The culture of open source support is changing. Sites like Wage Machine strive to make it easier to hire people for very short stints. eLance facilitates handing out work in very small batches. Yet when it comes to simple questions, there is a still some expectation that experts should answer questions for free. This expectation does harm to all parties – the experts who have knowledge are expected to give it away for free, and the users seeking knowledge often get poor quality answers, or no answers at all. One only has to look at the WordPress support forums to see the problem. Some questions get no answers, and many get only perfunctory responses which fail to address the actual problem that the asker is having.
We are at the beginning of the era of true “micro-consulting” where experts can engage a client for as little as 5 minutes, and give the client exactly what they need, and the expert can be fairly paid for those 5 minutes. At Codewi.se we’ve established a system that allows askers to put a price on their questions, so that they can get fast, serious, high quality responses. We believe this model represents the future of support for open source projects.
However, there is a crucial question of reward for the underlying open source projects. How can the interests of the open source community be aligned with the support forums? These last few years we have seen a conflict, where theme and plugin developers offer code under the GPL, but they do not wish to offer support, because they are not being paid. We believe the way forward is to make all support forums operate as fund-raising efforts for open source software. So, for instance, on WP Questions, if you have developed any open source software relating to WordPress, you can sign up and receive donations from us.
This also addresses the key question of critical mass. A support forum can not function until it has a critical threshold of experts who are ready to answer questions. Many times, when dealing with open source plugins, the only true experts are the plugin developers themselves. Therefore, making them partners in such ventures works to satisfy all parties – the open source developers finally get paid for their work, and the people asking questions finally get the high-quality answers that they need.
I’ve written more about this issue at History, Incubation and Inspirations.