The emergence of governance norms in volunteer-driven open source communities

Abstract

Free and open source software communities develop their governance norms and practises as they grow from small to medium to large sized social groups. Communities with a small number of participants typically organise informally. As the community grows, the need for coordination grows as well and at some point, a more structured organisation becomes necessary. The growth stages are defined by the coordination mechanisms applied – ad-hoc coordination for the initial small group, consensus focused auto-organisation for the medium sized group, and structured, more formalised coordination for the large sized group. The main interest of the communities is to attract and retain contributors and to facilitate contributions to their products. The communities studied in this qualitative embedded multiple-case study, exhibit governance related debates and conflicts, as they reached a large size, leading to difficulties in further growing the number of involved contributors and sustaining the community activities. The paper researches the emergence of governance norms in these communities and the role these norms, once established, play in the management of the communities in their then current stage. The study finds that the governance norms in communities are commonly developed by participants that do not think them necessary, for a community that does not want them at the time. The result is frequently implicit, under-documented norms that increase barriers to entry for newcomers and allow incumbent contributors the instruments to derail unwanted decisions. The paper focuses on the essential contradiction between the communities’ aim to maintain devolved authority at the contributor level and a requirement for effective decision making and policing mechanisms to implement and maintain that. It recommends that communities, instead of deferring or down-playing the need to set up explicit governance norms, purposefully develop norms that explicitly define structure and processes so that they support, enforce and protect the devolved authority their participants should have and encourages new participants.

Publication
Journal of Open Law, Technology & Society

As a reminiscence to the early times of free software collaboration, this paper published in October 2019 captures many moments and thoughts from involvement in the KDE community and FSFE. It is published as the inaugural article in the Journal of Open Law, Technology & Society that continues the 10 year history of the International Free and Open Source Law Review.

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Mirko Boehm
Political Economics of Open Source and Intellectual Property