The Power of the GitHub Star

When we decided to open source kubefirst in 2021, a new metric became incredibly relevant to us - the GitHub star.

An image of a large gold star with GitHub logo inside

We started kubefirst back in 2019 with a mission to provide the world with free instant kubernetes software delivery and infrastructure management platforms. When we decided to open source kubefirst in 2021, a new metric became incredibly relevant to us - the GitHub star.

What is a GitHub Star?

If you're a software engineer, chances are you're already familiar with the GitHub star. It's that little iconic button in the top right corner of every GitHub source code repository you might visit when working with open source projects.

When a GitHub user wants to bookmark or show appreciation for a particular project, they can click the star button, the star change to yellow, and the number will increase by 1. It's free and easy - give it a try on our project repo - top right corner 😉.

When you star a repository, it shows up in your list of starred repositories on your GitHub profile. This makes it easy for you to find the repository later, and also shows others which repositories you find useful or interesting.

Why is a GitHub Star Valuable to Users?

GitHub stars represent the number of people who have clicked the Star button for a given repository - no more, no less. People can click stars for any reason at all. You can create a repo today, give it a star yourself, and ask your buddy to star it, and then your repo will have 2 stars. Because of this, the value of a GitHub star is a bit nebulous to users. It almost seems meaningless, but there is a very real implicit value to it.

For example, let's look at our kubefirst project. What does it do?

You download our app, enter your git token, cloud keys, and hit a go button, and the kubefirst app will establish a complete instant cloud native ecosystem powered by the most popular open source technologies in a few minutes, instead of the many months it takes most organizations to get a cloud native platform off the ground.

You read that right. You have to give it your git token and cloud keys. This would be the appropriate time for a user to look at the number of stars that our repository has. That's because to GitHub users, the star count is innately tied to how battle tested a project is. Projects that are around longer will have more stars, newer projects will have less. Projects that are widely shared and gain organic popularity will have more stars than projects that are potentially bad experiences.

So that's what a star is from the GitHub user's perspective. It's a bookmark, a sign of appreciation, and a rough indication of its positive impact over the project's history, but without showing you the duration of that history.

The GitHub Star History

Because the GitHub Star metric is a counter metric and not a gauge metric, the history of the project is incredibly relevant to understand how much stock to put into the number. To exemplify the point, let's look at our kubefirst project once more, but this time, let's look at our stars over a historical timeline.

What a star count can never tell you, is that our project was closed source for years as we were running a multi-year pilot with an enterprise company to ensure the product would scale and could be tailored to accommodate the strictest of security requirements. That battle testing of the product will never be reflected in our star count - when we open sourced we started with zero stars just like everybody else.

graph of kubefirst stars plotted over time

You can also see from this chart that our star growth hasn't exactly been linear. This non-linear growth is what gives the GitHub star an entirely different and incredibly important value system to a project owner of an open source project.

Why is a GitHub Star Valuable to Open Source Project Owners?

As an early stage open source project owner, you'll try a lot of things to capture the attention of an audience. You'll likely start just like we did, by telling the tiny audience of people you know on social media about your project. Many of them will star your project to support your initiative. Some may share with their networks and expand your reach a bit, but they'll only do this so many times. As you post more and more to that same circle of eyeballs, the stars will stop growing. Because a single GitHub user can only star your project once, you'll get whatever installs from it that you'll get, and you'll need to find new places for your message to be heard.

Exhausting your outlets is one of the biggest challenges to combat when trying to acquire new users. You obviously aren't bound to social media. There are many other ways to get a message out and with enough tenacity you'll try them all to see what works well. You may consider blogging, syndicating to publications like medium, posting to Reddit in targeted communities, making YouTube videos, starting TikTok campaigns, google ads, starting your own podcasts, joining others' podcasts.

Each time you spread your message in a new way, there's a new opportunity to expand your audience, and the GitHub Star is an extremely effective way to measure how good a job you're doing at finding people that care about your project as you experiment with different messaging avenues.

The Impact of Outside Influencers

Once you begin to gain traction on your project, publications or social influencers who have large followings may have something to say about your project. This can produce a huge influx of GitHub stars. This is because you're tapping into an outside influencer's much larger circle, and many in their audience may not even know that your project exists yet. This can be a major contributing factor to your open source project's popularity, and regularly is a bit of a surprise to discover.

How to be Prepared for your Star Showers

When people click on your project's GitHub star, it's important to know that it's happening. You want to know when there's a sudden influx of stars so you can determine where they're coming from. There are probably a lot of ways to do this.

At kubefirst we set up a github webhook on our kubefirst/kubefirst repo that makes a call to a simple web service we wrote that sends the event details to one of our internal slack channels via slack webhook. Our hard working team loves getting the ping of appreciation, and we also secretly enjoy celebrating fun GitHub usernames.

When you get a good flurry of star activity, it's important to know where the activity is coming from. As a project owner, if you go to your GitHub project's Insights -> Traffic section of your repository, you can see where your visitors are coming from in the Referring sites section and correlate that with any recent posts or videos that you may have published. This can help guide your understanding of what's working well for your social campaigns and what isn't. You may also discover spikes is coming from twitter or some third party publication which can help you to find and engage with the influencer who is talking about your project while the topic is hot.

Show Some Love to Open Source Projects

Until I had an open source project of my own, I didn't realize the full power of the GitHub star. Our product is free to use, requires no sign up, and there's no credit card swiper to be found. One of our very few ways of knowing that we're reaching people who care that we exist is by measuring our stars.

When you find an open source project trying to capture your attention, if they're ever able to do so, let them know about it by clicking that star on their GitHub project, even if it's just for an article about stars like the one you're reading here.

Give kubefirst/kubefirst a ⭐ today!