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Do Open Source Communities Have a Social Responsibility?


This post continues my holiday detour into things not necessarily tech related. Forgive me this indulgence – there is at least one more post I’ll make in a similar vein.

Open Source communities are different. At least, I’ve always felt that they are. Think of the term “community manager.” If you’re a community manager in an open source community your responsibilities include, but are not limited to: product management, project management, enabling your employer’s competition, enabling people’s success without their paying you, marketing strategy and vision, product strategy and vision, people management (aka cat-herding), event management, and even, sometimes, basic IT administration and web development. If you ask a community manager in some other industry, they do anywhere from half of those things to, at most, 3/4. But even the most capable  community manager in a non-open source field will not do at least two of the things mentioned, enabling your competitors and enabling “freeloaders”. (Before anyone says anything – no, enabling non-paying contributors to upload free content that the your employer uses to rake in ad revenue doesn’t count for the latter. That’s called tricking people into contributing free labor to a product you sell.)

So it would seem that Open Source community management is a different beast, a much more comprehensive set of duties and, dare I say it, a proving ground for executive leadership. There are other differences, too, that make the scope of open source communities different and more expansive. Beginning with the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, the roots of open source are enmeshed with social responsibility, but do modern open source communities continue to carry the flame of social responsibility?

One of the things that attracted me to open source communities in the beginning was the sense that by participating in them, I was making the world a better place. And by that, I don’t mean in the Steve Jobs sense, where “making the world a better place” means “anything that fattens my wallet and strips people of their information rights.” I mean actually creating something that adds value to others without expecting any form of monetary remuneration. Others have called this a “gift economy” but I’m not sure that’s exactly correct. I mean, I’ve always been paid for my open source work, which is different from other social advocates who literally make nothing for their efforts. Regardless, there’s a sense that I’m enabling a better world while also drawing a nice paycheck, which certainly beats making the world crappier while drawing an even bigger paycheck.

Anyway, throughout my open source community career, I’ve seen all sorts of social causes at work: bridging the digital divide, defining information rights and, more recently, gender and ethnic equality in technology. Because of our social activism roots the question becomes, how much responsibility do we have as open source advocates to carry the torch for related causes? Take the Ada Initiative, for example. Does it not behoove us to do our part for gender equality in high tech? How many open source conferences have you been to that were >90% male? Does saying that “well, the code is open, so anyone can participate” really cut it? If we’re really going to address the problem of the digital divide, does it not make sense to more aggressively recruit women and under-represented minorities into the fold?

If we really want to rid the world or proprietary software, I don’t see how we can do that without adding in people who currently do not actively participate in open source communities. There’s also been a disturbing trend whereby the more commercial communities have begun to separate themselves from the communities with more social activism roots, dividing the hippies from the money-makers. As I noted in my previous post, the hippies were right the whole time about the four freedoms, so perhaps we should listem to them more closely on these other issues? Think about it – if we more aggressively recruit from under-represented portions of society, would that not add a much-needed influx of talent and ambition? Would that not, then, make our communities that much more dynamic and productive? I’ve always held that economics has a long-term liberal bias, and I think this is an opportunity to put that maxim to the test.

This holiday season, let’s think about the social responsibility of open source communities and its participants. Let’s think about ways we can bring the under-represented into the fold.


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