In association with heise online

09 August 2012, 16:40

Can open source be democratic?

by Glyn Moody

Open source has created a new way of mobilising communities but it has also allowed a democratic deficit to open up between developers and users. Glyn Moody offers his take on this gap and how it is being slowly closed.

One of the most important messages in the history of free software – and computing – was posted 21 years ago, on 25 August 1991:

Hello everybody out there using minix -

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

What made that short paragraph so revolutionary was the phrase: "I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix." Not because similar questions hadn't been asked before in the world of software, but because the person who posted the message – Linus Torvalds – acted upon the answers with unprecedented thoroughness.

In doing so, he more or less invented a new way of writing code, turning it into a distributed, bottom-up system, rather than the traditional top-down one. That is, he took the earlier breakthrough idea of Richard Stallman – to make all the code freely available, and hence visible – and created a new way of exploiting its possibilities.

Free software, then, became uniquely open not just in its programming, but in its organisation. Feedback was not just welcome, it was vital: it ensured that the code met actual needs, which powered its deployment and hence further comments.

In the early days of Linux, its developer base was very close to its users – in part because you needed to be something of a hacker to get the first iterations working at all. But as Linux matured, and its user base broadened, the coders became more distant from those who just wanted a system that worked. Although free software remains uniquely open in terms of accepting comments and code from anyone if they are good enough, it is no longer true that ordinary users are routinely part of that process.

This has led to a widening democracy deficit in open source, with users increasingly isolated from the people writing the code. That's particularly unfortunate today, at a time when ordinary internet users are beginning to assert themselves as a force, notably in slamming the brakes on both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in the EU. Moreover, on the free software front, things have actually got worse in recent years.

For example, some people may remember the amazing site, set up in 2004, where thousands of Firefox users banded together to promote the use of their favourite browser. Week after week there were cool campaigns and clever ideas for turning ordinary users into ambassadors for Firefox and free software. And yet today, that address redirects to a boring page about becoming a "Firefox Affiliate", hardly something that sets the pulse racing.

Here's the post from 2011 announcing the demise of Spreadfirefox:

While the model we put in place in 2004 was truly innovative – essentially, a social network and breeding ground for grassroots marketing – it’s now ailing. There are several technical challenges around the site and we’ve seen participation decrease dramatically over the years.

For instance, we’ve seen the advent and huge success of Facebook and other social media channels. Privacy issues aside, Facebook has become a powerful platform for advocacy and communication. Over four million people “like” Mozilla Firefox on Facebook and countless community pages have popped up to share news and communicate with regional fans. Overall, Firefox advocacy has grown, but become decentralized.

Four million people "liking" Mozilla Firefox on Facebook is a classic example of "slacktivism" – an easy, feel-good but meaningless gesture that counts for little. Facebook "likes" are about as far as you could imagine from the dynamic, live-wire enthusiasm that Spreadfirefox engendered. Crucially, Spreadfirefox helped users make things happen – unlike the activity black hole that is Facebook.

Next: Beyond the black hole

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