Over the last few years, Red Hat has taken the lead in investigating ways
to apply the
concepts behind free software to various other fields. That has led to
things like the book The Open
Source Way and the opensource.com web site. Karsten Wade of
Red Hat's community architecture team came to the Utah Open Source
Conference to formalize some of the ideas that underpin open source and
they can be
applied more widely. It is, he said, an effort to "decouple
open source from technology", so that other people can
"remap" those ideas onto other fields.
The underlying idea behind free and open source software is the four
freedoms embodied in GNU's free software
definition, and the idea that "none of us are free until all of
us are free", Wade said. There is very little difference between
the free software and open source camps, but there is an "artificially
constructed fight" between the two. This conflict is sustained,
largely by the press, to make it look like there is some "deep
inherent argument" between the supporters of each.
But if we remove all of the labels, both sides agree on 85-95% of the
issues, he said, and the differences are largely in what the priorities
are. The idea of "free software" has worked well for hackers, while "open
source" has been popular with businesses, as "it resonates with
them". That has led to there being a really strong brand around
the open source term, which is why Red Hat (and others) talk about "the
open source way". They are "riding on the coattails of a well-known
brand", Wade said.
Certain elements must be present in any open source endeavor.
There needs to be an infrastructure set up that fosters
participation, as well as an infrastructure to share the results of any
work. Obviously, there has to be something to share, along with
people to share it, i.e. participants. These elements are also present
in what is known as a "community of practice"—a sociological
concept that shares much with the open source way.
Looking at communities of practice can help to understand the
communities that already exist for FOSS, as well as to help shape new
communities as they arise.
A community of practice is a group of people that come together because
they share a concern or passion. There is a specific domain that the
community of practice operates in—the concern or passion of its
members—along with a "practice", which is how they address
problems in that domain. These are much like—perhaps identical
using open source techniques. In addition, communities of practice have a
principles that help separate them from other kinds of groups.
It is important that a community of practice be designed for evolution—it
is not just thinking about what is going on now,
but allowing for new ideas that will help define its future. A dialog
between those inside and outside of the community is important,
so that the group doesn't become insular. There should be different levels of
participation available, which will allow anyone who is not harming the
what they want: "if they want to fold napkins, let them".
Often these peripheral participants learn how to get things done within the
group by finding out who to talk to; it is a stepping stone.
Communities of practice also develop in both public and private spaces. It
is essential that they are governed in public, but private talks are
important as well. People need to be able to get together privately, over
drinks for example, to discuss things outside of the public sphere. These
communities also focus on value, because "people want to belong to
something that makes a difference". If these things sound familiar,
it is because FOSS projects are almost always communities of
Wade used barn-raising as an example of where some of the ideas behind open
source comes from. If
you want to get people together to build a barn, you don't just stack up
wood, cement bags, and shovels, then ask everyone to dive in. You first
need to survey the land, build the foundation, and get it ready for lots of
people to participate. "The infrastructure had to be there so that
everyone could do the common work", he said. FOSS projects are much
the same way.
Another analogy he used was that of musicians coming together on the
village green. Each musician brings their style and tunes to the common
space, and each is ready to learn from what the others bring. As the "jam"
progresses, there is a
friendly competition between the participants to try to outdo each other.
That is similar to how FOSS project participants work together.
While many believe that FOSS works on the "Tom Sawyer" model, where one
group or organization takes advantage of the work of others (much as Tom
took advantage of his friends' fence-painting work), that is not the
open source way, Wade stressed. Red Hat and others are often accused of
that, but that's "not how it goes"; the community will notice
freeloaders. Some may get away it for a while, but eventually it will be
Michael Tiemann's experience
showing his daughter how to work the resonant pendulum at San Francisco's
Exploratorium was Wade's final analogy. In order to move that pendulum, it
takes regular, small tugs on the weak magnet, but eventually the 350-pound
pendulum will be swinging four feet in either direction. In FOSS, Wade
said, "sometimes it seems like we have to wrap a rope around it and
give it a huge tug", but we don't need that, and little incremental
things (like regular releases) can make all the difference.
As the talk wound down, Wade surveyed the audience for additional examples
of communities of practice and open source techniques being used in other
fields. He also showed two videos from opensource.com that described
how two very different fields (seed banks and film-making) were recognizing
that open source ideals and techniques can be—and are
being—used in their work. The open source way is a powerful tool
that has been in
use for a very long time, and in a wide variety of places. Talks like this
one can only help to spread that word, so that it can be applied even more
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