I’ve often thought that open-source contributions are towards “social good”, but I also realize it is a fairly naïve way to look at the open-source world. I was listening to a friend’s frustration of getting people to work together. She is a social worker and now in a political party is trying to make people work together to do “social good”. Participating closely in 3 fairly large open-source communities and following a few others closely, she asked me how I saw it works in the world of open-source. That’s where I thought it might be good to post my thoughts.
Open-source in its literal definition is just putting your code out. Doesn’t mean anything more. Though we have associated a few implicit connotations with the concept. Particularly, that there is an open, bazaar-like mode of working, which can be thought of as similar to the concept of democracy. But as we can see from the political conditions in different parts of the world, democracy isn’t one single thing. It is indeed a group of people working together towards a common goal, ideally each person having an equal weight of vote. But as the world is not idealistic, the more pragmatic meritocracy is acceptable. The open-source world looks at meritocracy through a number of aspects like code contributions, advocacy, documentations etc. with the general focus being towards getting work done. Yet, most research and discussion around open-source misses out on the aspect of power, tradition and culture of the communities that political scientists and sociologists have talked about for a long time. Open-source communities like other human networks have a vision of meritocracy and sometimes evangelize this vision, but often find it hard to practice.
Some open-source communities do have a BDFL, while others generally play by the resources rule. Resources include money, people, ideas and the group that possess these are generally considered more powerful. Some companies because of their “cool” products automatically make “cool” suggestions to the community and their work is “cooler” than the average contributor’s work. Because a developer works for a “cool” company, does not necessarily mean that every developer from that company has better skills than your average contributor. Some open-source communities value context-of-use, while others value “de-contextualization”. Many researchers have highlighted that domain-specific open-source software communities are better suited by being contextual. While, this challenge of being contextual and translating the contextual knowledge to a de-contextual developer, is also well studied, it is really not well enacted in domain-specific open-source community governance. Governance relates to decisions that define expectations, grant power, or verify performance. It consists of either a separate process or part of decision-making or leadership processes. Thus, when the next time you read about OSS 2.0, realize that governance plays a vital role in the challenge of domain-specific open-source communities.
Open-source communities are typically expected to work around an open-source license, some code of conduct pages and roles of developers. These alone, as we see from functioning democracies is fairly inadequate – judiciary, legislature, and executive. Media is often considered the 4th pillar of democracy. A vehicle that allows voices to reflect on how the other 3-pillars are doing. Good governance often comes from the fact that reflective voices are heard, understood and acted upon.
Yet, power plays an important role in sustainability or growth of a community. As an independent contributor (just as a citizen in democracy), one can either look at the power play, raise voice so that others see it or get fed up and leave.