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One of the hardest lessons to learn about working in open source is that the work involves community building, politics, citizenship, principles, and governance. An open-source project consists of some shared artifacts--source code, documentation, and so forth--and some mailing lists, newsgroups, and perhaps some other social software. That is, there are the things, on the one hand, and the people, on the other. The people form a community, a community that interacts, that forms customs and traditions, that develops friendships and affiliations, and that, in short, creates a culture. Many software developers ignore the social aspects of open source and might even be surprised, in many cases, to hear people talk of open source as a social or community activity. At the first Jini community meeting, one developer remarked, "Is Jini a technology or a sociology experiment?"

For a company to succeed at open source, and more so than for an individual or an established open-source project, it must take community seriously and be explicit about it. This is because there is always some suspicion by outsiders that a company has some hidden, unpleasant agenda.

Community building consists of the activities done to foster a culture and make it pleasant and rewarding to be a member of the community. There must be ways for individuals to visit the community, learn about it, join it as newcomers, become productive members, develop into experts, and finally become respected elders.

Politics enters the scene when companies or other competing interests are involved. How are compromises made? How are the positions of established expertise respected? These are political questions.

Citizenship has to do not only with the ways individuals mature through an arc of roles, but with whether individuals have the opportunity to feel that being a member of the community distinguishes them from others and whether this distinction is a source of pride. Perhaps the community has a significant name (Linux), a logo or other identifiable sign (a penguin), or established customs (yearly community meetings). Perhaps the community is known for its level of technical expertise or its important contributions.

Principles form the backbone of any open-source project. Software developers and engineers are overwhelmingly principled and ethical,1 so that any open-source project started by a company needs to embrace and make explicit its dedication to principles. Open-source projects started by individuals generally don't have to be explicit about their principles because such principles are so prevalent within the developer community. But a company does not have this luxury.

Governance has to do with how decisions are made about the workings of the community. For the Linux project, Linus Torvalds makes many decisions about what code gets accepted into the source tree and who else has the authority to make such decisions, so he is part of the governance of the project; he decided that he makes such decisions. For companies, governance generally needs to be more explicit and, obviously, equitable and fair. As non-company-based open-source projects mature, they are finding that governance needs to be made explicit.

A good example of the importance of community is the project that designed Common Lisp, which was one of the first large network-based design collaborations, begun in 1981. One of us (RPG) was the originator of the Common Lisp effort. It began in the summer of 1981 as a consolidation effort between descendents of an older dialect of Lisp called MacLisp. After a series of short face-to-face meetings, the bulk of the work shifted to an email-based discussion on the ARPAnet (the predecessor of the Internet). The acknowledged list of contributors contains 62 individuals who exchanged over 2000 email messages over a 2-year period along with two or three face-to-face meetings and four drafts of the specification written primarily by Guy L. Steele Jr. Over its lifetime, the group exchanged well over 10,000 email messages.

The culture of this community was central to how it worked. The community developed an interaction style and a particular online culture in which a person's participation as well as "influence" depended on his or her expertise. Keep in mind that at that time (1981) there were no or very few online communities. Network email was limited to some universities and Department of Defense-related companies. It turned out--as we know only so well today--that people are more prone to be insulting and forthright in email than in person. Many of the discussions carried on over the network were quite spirited, but they had the advantage of being written down. There was no need to rely on dim memory or pale ink because all the mail was automatically stored in a centralized place, so there was no chance of losing or misplacing it.

The discussions were often in the form of proposals, discussions, and counterproposals for the design of Common Lisp. Code examples from existing software or proposed new syntax were often exchanged. And all was subject to quick review by community members. New members of the community wishing to come up to speed could go to the archives.

This online style had some drawbacks. Foremost, it was not possible to observe the facial and body reactions of other people, to see whether some point angered them, which would mean the point was important to them. There was no immediate way to see that an argument had gone too far or had little support. This meant that time was wasted and that carefully crafted written arguments were required to get anything done.

The leader of the group was Scott Fahlman of Carnegie-Mellon University, and there was an inner circle of decision makers--Scott Fahlman, Guy Steele, David Moon, Daniel Weinreb, and Richard P. Gabriel--called the Quinquevirate or Gang of Five. Just outside this circle was the semi-official Common Lisp Group, which included 33 individuals. This was its governance.

In all, the benefits of the contentious interaction style characteristic of the culture outweighed its problems. Moreover, the expert leadership, the small core of decision makers, the excellent specification-writing talent, and the freedom to work continuously without needing to schedule meeting times meant that the result was quite extraordinary. Despite the diverse and oddball nature of the individuals, a definite culture emerged with strong bonds, a private language, emergent roles, and definite traditions.2

The Common Lisp community was based on the principles of openness and the celebration of technical expertise that characterized the MIT AI (Artificial Intelligence) Lab culture. This is the culture that formed and still supports the views of Richard Stallman, who is the founder of the Free Software Foundation--which kicked off the open-source movement--and who was an active member of the Common Lisp community.

Politics was central to the community. One goal was to bring together Lisp machine companies that had developed new and different Lisp language features to distinguish themselves from each other and other Lisp vendors (both hardware and software vendors) to agree on a common standard--if it was successful, this standard would diminish their differentiators.3 Moreover, software Lisp vendors working on general-purpose computer implementations, academics, and Lisp users were invited into the community, with their conflicting and unusual perspectives and requirements--some commercial, some scientific, some engineering-based, and some just oddball. All these groups were expected to come to a common agreement. This is politics par excellence. Pride of citizenship was conferred by the attentiveness of ARPA to the group and the fame of some of its principals.

Finally, the curious fact about the Common Lisp effort was that even though its apparent product was a specification of Common Lisp in the form of a book, the members of the community never worked on the text of that book. There were no artifacts that formed the center of the community; people, in general, did not contribute code, text, or editing expertise. The writing was done entirely by Guy Steele and the other members of the Quinquevirate. The community was there to make decisions, much as do legislatures and constitutional conventions. A newcomer to the Common Lisp community needed to listen and read the email archives--until Steele's first draft there was no artifact available to study and change; and after, only Steele could change the draft. The day-to-day activity consisted of political and technical debate followed by making specific decisions, which means that the Common Lisp project was essentially all community.

1. Virus writers and crackers notwithstanding.

2. The transcript of the Common Lisp email interactions was studied by JoAnne Yates and Wanda J. Orlikowski of the MIT Sloan School, resulting in two reports: " Knee-Jerk Anti-LOOPism and Other E-mail Phenomena: Oral, Written, and Electronic Patterns in Computer-Mediated Communication ," MIT Sloan School Working Paper #3578-93, and " From Memo to Dialogue: Enacting Genres of Communication in Electronic Mail ," MIT Sloan School Working Paper #3525, Sloan School, MIT, Cambridge, MA, July 1993.

3. And, in fact, some have argued that the eventual success of Common Lisp as a standard language combined with improvements in general-purpose computers and compiler technology dealt all the Lisp machine companies a death blow.

Innovation Happens Elsewhere
Ron Goldman & Richard P. Gabriel
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