The Open Source Identity Crisis, limiting the potential for legitimate peripheral participation

September 17, 2014 at 8:37 am 4 comments

An interesting new piece on identity within the open source community.  Noah Slater addresses a concern that I have, that the definition of contribution in open source communities limits the opportunity for legitimate peripheral participation.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the hacker identity has a hold over the open source identity is this notion that you have to code to contribute to open source. Much like technical talent is centered in the tech industry, code is seen as the one true way to contribute. This can be such a powerful idea that documentation, design, marketing, and so on are often seen as largely irrelevant. And even when this isn’t the case, they are seen as second class skills. For many hackers, open source is an escape from professional environments where collaboration with these “lesser”, more “mainstream” activities is mandatory.

via The Open Source Identity Crisis, by Noah Slater | Model View Culture.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  September 17, 2014 at 8:40 am

    It’s probably worse in Open SOurce but it exists in industry as well. Management may realize those things are important but coders often do not.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 17, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Ahh, but Management can value the non-coders and get them involved — which is a way of coming to see what software development is like. This is what education researchers call legitimate peripheral participation, and it’s an important part of the education process — doing real work, but on the edge of the most central work, so that you can get a handle on what’s happening. Because open source tends to dismiss that peripheral work, it’s harder for learners to use open source as a way into learning about software.

  • 3. dennisfrailey  |  September 17, 2014 at 10:43 am

    I spent many years as a coder, and was proud of what I could achieve. Later in my career I spent many more years in other capacities such as marketing, documentation, and (especially) organization and management. While I retain my respect for coding skills, I can speak with some authority that these other fields can be more difficult to practice and almost impossible to master. Among other things, they are often much less amenable to rules and procedures and standardization. Management in particular is incredibly difficult to do well. Our view of it may be biased by three factors: a) it is so often done poorly that we may tend to think of it as a cesspool of incompetence; b) people who are put in management positions are often ill prepared for the task – education in the field is weak and those chosen as managers often lack the requisite talent, so we may see it as a refuge for the incompetent (think Dilbert’s boss); c) when management is done well we don’t tend to notice it – the world just seems to flow by and we think this is the natural state of things rather than something that requires a lot of skill and talent to pull off.

    Thus the idea that the only way one “contributes” to open source software is by contributing code seems ridiculous to me. By analogy, one could argue that the only way to contribute to education is by lecturing in a classroom. Yet without preparation, organization, publication, research, and many support functions, the quality and effectiveness of education would soon deteriorate. As a teacher for over 40 years, I can attest that lecturing itself is the easiest part of the job. (Yet so many universities measure one’s teaching contributions by contact hours in the classroom – rather analogous to measuring the quality of code by how many lines of code there are.)

    Coders can indeed produce high quality code, and we appreciate them for it. They can also do great harm, and unfortunately some of them (unethical hackers) seem to take great satisfaction in doing so – rather the way terrorists take pride in destroying what others have worked hard to produce. Doing harm may demonstrate one’s power, but an even greater power is exhibited that those who could do harm but don’t.

    Getting back to the main point, I’ve had to utilize open source software in many contexts and there are many, many pragmatic issues that the open source community doesn’t seem to value. Just as those who don’t value plumbers get poor plumbing, those who don’t value the non-coding aspects of software tend to get software that is frustratingly difficult to use in real applications that must be maintained and supported and sold and, in some cases, used in safety-critical applications.

  • […] Casey Fiesler and Miranda Parker did a wonderful remix of the original computer engineer Barbie (see Guardian article about that).  Great to see that Mattel did a better job the next time around, and Casey loves it.  I love the point she makes below, which echoes a concern I’ve voiced about open source software. […]


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