Hadley Wickham does not know I exist, but he has singlehandedly empowered me professionally more than the 20 odd years that I spent receiving a formal education. His contribution to developing the R ecosystem is one of the main reasons that R enjoys the status of being the programming language for data scientists and statisticians the world over. R enables me, a non-programmer, to do vastly complex things with data that would probably be out of reach if I had to work with any of the mainstream programming languages.

Likewise, I have continuously had access to the best tools and information needed to do my job for the cost of a decent internet connection. This has been possible because of the open-source movement in software(R, python) and the subsequent rise in free online education(think Wikipedia, Reddit, Coursera, et al.). The saying goes that there are no free lunches in life. But in the case of information and software technology, the best lunches are often free. This violates a few paradigms of the physical world where the good stuff always has to be paid for. And almost nothing, which is worth anything to you, is free. There are fundamental reasons why software has diverged in this respect from the physical world, which I haven’t thought about enough to list myself. An exhaustive list can be found here.

I imagine that like me, a lot of people working in software or related industries feel grateful for having access to open source tools. Quite a few of them, including me, would also want to express that gratitude by giving back whatever we can to the people who develop these tools.

There are a few obvious ways we could go about it. The most direct way would be to contribute to open source projects yourself. Write code. Resolve ongoing issues. Write documentation. This is something we all can do - to a different extent, given our abilities and availability. Another almost equally direct way would be to financially support the organizations that help coordinate projects in the open-source world. Think of Wikipedia or the R foundation. Although these are straightforward ways, they are also hard to take. Contributing to open source requires a lot of commitment, expertise, and awareness of the current state of project development. And donating anything that would be substantial would be a stretch for a single person.

Money is just one, albeit the most efficient medium to store and transfer value. Another way is through donating “social capital”. Generally, people who give out stuff for free are looking to increase some combination of their visibility, credibility, and goodwill - a cocktail I will loosely term as social capital. They count on people to look at their work, like it and talk it up to their friends and colleagues. When this happens, they gain social capital. Once they have enough social capital- they can start converting it into actual capital($$). They might do that via offering a premium service on top of the free stuff, consulting to businesses one-on-one, endorsing products, etc.

The good news is that supporting creators through ‘donating’ social capital might be much more practical for most of us than the other alternatives discussed above. So the next time we come across an open-source project or tool we find useful, we can donate a little social capital to the creator by posting about it on our blogs and urging people in our networks to check it out. We would have then channeled our gratefulness towards these creators into something valuable for them. I just did this in the first sentence of this post.