Does your FOSS project pass the Stanford Marshmallow Test?

February 5, 2012 – 11:05 am

40 years ago, some folks at Stanford conducted an interesting experiment with preschoolers:

A marshmallow was offered to each child. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, he was promised two instead of one. The scientists analyzed how long each child resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow, and whether or not doing so had an effect on their future success. (Source: Wikipedia)

Short answer: yes.

Greg and I were talking about the difference between production and production capacity a few days ago, and the importance of balancing the two. It’s not a hard concept; we do this all the time when we play video games. When you play Monopoly, you build houses and hotels because you know that’s going to give you the strong resource and financial base you need to wipe the board with everyone else at the end; when you sit down for Settlers of Catan, you build cities – you don’t just start hurtling roads out there, right? You want that grain, that ore, those bricks. You want that power at your fingertips, so you Do The Marshmallow – you focus on building that power, even if it means not using all the little bits of power you have right then. Less shiny now, more shiny later.

What does this have to do with FOSS? Well, I’m reminded of the Marshmallow Experiment every time I see something like this:

“Linux geeks not caring about noobs is the main reason Windows is so popular.” –Chris Watkins

That’s my friend Chris, from Appropedia. Chris is a technical guy who loves the Free world; he’s an engineer working on disseminating open-licensed appropriate technology information to grassroots communities of hackers in the developing world using an entirely open-source software stack to do so. His statement reads to me like a bug report on FOSS’s ability to build production capacity in its communities. (We’ve gotten better, thanks to tons of long, hard work by many different groups and people – but there’s still a long way to go.)

I am also reminded of the Marshmallow Experiment every time I see something like this:

 I just think it’s bizarre. “We need more people! Lets try to recruit those with this particular type of sex organs!” –from a GNOME Women comment thread

Dude. Do you want to curse the darkness? Or do you want to light some candles? Because what you did right there is called “cursing the people who are lighting candles.” When you see someone trying to improve the capacity of a community you care about, try helping them. Constructive criticism is helpful; however, the above comment is a good example of destructive criticism. Here’s how to tell the difference.

These comments are, in different ways, both about building production capacity in FOSS communities. In a world where software is considered obsolete after a year or two, where 6-month releases are built in no small part upon the outputs of 48-hour hackfests, where there are so many compelling reasons to focus on the now – what does your project do to look into the future? (Does it?) Could you see those two scenarios above applying to the communities you work within?

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  1. 2 Responses to “Does your FOSS project pass the Stanford Marshmallow Test?”

  2. > Dude. Do you want to curse the darkness? Or do you want to light some candles? Because what you did right there is called “cursing the people who are lighting candles.”

    …This is going into my Library Of Useful Arguments.

    By Katie on Feb 5, 2012

  3. It’s not about who has what sex organs, it’s about who has a lot of trouble getting involved with these projects, because of a ton of factors that it’s hard to see if you haven’t been subject to them on account of being perceived as female.

    Which doesn’t require having any particular female sex organs. :P Transphobia and intersex erasure, anyone?

    By Taryn Fox on Feb 7, 2012

What do you think?