Ethan Zuckerman has a piece in Wired that says building decentralization tools is a sucker’s bet. He and his coauthors, Chelsea Barabas and Neha Narula, mention the FreedomBox, which I helped lead, as an example of how difficult this stuff is. They point to a list of things that make decentralized efforts prone to failure and conclude:
Our research—a combination of technical and historical analysis, and dozens of interviews with open web advocates—indicates that there is no straightforward technical solution to the problem of platform monopolies. Moreover, it’s not clear we can solve the nuanced issues of centralization by pushing for “re-decentralization” of publishing online. The reality is that most people do not want to run their own web servers or social network nodes. They want to engage with the web through friendlier platforms, and these platforms will be constrained by the same forces that drive consolidation today.
They point to a “better strategy” of policies aimed at “data portability, interoperability, and alternatives to advertising-based funding models”.
I’m no longer with FreedomBox, and none of what they write is wrong (I was one of the open web advocates they interviewed), but I wanted to chime in because there’s more to decentralization than seeking a “straightforward technical solution” and building a better social networking app. It’s true that we haven’t realized the grand vision of Diaspora and FreedomBox. They’re right that we need enlightened policy. We need the centralized platform monopolies to behave better. Those steps, though, won’t ever give people control over the means of communication. Without that control, we’ll always be at the mercy of Facebook or whatever comes next. Continue reading “Decentralization: Worth The Wait”
GitHub hosted the “Wontfix Cabal” last week in San Francisco, and I was lucky enough to attend, thanks to a pointer from a friend. The organizers, led by Jess Frazelle, conceived the gathering as a chance for people maintaining open source projects to discuss their particular difficulties and some strategies for addressing them. About 100 maintainers took them up on it and convened in San Francisco. At the beginning of the day, we compiled dozens of sticky notes worth of problems that come up in our various projects. These ranged from tips for maintainers who had received the classic question “Is this project still maintained?” to “Ethics and Exploitation in Open Source.” In a common unconference pattern, attendees voted on those topics. The most popular topics were chosen to become discussion groups, and we split up for a morning session and an afternoon session. Continue reading “Attending the Wontfix Cabal”
Note: This is a draft of a Code of Conduct meant to help a specific open source project give guidance to its commercial participants. The project is already in production use, and is successful enough that some commercial entities have become involved, offering support, hosting services, customization, etc. However, those companies need some guidelines about how to conduct themselves, in relation to the project as a whole and in relation to each other.
The first half of the draft is aimed at commercial entities. The second half of the draft contains guidelines for the open source project itself — healthy commercial participation being a two-way street.
Once the text is finalized, we plan is to post this in generic form, as a template that other projects can use, while delivering a customized version to that project.
In the meantime, comments welcome! You can simply leave regular blog comments, but we’ve also enabled the open source Hypothes.is WordPress annotation plugin to allow sidebar annotations of selected text. To use it, just mouse-select any passage of text, as though you were going to copy it to the clipboard, and then wait for the Hypothes.is annotation action buttons to pop up right under your selected text. There should be two of them: “Annotate” and “Highlight”. Choose “Annotate”, and then, at the top of the right-hand sidebar that should now open up, create a free account at Hypothes.is, or sign in if you already have an account. (We need the authentication step to help prevent spam annotations.) Once you are signed in, you can leave a sidebar comment associated with a specific passage of text — the user interface should be pretty clear from this point on. Please note that your comments will be publicly visible by default; you can also make an annnotation that’s private to yourself, but then we wouldn’t be able to see it either of course.
When you hire a development shop to build an open source product, you want to make sure the result is truly open source. You want to guarantee that:
The end product is independently deployable by others.
There are clear instructions for how to get involved.
Commercial third parties are welcome (because that’s usually where new development energy comes from).
There are no unexpected proprietary dependencies.
The developers respond constructively to bug reports.
There are procedures in place (as there should be for any software) for receiving sensitive security vulnerability reports.
The project is poised to become a multi-participant and even multi-vendor community.
However, often first forays into open source do not meet these goals — not because of bad intentions, but because vendors who are new to open source need some help.
Open Source IV&V provides vendors that help. An independent vendor specializing in open source works alongside the development vendor, playing the role of open source community from the start of the project. The IV&V vendor works with the development vendor out in the open, just as third-party participants would. By the time the first production release is ready, the development vendor knows how to navigate an open source project, technically and culturally.
When I tell people that I work at an open source consulting company, I often get puzzled glances (or those agreeable nods that mean “I have no idea what you’re talking about”). What does “open source consulting company” mean? What does OTS do, exactly? Continue reading “What OTS Does.”