Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2003 Dec 09 | Socialization in Open Technical Communities

A draft of my paper on how newcomers are socialized into open technical communities is now available. Before I could consider the "socialization features" I had to first define an open community, which delivers or demonstrates:

  1. Open products: provides products which are available under licenses like those that satisfy the Open Source Definition.
  2. Transparency: makes its processes, rules, determinations, and their rationales available.
  3. Integrity: ensures the integrity of the processes and the participants' contributions.
  4. Non-discrimination: prohibits arbitrary discrimination against persons, groups, or characteristics not relevant to the community's scope of activity. Persons and proposals should be judged on their merits. Leadership should be based on meritocratic or representative processes.
  5. Non-interference: the linchpin of openness, if a constituency disagrees with the implementation of the previous three criteria, they can take the products and commence to work on them under their own conceptualization without interference. While "forking" is often complained about in open communities ? it can create some redundancy/inefficiency ? I have and continue to argue it is the essential character and major benefit of open communities as well.

That last principle of non-interference is critical to me and is completely at odds with the common sentiment expressed in a Slashdot article posted today: "Forking" Greatest Danger of Adopting Open Source? In March, I compared this sort of hand-wringing to complaining about too many cooks in a potluck feast:

. . . To ask if too many cooks would spoil the stone soup is to ignore the very nature of the soup. Our software benefits from the cacophony of free ideas. It does seem wasteful when development efforts are doubly spent. And they may very well be. But to expect a marketing driven "command and control" focus is to forget how the software you now use was developed. If you use free software (e.g., Linux, GNU, Apache, Mozilla, etc.) it's very likely the result of a competitive development or fork — wherein a project splits and developers form a new project with their own variant. Folks are presently concerned about Keith Packard's xwin fork of XFree86, but XFree86 itself was a fork. People complain about the competing desktops KDE and Gnome, but perhaps both are stronger for the competition, and they themselves were once new and competed with other windowing systems: should they have been suppressed back then?. . . . Splits over ego and misunderstanding are unfortunate and should be avoided, but they are also a reflection of our fortune. Too much salt can spoil the soup, but it also gives it its flavor.

In any case, I hope to do more work on this issue next semester, but since this was a sociological paper I considered a number of features that might affect socialization in open communities. For example, the "scratch your itch" and 'fix it yourself" maxims might be opposite sides of the same coin. I conclude with the following findings:

In this paper I've attempted to synthesize existing literature and community practice so as to derive a number of questions for future research. In looking at the socialization features of motivation, structure, joining, learning, goal setting, identity, and roles and attribution I've posited a few novel characteristics of these communities that have interesting implications for socialization. In summary:

  1. Many open technical communities are characterized by significant growth, in addition to the high-turnover typical to voluntary organizations. Seemingly, there are always "newbies."
  2. While considered aberrant by some, the action of "forking" is critical to the very conception and life of open communities.
  3. Unlike other voluntary organizations such as the Peak rescue group, and aside from a handful of celebrities, much of the status derived from participation is orientated within the community itself.


Jennifer Louis's paper on Socialization to Heroism: Individualism and Collectivism in a Voluntary Rescue Group was a great foil to my considerations on open technical communities.

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle