Community, customer service and Free Software

This is an edited version of a post of mine on the discuss mailing list of LibreOffice. The thread is ongoing at the moment I’m editing this post. Feedback and questions welcome.

Listening to user feedback hardly makes up a democracy. It’s user feedback. In some cases it might be a case of “nice customer service”. But it does not help that much. I’ll explain myself.

Let me describe to you what I called limited democracy here and how “power” and influence are distributed in FOSS projects.

A FOSS project mainly produces code. Its sole reason, in fact, is to produce code; whether someone pays for it or manages to be a guru at product strategy and marketing so well he can even entrance hackers in its “Reality Distortion Field” is another question. FOSS projects produce code. Then, around that rough code you have another categories of contributors: the QA testers, the localizers, the documentation writers, the marketers (no particular order here); sometimes you have the extension developers as well. All these people do something very specific: they contribute to the project. Granted it might not only be code, but that’s beside the point. They contribute and they make the project. The reason they contribute might be completely unknown to you, or there might be as many reasons as there are contributors. It’s good sometimes to question or to know what’s the “general reason” to contribute from one or two active contributors, but it’s not always necessary. Back to our contributors; they form the active people who push the project forward, heck, they are the project themselves. But because each of them might contribute for various and sometimes opposite reasons, any of them, sometimes even all of them or a good majority of them, will stop contributing; conversely, they might even increase their contribution. If you stick to the original line from Eric Raymond (the Cathedral and the Bazaar, a must read), the reason any developer would contribute is because he/she’d like to “scratch an itch”. Granted that scratch might be for hire or is already funded, but that’s besides the point.

In the end, it’s the people who make the software (and distribute it, promote it) who call the shots. They call the shots because they get to “make” the software at various levels. So it’s a meritocracy because it’s a “do-ocracy” in a sense. The good news here is that it makes up for quite a lot of people. The not so good news in a sense, is that “mere” users, by which I mean “passive” users, who do not contribute anything in terms of code, tests, localization, documentation, dictionaries, pamphlets, designs, etc. are only left with one choice: to use the software if they like it, or to stop using it. The only reason is not that it’s not a democracy, it’s just that they don’t have the power to act on the software project unless they adopt or reject it.

There is also a more subtle good part in this: no user is barred to join the contributors’ ranks; and when this user actually does, he’ll have a say as long as he remains a contributor.

There are projects who do not formally formalize too much who specifically are their contributors. Some others do. The Document Foundation does formalize it to the extent that it is our contributors who “own the foundation” and nobody else does. It’s not just in our social contract or an unwritten assumption, it’s legal . There are rather broad criteria to define what a contributor is and does (our bylaws and statutes define them) and anyone who qualifies become thus a member of the foundation with rather large ” political” rights. In this sense we have democracy. But FOSS projects do not run on open and democratic structure; they run on transparent and agreed processes, with a free and open source code at their core.

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