Using Social Networks to Foster Open Source Projects

by Ostatic Staff - Sep. 01, 2009

Let's face it, open source software companies and projects have a wide variety of innovative platforms and methods to drum up awareness, business, and interest in development for the projects they create and support. The problem is, it's not always easy to quantify how much interest and awareness (or ultimately, new contributors, users, or customers) result from any specific method.

Social networks are a great way to reach out to people with specific interests and start the chain of "word of mouth" recommendation. But they just aren't the traditional sort of public relations drives or advertising many organizations are used to. If an organization understands this, there's a lot to gain from social network outreach -- and open source software, a model that works based on input from the wider community, is in a position to benefit even more.

There's just that matter of metrics -- will the push yield good results? Engine Yard, a Ruby on Rails hosting and services provider, found it's well worth the effort.

Engine Yard chose to use its Twitter feed as the vehicle for what it called a "programming contest... sure to challenge even the most comp-sci heavy engineers." While the initial instructions (to tweet twelve words from a thousand word dictionary that when hashed, is as close as possible bit-wise to the hash of the challenge phrase) and some interaction appeared on Engine Yard's blog, contest submissions were collected solely through "@replies" on Twitter.

The three-tiered approach of prizes (an iPhone 3GS and $2,000 worth of Engine Yard's cloud services), company-to-developer interaction, and solving a programming-intense puzzle resulted in over 200 contest entries, a surge in site traffic of 420% over the same time the previous month, and a 32% increase in Twitter followers.

The beauty of this is two-fold -- an open source company that specializes in working with Ruby on Rails, as well as making it possible for its developers to simply develop applications, spread the good word about its work and encouraged others to take part. The model is also extremely adaptable.

Smaller projects are used to the sorts of "word of mouth" transactions that play out on social networks. Social network outreach can remain a small cost investment, if finances factor in at all (time might be another matter entirely). Prize incentives are always neat, but don't need to be extravagant -- it's amazing what people will do just for the joy in being first to conquer a challenge (or for a t-shirt). Of course, it's a great way to pull in new developer, artist, translation or documentation talent. That's where a project effectively (and creatively!) using social networks gets its incentive.