Musing about opensource: The threat is stronger than the move

What do you do when you’re told to take it very easy, when you’re told to make “slow” a polysyllabic word? If you’re me, and you also have a deep-seated protestant work ethic in you, you struggle. Big time.

Well, that’s what I did for a little while last month, struggling to get past the denial stage. I really didn’t know how to do nothing. Then, come the new year, I had a Road To Damascus experience and then I settled down into an easy rhythm of eat-read-sleep-potter-about-aimlessly, interspersed with the real joy of spending time with my wife and kids. While on the subject of convalescence, my thanks to all who sent me get-well-soon messages. As you can see the messages are working…

Now to the point of this post.

As part of the pottering-about-reading-aimlessly time, I came across this post by James McGovern, whose blog I get to reasonably often.

Read the post, it’s worth it. James commented on a perception held by some developers that many opensource communities aren’t particularly welcoming, and that developers are put off joining as a result.
And it made me wonder.

I’ve always believed in a community participation rule of thumb, something I’ve written about before here and here. The numbers tell the story:

  • For every 1000 people who join a community:
  • 920 are lurkers, passive observers
  • 60 are watchers, active observers capable and willing to kibitz
  • 15 are activists, actually doing something
  • …and 5 are hyperactive, passionate about what they’re doing, almost to a point of obsession

And this is what I was musing about.

Does it really matter, the number of people who actively contribute to an opensource project? Is there something about the way opensource communities work, something that will always ensure that a very small number are the hyperactive core?

The more I think about it, the more I believe that there’s something important here. Linus’s Law is about eyeballs, not hands, and it’s for a reason:

  • At the heart of every successful opensource community is a small cottage industry. And it is this cottage-industry mindset that makes the community different from other “commercial” ones.
  • The core doesn’t have to scale. The core needs to behave in such a way that Linus’s eyeballs are attracted, and this is done by upholding the right values.
  • Jerry Garcia and gang only needed to make sure that Grateful Dead concerts had “taping rows”; the number of people who sat in them was not relevant (although they were full). In a weird kind of way, the core is the band. The tapers are the activists. The kibitzers are the roadies and volunteers.
  • Together with the audience, they formed a whole and vibrant community.
  • Not everyone needs to be on stage for the community to work. In fact there isn’t space.

It is the freedom of access, represented by the taping rows, that really matters. That’s what makes opensource opensource.

Or, to take a chess analogy:

The threat is stronger than the move.

9 thoughts on “Musing about opensource: The threat is stronger than the move”

  1. I have to say JP that the lot over at Drupal are among the most UNfriendly on the planet. Most answers are a variation of:
    You’re stupid
    You don’t get it
    Read the manual (which doesn’t exist)
    See this (equally incomprehensible) link

    Sorry – open source is fine but we’re moving to a point where the geeks are not in control and if this is the way the community responds then it should be hardly surprising when people get hot under the collar.

    Much as I like Drupal as a system, it does take some understanding, the learning curve is near vertical and the community is a turn off. Hence I don’t touch it these days.

  2. Dennis, I don’t know the people at Drupal. When you say “the community is a turn off” that implies to me there is no community. Which is a different problem.

    A healthy community is characterised by people willing to help each other.

  3. Ofcourse the number of people contributing is important as it creates a certain degree of dymamism, but also important is the number of ‘watchers’ as you call them. Isnt that exactly what open source is all about? If there arent enough people to scan the written code how will different bugs and inefficiencies get detected?

  4. The core needs the audience – take away the audience and the core will stop performing. Even the Grateful Dead would have stopped touring if nobody showed up to see them. I find also from my own experience, that an individual may play all of the roles, but in different communities.

  5. As in the physical world, different on-line communities have different values and behaviors. Experience at our Corporation of the Open Source community has been quiet good. As an organisation we have contributed to a number of Open Source inititives including Tarrobane, Apache AXIS, Kandula, and Apache Sandesha. We have been welcomed by these communities and continue to be a significant contributor to Open Source.

    I think that the observations regarding core contributors are bang on. I don’t think that actively inviting contributions on a large scale would be healthy or manageable. If you have to work hard to become a contributor then the community will have a degree of confidence in your enthusiasm and commitment.

    Those Open Source communities that actively discourage participation, I would imagine are not really communities and I would question how open their source is. In these instances you can take the code and modify, but cannot easily share with and collaborate with the wider community; that doesn’t sound very open!

  6. But why is the threat bigger that the move? Clearly, almost logically, you can not have just leaders, somebody oughta follow.

    So, if the future – a word that really gives me the creeps – was not for profit, what would it be about? Commercial operations might these days be spelled evil, but what is it that we are not addressing in addressing what is behind the open source idea?

Let me know what you think

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