Chapter 4. Social and Political Infrastructure

Table of Contents

Forkability
Benevolent Dictators
Who Can Be a Good Benevolent Dictator?
Consensus-based Democracy
Version Control Means You Can Relax
When Consensus Cannot Be Reached, Vote
When To Vote
Who Votes?
Not All Maintainers Are Coders
Adding New Maintainers
Polls Versus Votes
Vetoes
Writing It All Down
Joining or Creating a Non-Profit Organization

The first questions people usually ask about free software are "How does it work? What keeps a project running? Who makes the decisions?" I'm always dissatisfied with bland responses about meritocracy, the spirit of cooperation, code speaking for itself, etc. The fact is, the question is not easy to answer. Meritocracy, cooperation, and running code are all part of it, but they do little to explain how projects actually run on a day-to-day basis, and say nothing about how conflicts are resolved.

This chapter tries to show the structural underpinnings successful projects have in common. I mean "successful" not just in terms of technical quality, but in terms of operational health and survivability. Operational health is the project's ongoing ability to incorporate new code contributions and new developers, and to be responsive to incoming bug reports. Survivability is the project's ability to exist independently of any individual participant or sponsor — think of it as the likelihood that the project would continue even if all of its founding members were to move on to other things[43]. Technical success is not hard to achieve, but without a robust developer base and social foundation, a project may be unable to handle the growth that initial success brings, or the departure of charismatic individuals.

There are various ways to achieve this kind of success. Some involve a formal governance structure, by which debates are resolved, new developers are invited in (and sometimes out), new features planned, and so on. Others use less formal structure, but more self-restraint, to produce an atmosphere of fairness that people can rely on as a de facto form of governance. Both ways lead to the same result: a sense of institutional permanence, supported by habits and procedures that are well understood by everyone who participates. These features are even more important in self-organizing systems than in centrally-controlled ones, because in self-organizing systems, everyone is conscious that a few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel, at least for a while.

Forkability

The indispensable ingredient that binds developers together on a free software project, and makes them willing to compromise when necessary, is the code's forkability: the ability of anyone to take a copy of the source code and use it to start a competing project, known as a fork.[44]

The paradoxical thing is that the possibility of forks is usually a much greater force in free software projects than actual forks, which are very rare. Because a fork is usually bad for everyone (for reasons examined in detail in the section called “Forks”), the more serious the threat of a fork becomes, the more willing people are to compromise to avoid it.

Forks, or rather the potential for forks, are the reason there are no true dictators in free software projects. This may seem like a surprising claim, considering how common it is to hear someone called the "dictator" (sometimes softened to "benevolent dictator") in a given open source project. But this kind of dictatorship is special, quite different from the conventional understanding of the word. Imagine a king whose subjects could copy his entire kingdom at any time and move to the copy to rule as they see fit. Would not such a king govern very differently from one whose subjects were bound to stay under his rule no matter what he did?

This is why even projects that are not formally organized as democracies are, in practice, democracies when it comes to important decisions. Replicability implies forkability; forkability implies consensus. It may well be that everyone is willing to defer to one leader (the most famous example being Linus Torvalds in Linux kernel development), but this is because they choose to do so, in an entirely non-cynical and non-sinister way. The dictator has no magical hold over the project. A key property of all open source licenses is that they do not give one party more power than any other in deciding how the code can be changed or used. If the dictator were to suddenly start making bad decisions, there would be restlessness, followed eventually by revolt and a fork. Except, of course, that things rarely get that far, because the dictator compromises first.

But just because forkability puts an upper limit on how much power anyone can exert in a project doesn't mean there aren't important differences in how projects are governed. You don't want every decision to come down to the last-resort question of who might consider a fork. That would get tiresome very quickly, and sap energy away from real work. The next two sections examine different ways to organize projects such that most decisions go smoothly. These two examples are somewhat idealized extremes; many projects fall somewhere along a continuum between them.



[43] This is also known as the "Bus Factor", that is, how many participants would have to get hit by a bus (figuratively speaking) for the project to be unable to continue. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_factor.

[44] Meaning a "social fork", not the unrelated "short fork" that is often a normal part of the development cycle. See "Social Forks" versus "Short Forks" for more on this crucial distinction.