Chapter 4. Social and Political Infrastructure

Table of Contents

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?
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[38]. 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 involve less formal structure, but more conscious 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. 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” in Chapter 8, Managing Volunteers), 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.

Benevolent Dictators

The benevolent dictator model is exactly what it sounds like: final decision-making authority rests with one person, who, by virtue of personality and experience, is expected to use it wisely.

Although "benevolent dictator" (or BD)is the standard term for this role, it would be better to think of it as "community-approved arbitrator" or "judge". Generally, benevolent dictators do not actually make all the decisions, or even most of the decisions. It's unlikely that one person could have enough expertise to make consistently good decisions across all areas of the project, and anyway, quality developers won't stay around unless they have some influence on the project's direction. Therefore, benevolent dictators commonly do not dictate much. Instead, they let things work themselves out through discussion and experimentation whenever possible. They participate in those discussions themselves, but as regular developers, often deferring to an area maintainer who has more expertise. Only when it is clear that no consensus can be reached, and that most of the group wants someone to guide the decision so that development can move on, does she put her foot down and say "This is the way it's going to be." Reluctance to make decisions by fiat is a trait shared by almost all successful benevolent dictators; it is one of the reasons they manage to keep the role.

Who Can Be a Good Benevolent Dictator?

Being a BD requires a combination of traits. It needs, first of all, a well-honed sensitivity to one's own influence in the project, which in turn brings self-restraint. In the early stages of a discussion, one should not express opinions and conclusions with so much certainty that others feel like it's pointless to dissent. People must be free to air ideas, even stupid ideas. It is inevitable that the BD will post a stupid idea from time to time too, of course, and therefore the role also requires an ability to recognize and acknowledge when one has made a bad decision—though this is simply a trait that any good developer should have, especially if she stays with the project a long time. But the difference is that the BD can afford to slip from time to time without worrying about long-term damage to her credibility. Developers with less seniority may not feel so secure, so the BD should phrase critiques or contrary decisions with some sensitivity for how much weight her words carry, both technically and psychologically.

The BD does not need to have the sharpest technical skills of anyone in the project. She must be skilled enough to work on the code herself, and to understand and comment on any change under consideration, but that's all. The BD position is neither acquired nor held by virtue of intimidating coding skills. What is important is experience and overall design sense—not necessarily the ability to produce good design on demand, but the ability to recognize and endorse good design, whatever its source.

It is common for the benevolent dictator to be a founder of the project, but this is more a correlation than a cause. The sorts of qualities that make one able to successfully start a project—technical competence, ability to persuade other people to join, and so on.—are exactly the qualities any BD would need. And of course, founders start out with a sort of automatic seniority, which can often be enough to make benevolent dictatorship by the founder appear the path of least resistance for all concerned.

Remember that the potential to fork goes both ways. A BD can fork a project just as easily as anyone else, and some have occasionally done so, when they felt that the direction they wanted to take the project was different from where the majority of other developers wanted to go. Because of forkability, it does not matter whether the benevolent dictator has control over the currently accepted "master" project repository. People sometimes talk of such control as though it were the ultimate source of power in a project, but in fact it is irrelevant. The ability to add or remove people's commit passwords for one project on a particular hosting site affects only that copy of the project on that site. Prolonged abuse of that power, whether by the BD or someone else, would simply lead to development moving to a different copy of the project.

poss2 TODO: 16 March 2014: There should be a short discussion of, or a link to discussion of, control over project-related trademarks here. See other todo at the end of this chapter mentioning non-profits and referring to trademarks too.

Whether your project should have a benevolent dictator, or would run better with some less centralized form of governance, largely depends on who is available to fill the role. As a general rule, if it's simply obvious to everyone who should be the BD, then that's the way to go. But if no candidate for BD is immediately obvious, then the project should probably use a decentralized decision-making process, as described in the next section.



[38] 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 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_factor.