Keep Your Friends Close

Picture of Mount Rushmore, by Dean Frankling, CC-By-SA
Mount Rushmore

(This is the sixth post in our Open Source At Large series.)

One of the insider secrets of free and open source software (FOSS) is that most of the rules a project uses on a day-to-day basis are not found in the software’s license. There are contribution guidelines, which are enforced by the project only taking contributions that meet them. There are codes of conduct, which are a condition of community participation. There are endorsements, official membership, a voice in setting the project roadmap, and all kinds of other benefits that attach to varying types of community participation. In each case, entirely external to the license, there are official rules and unwritten norms that govern how participants gain the benefits of joining the civic life of a project.

If you were to make an ecosystem map of an open source project, you might place the project in the middle of the page and then depict scale of involvement as distance from that center. The closer to the center a participant sits, the more influence the project has on them; the further from the center, the less sway the project has.

At the center is the project itself: its core developers and the people who have made commitments that affect the project’s outputs and actions. A project has a lot of visibility into how these participants act because tight, highly-connected cooperation is beneficial for everyone, and so participants are motivated to act in ways that avoid damaging that cooperation. This mechanism is so natural that most projects do not often think of it as something they could expand intentionally. But sometimes projects do exactly that: they figure out ways to deliberately widen their sphere of influence.

For example, Joomla, maintains a directory of third party extensions. It is the way most users discover Joomla extensions. For many businesses based on providing Joomla extensions, absence from that directory is akin to not existing at all. When the Joomla project decided to tighten license compliance among its extension developer community, they didn’t ask their lawyer to run around issuing threats. They simply explained that any project that wanted to appear in that directory must abide by community rules, Extension developers came into line.

A similar example can be seen in the Guidelines for Commercial Entities at the Arches Project. A glance over the guidelines will show the kinds of real-world problems they were developed to address. Only those who agree to the guidelines are listed in the official directory of Arches service providers.

Of course, being in some kind of project-endorsed directory is just one type of gateway. Another is participation in the project at all, that is, the ability to take part in project discussions, to vote (when there are decisions made by vote), and to have one’s contributions evaluated and accepted by the project with full attribution. Getting contributions accepted into the core project on a regular basis is important for those whose businesses depend on the project. If they can’t get their bugfixes and new features accepted upstream, then they may be forced to maintain their own divergent version (the term of art is “vendor branch”) indefinitely — a situation whose technical and organizational costs only get worse over time.

The right techniques will differ from project to project, because they must be based on the particular project’s history (as in the examples above). But the general reason these techniques work is that the non-code parts of a project are valuable in their own right. Those parts are not covered by the code’s license, but rather by the project’s norms and rules. Crucially, these parts cannot be replicated: unlike the code, you can’t make a copy of a community, or of a developer’s attention, or of an endorsement’s value. Equally crucially, none of them can be demanded by bad actors. The benefits of participation flow naturally to community members in good standing and it is equally natural to deny them to people and firms that refuse to align themselves with the community ethos. Creating structures that allow projects to control access to community benefits is a powerful way to enforce norms.

Using community participation as the mechanism for promulgating norms has its limits. Some participants stay far enough from the center of the project that they are effectively immune to community inducements. (Fortunately, projects have other mechanisms available to influence them, and we will cover some of those in a future post.) But in most cases, organizations that have a core reliance on the code will find multiple reasons to stay in good standing with the community, and this means the project has a chance to influence how those organizations behave. Spotting these leverage points takes experience as well as an understanding of project goals and positioning. Projects that want to wield influence over their ecosystem — whether for strategic or ethical ends — should actively look for ways to provide value backed by network effects, until the case for participation is overwhelming.

Thanks to Microsoft for sponsoring the Open Source At Large blog series.