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“Don’t be Afraid of Openness”

Nathan Schneider talks about open source communities and the need for open governance models to make them truly sustainable and inclusive.

Nathan Schneider is professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he directs the Media Enterprise Design Lab. He works at the intersections of technology and social change, particularly in efforts to develop more democratic business models for the online economy.

The Media Enterprise Design Lab is a think tank for community ownership and governance in media organizations. It creates space for researchers and practitioners to challenge the conventional norms and explore possibilities offered by neglected histories and possible futures.

Christophe Bruchansky: Who has shown the most interest in the CommunityRule toolkit developed by the Media Enterprise Design Lab? Community leaders or simple members? What motivates them to refine or change their governance model?

Nathan Schneider: Gosh, I’m not sure I have the data to say. I guess probably the people most interested so far are people interested in governance for its own sake—researchers, hackers, organizers, and the like. I’d like to change that, and make it a tool appealing to a much broader range of rank-and-file game-players, workers, activists, and the like. That said, in the early stages of a project like this, it’s probably to be expected that the adopters are going to be the people already interested in this sort of thing. I’m grateful for all the input those types of people have provided to improve it. Meanwhile, we’re doing active outreach to both open source developers and mutual-aid activists—two very different kinds of informal communities, where governance norms are often not explicit.

Many open source communities (and organizations in general) would probably not exist without the willpower of their founders. Do you see the benevolent dictatorship governance model as a necessary starting point?

I think it’s often a very sensible way to start. For instance, CommunityRule itself right now is a benevolent dictatorship under me. I make that explicit in the About page. But as an organization matures, there should be a pathway toward more appropriate governance. I don’t think there’s a magic threshold for when the benevolent dictator doesn’t make sense, but I think it’s something along these lines: when is the group no longer a startup still in search of its mission and purpose? When has it become something that stakeholders have come to rely and depend on?

On the other side of the spectrum, some open source communities try to operate without any hierarchy or structure. What is the best way to warn a community about the dangers of structurelessness? Facing the truth must be hard for some members, especially if it implies losing a bit of their individual agency in favour of some formal governance model.

The main idea is we need to make stating governance explicitly an expectation. “Where’s your file?” potential contributors should ask. Then, I think, founders will be under a bit more pressure to outline a governance system with some accountability built in, not just an authoritarian dominion. If they do choose to retain all the control, maybe they’ll at least explain why and make clear how people can influence their decisions.


Honestly, though, I think a lot of founders will embrace good governance if they have the chance. The real problem with open source sustainability is not that there are too many people clamouring for people, it’s that there aren’t enough people stepping up to be maintainers. I suspect that having more inclusive governance structures will make it easier for people to make the step from occasional contributor to committed maintainer.

From what you have seen, who in open source communities suffer the most from the tyranny of structurelessness? Would you have some examples to share?

The people who suffer most are almost surely those who don’t bother participating or who feel pushed out. Open source is overwhelmingly male, for instance. It is full of people with technical skills but doesn’t do a good job finding roles for people with more administrative or interpersonal skills, which are sorely needed.

The illusion of a tech-bro-driven “meritocracy” has meant the exclusion of those who don’t fit into a certain image of what an open source contributor is supposed to be. Spelling out more explicit roles for people who don’t fit that image could go a long way toward bringing more and more people into the movement.

What could public and private organizations learn from open source communities?

I’m not sure I have anything especially original to say here. But so many more of our institutions could learn from that core insight of open source: don’t be afraid of openness, particularly when others will benefit from something being shared. I love the thinking behind the platform Open Collective, for instance, which not only helps open source projects find financial support but expects them to be transparent about their financial flows. That’s an attempt to translate basic practices that open source projects have with code and extend it to other aspects of organizational life.At the same time, though, the flow should go both ways. While open source can inform other kinds of organizations, open source should not pretend that it’s immune to the basic patterns of organizational life. Open code isn’t a replacement for basic, explicit accountability.

Part of the Leadership beyond Hierarchy series.