to keep their projects operating as active communities of users and contributors. We particularly focus on how this labor of maintaining and sustaining changes as projects and their software grow and scale across many dimensions. In understanding F/OSS to be as much about maintaining a communal project as it is maintaining software code, we discuss broadly applicable considerations for peer production communities and other socio-technical systems more broadly.

Recommended citation: R. Stuart Geiger, Dorothy Howard, and Lilly Irani. 2021. “The Labor of Maintaining and Scaling Free and Open-Source Software Projects.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. 5, CSCW1, Article 175 (April 2021), 28 pages.