Contribution Beyond Source Code in FLOSS Communities

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* Essay: Talk is silver, code is gold? Contribution beyond source code in Free/Libre Open Source Software communities. By David Rozas and Nigel Gilbert.

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Abstract

"This study explored the notion of contribution activities in Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) communities. While contribution activities focussed on the collaborative creation of different types of digital commons (e.g. source code, documentation, etc.) have been widely explored, other types of contribution whose focus of action is directed towards the community have remained less visible. This research offers empirical evidence of the perception of “community-oriented” activities as contributions, its lack of visibility in the digital platforms of collaboration, and its relevance for the sustainability of the community. Additionally, the paper connects this issue to the larger literature on the commons, by drawing on the concept of affective labour. This research was carried out by exploring a “code-centric” FLOSS community (Drupal) as a case study, triangulating data from participant observation, documentary analysis and qualitative semi-structured interviews obtained following an ethnographic approach."


Excerpts

On Contributions

By David Rozas and Nigel Gilbert:

"The notion of contribution is a key element of CBPP communities. As argued by Wittel (2013), those CBPP communities focussed on the production of digital commons typically possess an economy of contribution (not based on direct reciprocity), rather than an economy of gift (based on direct reciprocity). In these cases, the notion of what kind of activities are understood as contributions becomes even more blurred, and can be understood as a set of meanings which are constantly evolving as part of a series of negotiation processes of the members who participate in these communities.

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The aim of this study is to explore a need to widen understanding of contribution activities in FLOSS communities. This study draws on Hardt’s (1999) concept of affective labour, defined as the immaterial labour present in human interaction which creates or modifies emotional experiences. This includes intangible assets, such as excitement, kinship, passion, familiarity, reciprocity, or sense of community, all of which have been identified as contribution motivators in FLOSS communities (e.g., Zeitlyn, 2003; Freeman, 2007; Fang & Neufeld, 2009).

The relevance of affective labour to CBPP communities is of increasing interest to CBPP scholars. In a recent online article, Bollier (2014) cited the study of Singh (2013) to focus on the importance of affective labour in CBPP communities, labelling it as its “lifeblood”. Singh (2013) provides a compelling case study of these dynamics in the non-digital domain, by looking at the daily practices of a community-based initiative to protect and regenerate a forest in Odisha (India). Drawing on the concept of affective labour, Singh (2013) details how these practices transform not only the object (the forest, in this case), but also the individual and collective subjectivities of the villagers. This study explored the existence of a similar set of dynamics happening in FLOSS communities, as well as the relevance that they have in them. Concretely, the Drupal community was selected as a case study. Drupal is a FLOSS content management framework released in 2001. The Drupal community has been growing constantly: there are currently more than 1 million people registered at the main platform of collaboration (Drupal.org), and more than 30,000 committers of source code (Drupal.org, 2013). The community is also highly active offline, with events of different scope (local, regional/national and international) being held every week all around the World (e.g. 2754 in 2013 (Drupal.org, 2014b)). The study of which activities are considered contributions by its members becomes especially relevant in an extreme case such as Drupal, which has been previously characterised as a “code-centric” community (Zilouchian Moghaddam, Twidale & Bongen, 2011; Sims, 2013). This “code-centric” facet of the community was corroborated as part of this research as well, and it is illustrated by the well-known Drupal motto: “Talk is silver, code is gold”. This motto embodies the traditional belief in FLOSS communities that the most valuable type of contribution which a participant can provide is source code.


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Two main types of contribution activities emerge from the case study. The first category is “object-oriented” contributions, encompassing all those activities whose focus of action is objects. These objects are different types of digital commons, for example the source code, the documentation, etc. The second category is “community-oriented” contributions, referring to those in which the focus of action is directed towards the community. Examples of this type of contributions are the organisation and participation in F2F events, activities related to support other users, mentoring, etc. The relevance of these activities is illustrated via the strong sense of community shown by Drupalistas. They describe Drupal as a community, beyond the idea of a piece of software."


Discussion

"Previous research on FLOSS communities have shed light on the relevance that F2F events play in these communities. For instance, in her ethnographic study of hacker culture looking at the FLOSS Debian community as a case study, Coleman described the relationship between the conference and the public as having “affective, moral, economic, and political dimensions” (Coleman, 2013, p. 73). Regarding the affective dimension, similar outcomes to those found in this study are presented. She described their role as being to foster collaboration, creating the basis for social solidarity and for the establishment and sustainability of relationships, and producing different emotional experiences depending on the level of experience: “[...] people embark on decisions and actions they probably would not have considered otherwise. Some hackers decide to formally apply to become a Debian developer, while longtime developers decide not to quit the project” (Coleman, 2013, p. 71). This study yields additional evidence of this, and extends this idea by providing empirical evidence of these activities being understood as relevant contributions.

A similar result was found in the mixed-methods study of the Drupal community of Nordin (2014), which was almost parallel to the one presented in this paper in timing terms. The study of Nordin focussed on the motivations to contribute, in pursuance of providing a set of guidelines to improve the main platform of collaboration. In order to do so, she also tackled the question of improving our understanding of contribution, concluding that “metrics such as code commits used to gauge contribution by Open Source literature and by Drupal.org itself paint an incomplete picture of the types of contributions that actually happen in the Drupal project” (Nordin, 2014, p. 43).

