There is something special about the open source community that makes it different from the rest of information technology projects. No, I’m not talking about the ability to freely modify and pass on software: I’m talking about volunteers who make open source projects happen. If you take a look at any of the major Linux-centric corporations — Red Hat, Novell, Canonical, and others — you will find that behind the board meetings, paid employees and major contracts that there are thousands of volunteers improving upon the software that helps form the Linux systems that we know and love to use. Volunteers are an incredibly valuable asset as they help manage the tens of thousands of software packages, patches, and features that are included with modern distributions. These contributors provide their time, effort, and devotion to projects that interest them. It would seem fitting that they have an outlet to voice their opinions on the directions that their projects are heading.
Blogs, comments, and forums comprise the majority of methods that contributors may express their feelings about decisions being made by their host companies. In spite of the variety of ways to speak out, contributors are often drowned out by the collective noise of the internet. Why spend time and energy screaming into the wind? Recently Benjamin Kerensa wrote a blog post — an idea, about a foundation for Ubuntu contributors where the voices of the community could be heard and valued by Canonical. His concerns of Ubuntu contributors leaving are not alone. In the past several months there has been some shedding of contributors in the Ubuntu community. Even looking back to areas in the Ubuntu project in which I contributed years ago there’s been a saddening reduction in activity and progress. I’d love to see the idea of an Ubuntu contributor foundation come to fruition.
The idea of a foundation to promote the views of the community extends itself far beyond Ubuntu. Many distributions that are large projects or are run by means other than a community board could all benefit from a contributor foundation. The benefits of a volunteer community that feels valued beyond a simple “thank you” are innumerable. As I’m sure those Ubuntu contributors who have left the project understand, words alone don’t matter, but rather the actions that follow.
However, a contributor foundation can be a double-edged sword. While contributors can voice their opinions, there can be dissension and even singling-out if there isn’t some level of anonymity or contributor protection. There is also a potential for a contributor foundation to cause worker union-like strikes and hardball negotiating with the parent company/organization. Indeed, development could come to a halt should a community decide to collectively reject a decision by a parent company. Therefore, it seems that contributor foundations and the parent companies need to have some sort of voting process that ensures that contributors voices are heard but are not the final word in a decision. Any project that does not have a leader or formalized decision making process is almost certainly doomed to fail. Including a contributor foundation in the decision-making process would at least show whether or not the contributors support the the decisions being made at the top, and may likely influence the final decisions being made.
Implemented correctly, a contributor foundation could provide a safe space for contributors to voice their opinions and offer a powerful voice in the open source community. In a place where collaboration is encouraged, perhaps it’s time that Linux contributors have a safe space in which to have their voices heard, bringing meaningful discussion to the decisions being made by the project to which they give their time and effort.