Saturday, June 26, 2010

Meritocracy, Fate Or Anarchy

Many folks on a higher pay grade than mine tout that open source thrives as a Meritocracy. In this model, folks who are interested enough create a project and release the source under GPL/Whatever and if the project is "good" or "gooder" than other ones it has more merit and will advance to become more widely used etc. One interesting counter point to this made by Alain de Botton in his TED talk where if this rise due to merit, then things also sink due to it. Alain is not talking open source, but if we switch to that context, then if your project is not becoming successful, or you are struggling, then the Meritocracy eye balls would see that since you created the project, by implication you are scum.

During such talks of open source, I have to remove myself from the direct discussion. My hubris is not quite up to the task to extrapolate my situation, be it good or bad, to the larger context.

However, I have seen other people who have single handedly created fairly complex projects over many years only to have large corporate sponsorship arrive for other offshoot or fairly recently created projects. In this case I often wonder that it really doesn't seem that merit has much input into the funding decision. Of course, some will say that to talk about open source and funding is crass, if you like to do it then you will regardless of the open fingered gloves and dynamo powered netbook. But seriously, if a project gets 5-10 full time paid developers, are you confident you can "compete" with that, for 6 months, 3 years, 10 years? Or is it the case that more or less your project has been swept under the bridge by a corporate funding decision you were not even aware was happening?

Another good example of this is the Linux distributions who want a project for "Y" and decide to create a solution themselves rather than trying to adopt something that a committed developer has been working on for years. In some cases the "owning" the code can be more important than reuse, and most often the code is released under and open source license. But this be a fairly vicious demotivator for folks who were writing the existing "Y" solutions.

The specific examples of these sorts of things that I've seen over the years have led me to wonder what sort of model open source really follows. It does seem that Fate or Anarchy are most close to the process at times. Fate particularly coming into play when a developer is at a conference and happens to bump into the guy who works at a company who might be funding a project in a similar area soon. This angle has implications for open source conferences and CFPs in general. If you are not living in Europe or the USA then you will have a lesser exposure to conferences in those spheres and to some degree your project will have less chance of success, no matter what the code does or how well. While many conferences have a travel budget, where you are living will be a factor in whether your project Y or somebody else doing Y2 will get to talk.

Unfortunately these thoughts do not really have a strong conclusion. I thought I'd throw it out there a long with a few TED links to try to brighten up some a few folks who might have read about open source as a meritocracy and started to feel gloomy. Another interesting and related TED is by Dan Pink.
And all ya'll might like the metated which lets you grab talks from a single link source. Its really just an XML file with direct links and metadata, so if your downloader doesn't like it, emacs and wget are your friend.


Chani said...

you keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means. :)
s/Fate/Chance/, and more importantly, s/Anarchy/Chaos/.

it's true though, there's a lot of luck and chance involved in such things.

also, here's a conclusion for you: the e.V travel sponsorship is shown to be an important thing again. :) that money lets people travel who couldn't otherwise afford it, and gives them a better chance of having such lucky meetings (even if they only end up meeting them at a different conference they got to from the air miles off the sponsored flights and the hospitality of other kde devs ;)

oh, and another point: since it's not a meritocracy, sometimes other projects can get more use simply by being louder, and more willing to boast about how awesome they are. KDE doesn't much like boasting, but we really ought to stand up for ourselves more, not let FUD spread unchallenged, and remind everyone that *our* software is pretty darn awesome :)

jospoortvliet said...

Valid arguments. On the level of 'what technology to choose', it's often fate & anarchy which make the choices. Part of it is also how good the developer is with his/her communication and to what extend the choosing party cares about the right technology. eg some communities care deeply about that 'perfect choice', others go with whatever seems nice at first.

The meritocratic part of foss developments happens mostly within the development teams I'd say.

monkeyiq said...

@Chani: well, assuming "that word" == meritocracy there are those who use it slightly differently to the exact wordnet definition.

The point about being louder is a good one. A flipside about this is that I've seen some projects starting FUD just to trick "the competition" into a blog post to react, and this tends to make the FUD spreader get higher page rank and more folks knowing about them to boot.

monkeyiq said...

Oh yeah, sorry about the moderating thing guys. I have been getting some kanji comment spam by "registered" google users, so unfortunately there is now a delay to real human comments too.

If only blogger had a "yeah, KDE guys can all post right away" check box.

Madman said...

KHTML --> Webkit, anyone?