Governance of Peer Production is Meritocratic, not Egalitarian

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Felix Stadler on the Meritocratic Leadership of Open Source projects

Felix Stadler:

"The openness in open source is often misunderstood as egalitarian collaboration. However, FOSS is primarily open in the sense that anyone can appropriate the results, and do with them whatever he or she wants (within the legal/normative framework set out by the license). This is what the commons, a shared resource, is about. Free appropriation. Not everyone can contribute. Everyone is free, indeed, to propose a contribution, but the people who run the project are equally free to reject the contribution outright. Open source projects, in their actual organization, are not egalitarian and not everyone is welcome. The core task of managing a commons is to ensure not just the production of resources, but also to prevent its degradation from the addition of low quality material.

Organizationally the key aspects of FOSS projects are that participation is voluntary and – what is often forgotten – that they are tightly structured. Intuitively, this might seem like a contradiction, but in practice it is not. Participation is voluntary in a double sense. On the one hand, people decide for themselves if they want to contribute. Tasks are never assigned, but people volunteer to take responsibility. On the other hand, if contributors are not happy with the project’s development, they can take all the project’s resources (mainly, the source code) and reorganize it differently. Nevertheless, all projects have a leader, or a small group of leaders, who determine the overall direction of the projects and which contributions from the community are included in the next version, and which are rejected. However, because of the doubly voluntary nature, the project leaders need to be very responsive to the community, otherwise the community can easily get rid of them (which is called ‘forking the project’). The leader has no other claim for his (and it seems to be always a man) position than to be of service to the community. Open Source theorist Eric S. Raymond has called this a Benevolent Dictatorship. More accurately, it is called the result of a Voluntary Hierarchy in which authority flows from responsibility (rather than from the power to coerce).

Thus, the FOSS world is not a democracy, where everyone has a vote, but a meritocracy, where the proven experts – those who know better than others what they are doing and do it reliably and responsibly – run the show. The hierarchical nature of the organization directly mirrors this meritocracy. The very good programmers end up on top, the untalented ones either drop out voluntarily, or, if they get too distracting, are kicked out. Most often, this is not an acrimonious process, because in coding, it’s relatively easy to recognize expertise, for the reasons mentioned earlier. No fancy degrees are necessary. You can literally be a teenager in a small town in Norway and be recognized as a very talented programmer.[13] Often it’s a good strategy to let other people solve problems more quickly than one could oneself, since usually their definition of the problem and the solution is very similar to one’s own. Thus, accepting the hierarchical nature of such projects is easy. It is usually very transparent and explicit. The project leader is not just a recognized crack, but also has to lead the project in a way that keeps everyone reasonably happy. The hierarchy, voluntary as it may be, creates numerous mechanisms of organizational closure, which allows a project to remain focused and limits the noise/signal ratio of communication to a productive level.

Without an easy way to recognize expertise, it is very hard to build such voluntary hierarchies based on a transparent meritocracy, or other filters that increase focus and manage the balance between welcoming people who can really contribute and keeping out those who do not." (