The New York Times Magazine: The Year in Ideas/Open-Source Begging

December 15, 2002 by Clive Thompson

Karyn Bosnak, a 29-year-old Brooklyn woman, had dug herself badly into debt: $20,221.40, to be precise, on seven credit cards. ''It was way too much impulse buying,'' she says cheerily, including a $1,500 sofa, a $500 chandelier and $400 a month at hair salons. When she got laid off from her high-flying job, she realized she had no way of paying it back. What to do?

Panhandle, that's what. Taking a digital-age approach, Bosnak set up a Web site in June -- -- and brazenly begged for donations. It worked. Possibly it was her Holly Golightly sense of humor, or her kooky frankness. (''I'm going to be honest here,'' she wrote. ''I wasn't out saving the world. I was just at Bloomingdales.'') 

Either way, within weeks, hundreds of thousands of visitors were dropping by, the site had been written up in USA Today -- and money was pouring in. Most donations were tiny, just one or two dollars. But when more than 2,000 people each throw a few bucks in your cup, it adds up, and by November, Bosnak had raked in a stunning $13,000.

''It's like when you're a kid,'' she says, ''and you think, Hey, if everyone in town just gave me one dollar, I'd be rich!''

Precisely the point: many hands make light work. It is a defining law of the Internet. When there's a nearly infinite pool of potential contributors available, even the most daunting tasks become as easy and fast as an Amish barn-raising. Indeed, as the programmer/philosopher Eric Raymond argues in his essay ''The Cathedral and the Bazaar,'' this spirit of volunteerism is part of the magic in the open-source software movement. The reason the Linux operating system works so well, Raymond maintains, is that it was built by hundreds of coders worldwide, all scrutinizing the software to keep it glitch free. ''Given enough eyeballs,'' Raymond says, ''all bugs are shallow.''

But open-source begging? Who knew? Bosnak's feat has bred an entire new category in Yahoo (''Begging for Money''), as well as acolytes: a woman in Ontario sick with Lyme disease has raised $6,000, and the proprietor of has raised $2,921.55 to finance her divorce. Bosnak herself, now debt free, is passing on her tin cup -- by giving her site to other needy souls. For panhandlers in dire need, the Internet is now the busiest sidewalk in the world.