2023 Columbia CryptoEconomics Conference

Posted: December 12, 2023

 On December 6, I spoke at the Columbia CryptoEconomics Conference (CCE) about our study on open-source software (OSS) development and community dynamics. The event was co-organized by the Briger Family Digital Finance Lab at Columbia Business School, the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, and the Ethereum Foundation. Most of the attendees were blockchain software or business developers, so it was great to share the research about the software development of Ethereum to the target audience. 

"'Mining’ Ethereum: Open-Source Software Development and Community Dynamics" study is a part of my research program on OSS innovation and governance. The OSS model is a decentralized form of collaboration that allows open participation in software production and free access to the results. Another study within the same program was recently published in JMIS.

Open source movement is built on the principle of openness and decentralization of effort. But whether the decentralized model is indeed sustainable for the development of public blockchain in the long term is questionable. Hence, we explore the open-source community dynamics to identify what mechanisms drive the process of innovation. 

There are over 152 K developers in the Ethereum GitHub community who have generated over 1.2 M activities over the past 10 years. 200,000, roughly 17%, of those activities were effective changes of code in the form of commits. When we look into the structure of the activities further, 80% of all activities are performed by the top 5% of Ethereum GitHub users. (We also calculate the Gini coefficient, and its value is 0.844, which indicates an acute disproportion of community participation in Ethereum development.) But this is no surprise. Active minority domination is common for other OSS communities, such as Apache or Mozilla.

Interestingly, Ethereum has other features in common with major OSS projects. We rely on a significant body of OSS research and test whether the Ethereum developers community experiences the same network dynamics as other OSS communities. We find that, for the most part, the prior findings for non-blockchain OSS projects check for the Ethereum blockchain, too. 

The open-source collaboration forms a dense network. Over time, as the project complexity grows, the density of connections between developers decreases, and the clusterization increases. Interestingly, these tendencies are opposite for the core developers, who shape the software code and the rules by which the whole ecosystem lives. On GitHub, only developers with permission have a right to change the code. We refer to them as core. Other developers who are peripheral can also suggest code changes by requesting a core developer to review them first.

Peripheral developers and Network effects also determine project awareness and contribution. 

With Every 10 new peripheral developers, 5 new developers start watching the project, and one attempts to create a contribution fork. The developer community managers can leverage these dependencies to make predictions about the level of innovation and maintenance in the long term.

Overall, the open-source model benefits technology development by bootstrapping innovative inputs from voluntary contributors. Nevertheless, the expectation should be calibrated by the innate selectivity and inequalities in participation.