This study offers additional empirical evidence of this finding, by providing a detailed account of the lack of visibility of these activities in the user profiles, and in the main sections related to contribution in the main platform of collaboration. Additionally, this study put strong emphasis on the participant observation in local events, which was one of the limitations stated by Nordin (2014, p. 96) in her study. Hence, the findings presented in this study provide further evidence of the role which less visible contributions, such as the organisation and participation in F2F local events, play in transforming their emotional experiences, as well as to scale up the sense of community.

Furthermore, by drawing on the concept of “affective labour”, this study connects the findings with the larger literature on the commons. The participation in the Drupal community “transforms the local subjectivities” of the Drupalistas, in a way reminiscent of Singh (2013), in her research on community-based forests in India. By looking at an extreme “code-centric” case study, this research provides additional empirical evidence of the relevance that affective labour plays in CBPP communities, which was argued by Bollier (2014) as its “lifeblood”. Hence, illustrating the existence of similar CBPP dynamics in communities focussed on the production in both, the digital and the nondigital domain.

With regard to their lack of representation, it cannot only be understood due to sociocultural reasons. For example, the “code-centric” character of the community offers only a partial explanation. A major impact of the technical limitations exists as well: while some of the activities are easily quantifiable (e.g. the number of commits of source code, or the number of editions of wiki pages), others are more difficult to be quantified or to be represented in concise and useful ways. On the other hand, when certain indicators are available, that information is sometimes not available within the main platform of collaboration. For example, external platforms such as Meetup.com, employed for the organisation of local events, provide an account of the number of events attended and organised by certain user. Nevertheless, this information is stored in proprietary thirdparty platforms and out of the scope of the main platform of collaboration.

However, the main limitation resides in the difficulty of providing indicators which allow new ways of measuring the value of certain types of contributions in CBPP communities. The Drupal community itself is progressing through the idea of improving the acknowledgement of the value of these types of activities. For example, there is an ongoing initiative to improve how these activities are represented in the user profiles at Drupal.org, to “[...] go beyond code creation activity and into more community-oriented stuff, since that’s also a huge part of what makes Drupal healthy.” (Drupal.org, 2014a), and some of the elements (such as the P2P mentorship references illustrated in figure 6) indicate the will to follow that direction.

This issue should be understood within the wider context of CBPP, and the need to enhance and expand the conceptualisation and measurement of value in these communities, as well as its incorporation in the socio-technical systems employed to support their organisation. However, it becomes especially relevant in large and global communities as they scale up, as in the presented case. Due to their own growth and their global character, the generation of perceptions between unknown members becomes more frequent in these communities, and the role that the platforms employed to support their self-organisation becomes more relevant.

Nevertheless, it was out of the scope of this study to shed light on the conceptualisation and measure of value in CBPP communities in a more generic way. Research projects such as P2Pvalue13 and initiatives such as Sabir (De Filippi & Hassan, 2014) are currently exploring these new dimensions of value generated in CBPP communities, and how to aggregate and distribute them within and beyond the CBPP community network."


Conclusion

"By focussing on an extreme “code-centric” case study, the findings presented in this research expose the need to broad our understanding of contribution activities in FLOSS communities beyond the most easily quantifiable and “object-oriented” ones. The ethnographic approach taken allowed to elicit how certain activities, whose focus of action is directed towards the community, are indeed understood as contributions. Empirical evidence of the relevant role that some of these activities play to foster collaboration is offered, as well as on how its effects on the creation or modification of emotional experiences vary depending on the degree of experience of their participants.

This research also shows how, despite its relevance, most of these contribution activities are unevenly represented in the main platform of collaboration with respect to the “objectoriented” ones. This unevenly representation was found at an “official” level (e.g. the main sections of the platform dedicated to the contribution), as well as at an individual level, by focussing on the user profiles. This contradiction between its relevance and its lack of visibility, exposes the necessity of breaking up the “object-centric” myth illustrated in the motto “Talk is silver, code is gold”, which has been traditionally present in FLOSS communities. In addition, it is discussed how this “object-centric” character can be observed in the FLOSS literature, and how the incorporation of “community-oriented” activities framed as contributions could allow a better understanding of the dynamics of these communities.

Furthermore, these findings extend previous similar ones in the area of FLOSS to connect it to the wider area of CBPP, by drawing on the concept of affective labour. Additional empirical evidence on how, through the participation in “commoning” processes, the subjectivities of their participants are transformed, is provided. The contribution, in this case, resides on providing similar findings from an extreme “code-centric” case study in the digital domain of FLOSS, in addition to the ones found in the literature on CBPP in the non-digital one.

Finally, it is argued why these findings expose the need to keep on exploring the conceptualisation of value in CBPP communities. It is also discussed how the limitations found in terms of representation cannot only be understood due to socio-cultural reasons, exposing the need to find and incorporate new conceptualisations of value in the sociotechnical systems employed for the self-organisation of these communities."