Open source, the demo-meritocracy

Open source is driven by pragmatic values of transparency and enfranchisement

Is open source more democratic or meritocratic? You could make a convincing case for either one but, like a lot of things in life, it's probably somewhere in between. Consider open source's characteristics.

First, open source is in some ways the ultimate democracy: people are campaigning for a specific piece of code, voting, and challenging, especially in the Apache environment. It's not always the easiest or most efficient method, but this democratic process generally gets the software to become better and better as time progresses. It might be frustrating at times where things aren't going as fast as you want, but then you see that the projects are indeed getting better.

People get respect relative to the amount of contribution they make to specific projects, which is a wonderful thing. Those who contribute the most, who write in the most useful code, are typically going to be listened to -- more than those who just talk. If you have someone putting in a lot of new code that's accepted by the community, that person will be respected more than someone who only contributes a lot of opinions.

That brings us to the merit-based aspect. You get elected and progress to commit code to the project because you have the right ideas AND know how to execute them with quality. The most successful contributors are not those who can offer clever critiques but no code, or those who offer poor code. The most prominent ones translate their insights into better code and do a better job of getting other people on board with their ideas. 

Unlike some commercial vendor environments, open source empowers everyone involved. This is because, even though not everyone makes it to the leaderboard, the deliberations and process are transparent and the people deliberating are accessible. It's like a sporting event where everyone knows all the rules. Open source is more like basketball, which is clearly about talent and results -- and where fans are engaged even if they never sink a basket -- than it is like professional wrestling, which is staged and has a pre-planned outcome (sorry for the spoiler, wrestling fans).

That engagement may be one reason that people were positive and participatory at the recent Apache Lucene EuroCon-our Lucene and Solr user conference in Prague-compared to some of the commercial vendor user conferences we've heard about where frustrated users end up yelling at the vendors.

Those who dismiss open source as being too touchy-feely and "kumbaya" should realize that the open source community is at base driven by pragmatic values of transparency and political enfranchisement--and I don't just mean the right to decide or to vote--even for people not directly in the committers' circle. I'd say this is a natural evolution of development and may be the way software will just work in the future.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

Take IDG’s 2020 IT Salary Survey: You’ll provide important data and have a chance to win $500.