I had no knowledge of Utopian.io before 10 days ago, until people started flocking to my Github repos and proposing to help translate my projects.
Utopian.io is a Steem powered service that proposes to reward open source contributions with Steem coins. And doesn't that sound lovely. I mean, why not? I've never contributed to open source for a pecuniary gain, quite the opposite. But the question of financial sustainability of open source projects is definitely on everyone's mind, especially if you like to invest time in sharing knowledge and tools under libre licenses. And if a new service promises to help solve that problem and encourage people to contribute, I'm going to look at it with favorable eyes.
The project that attracted the attention from Utopian translators is a book, Diverted Derived Design, that I co-wrote 2 years ago with a group of artists and designers about open source product design. Most people who have showed interest in the book are usually people familiar with the culture of D.I.Y., hacker spaces and open source licensing. And most of these people were in our extended network.
But suddenly, 10 days a go, I get a pull request on Github proposing to translate the book in Spanish. This is something that was already started a while back, but left unfinished. So we indeed had an issue calling for help from Spanish translators. And so comes this new translator, who does not talk much but insists on translating the entire book, 1000 words at a time. Since the translations are coming at a steady pace, and with my basic understanding of Spanish telling me this all looks fine, I merge them quickly into master.
All is going well, until some days later, another person shows up, proposing to translate it in Portuguese, then the next day another one for French, Cebuano, Tagalog,... The last two languages are only spoken in the Philippines. This is all nice, of course. I'd love to have our open knowledge book translated in all these local languages, but something does not feel right. All these translators have no experience of Git or Github. I sincerely doubt they have any interest in open source or open source product design. I don't recall our book made the news in Philippines either. And they all seem to be willing to translate the entire book, as fast as they can, and only 1000 words at a time.
After receiving the pull request for the French translations, I realized all of it was probably only done using automatic translation software (French is my mother tongue, so I for sure can tell the difference) and even after pointing it out to the submitter and asking for corrections, no update or corrections were made.
This led me to do some research and quickly found out all these translators were coming from one website: Utopian.io. Now, since I've stopped accepting pull requests for translations in languages I can not read, since I've also told all of them I will need to find proof readers for all these languages before accepting any pull request, well, all Github notifications turned silent. Everyone seems to have disappeared. So all is well in the open source world, right? Utopian will clear itself from people trying to game the platform for a quick buck, thanks to a good review process from open source projects maintainers. Right?
Well, check this repository. It is hosting a few books on libertarian and anarcho-capitalism written in English, and asking for translators. It has received and merged more than 2000 pull requests in the last month alone. Most of which, you guessed, are 1000 words translations in languages such as Igbo, Hausa, Cebuano, etc. Again, I think it's great that there is a movement to translate texts is as many languages as possible. But I have doubts regarding the quality and the purpose of this repository. I have checked the French translations for those books and can safely say it's all machine generated. Not that it does not read like French. But I don't call this a translation. And I don't see why people would get a reward for this type of contribution. Maybe the developers of the translation software should get the Steem coins. Not the ones copy pasting it. So, to me, this looks like a repository solely created for the purpose of validating utopian contributions and collecting rewards. That's not open source contributions. That's Steem coin farming.
I can understand where the abuse comes from. It is hard to make a meaningful contributions to an open source project. It requires time, knowledge and dedication. Translations can appear a pretty easy thing to do, especially aided with automatic software. And being rewarded an equivalent of $20.00 for every 1000 translated words surely sounds tempting in countries where the minimum wage is ~$10.00 per day.
But that's not how open source works. Even with translations or proposing a new logo, contributing to an open source project requires to be interested in the project, understand its use, its benefits and its flaws. Only then can a meaningful contribution be made. It's not about the size of it, or the type of it. I think filing up a good issue, correcting a typo in documentation or just blogging about an open source project are meaningful contributions (and thus could be rewarded). Github also has certainly made contributing easier and more accessible, but that doesn't mean it just requires to press the
edit button in the interface and wait for a merge to be accepted. That's button pressing. A robot can do that. So Utopian.io, by incentivizing to just do these 2 things is creating the wrong model for it.
I don't have a lot of propositions to fix this. I'm mostly calling on the Steem and Utopian community to reflect on this and come with a fix. I certainly think that Utopian.io should enforce better transparency and make sure the open source projects that receive contributions know where they come from. It will probably make it harder to contribute from a Utopian point of view, especially if the platform gets a bad reputation, but it's probably for the better in the long term.
In this article, I've only focused on the translation teams of the Utopian community. I don't know how the other groups are behaving. I'd be curious to hear other, similar or different, experiences of the service. Let me know in the comments.