Is Open Source democratic?


For Aristotle the underlying principle of democracy is freedom, since only in a democracy the citizens can have a share in freedom.

In his recent post, Glyn Moody asks an important question – “Can Open Source be democratic?” He describes how Free Software emerged as a distributed, bottom-up system of writing code. The central defining aspects of that culture are a uniquely open process not just of programming but also of its organization, and a close relationship between programmers and users. Effectively, users and programmers together were both contributors, they collaborated on the project. Glyn goes on to explain how this community effort changed over time to become more institutionalized, more corporate and more dull – “becoming a ‘Firefox Affiliate’, hardly something that sets the pulse racing.” Ordinary users no longer play an important part in Open Source projects.
Underlying is the assumption that Open Source is democratic, and this assumption needs to be questioned. Open Source communities have been coined to be self-directed, meritocratic,  …, but it is rarely emphasized that they are democratic. Since individuals are investing effort in their favorite projects to contribute to something greater, and democracy is commonly considered to be a greater good as well, it is intriguing to make the jump to thinking of Open Source communities as being democratic. But are they? What is the meaning of democracy in the context of Open Source? What does a democratic community look like?
Some may say that such political concepts cannot easily be transferred to how Open Source communities should function. While it may not be easy, it is still worthwhile – democracies have dealt with similar problems of inclusion and the distribution of power and responsibility. Just like democratic states, communities are volunteer organizations that congregate to build the public goods they desire in the commons. Just like citizens, members of communities have a choice of voice or exit that they make based on the expected influence  they have as citizens. There are enough similarities to justify learning by example.

On being a contributor

Democracy means “rule of the people”, and postulates, amongst other things, for each individual to be equal before the law and to have a vote in the political process and election of the government. This immediately boils down to the central Yin-Yang question of who is a citizen and who is not. Are users considered integral parts (citizens) of the Open Source communities, or outsiders who provide feedback? And should they be the equals of developers?  While today we seem to think that equality comes standard, it is in fact a dynamic concept, its meaning changes with culture. Think about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally abolished voter’s discrimination by race in the US, or the fact that women will gain the right to vote in Saudi Arabia in the year 2015. This is what Glyn observes – users changed from being integral elements of the community to playing an only marginal role, akin to not having a vote.
Eligibility and acceptance are what discerns citizens from barbarians and slaves. Eligibility answers the question of which individuals can potentially become citizens. Acceptance is the requirements an eligible individual has to fulfill to gain citizenship. For example, a foreigner living in a country may be eligible for citizenship, but to be accepted needs to pay taxes for a number of years. When the same questions are applied to Open Source communities,  they translate to “Who is a contributor and could thus become a citizen of our community? How does somebody  join the project?” and second, “What does a newcomer have to do to be considered a contributor, a part of the community?” (does that sound like “How do I become a committer”? – exactly). In Open Source communities usually all individuals are eligible to join, but to be accepted and integrated, they need to contribute to the code.
So for users to become integral parts of Open Source communities again, users that engage with an Open Source project need to be equal contributors amongst peers, to be eligible. This is far from standard, and not the mind-set of most contributors I know. Most communities I work with value direct contributions to the project source code higher than feedback from users. They (unconsciously?) consider users outsiders and refer them to talk to the issue tracker, a proven way to make sure they never come back again with more feedback. So firstly, users need to be considered eligible to become community members, and second their efforts (feedback, for example) need to qualify them for acceptance as ordinary contributors.

On Open Governance

But not all communities are created equal. When evaluating how democratic a community is, we need to look at their reason to exist. Not all Open Source projects are created by developers and users together, and the distribution of power and responsibility usually follows this outset goal or doctrine. If a project that is founded by developers and users  grows organically into an openly governed community (like KDE), it is likened to a democracy. A project that is founded by a company (think Mozilla or Qt) and maybe allows external contributors in along as they accept the decrees^wCLA of the king^wowner company aches more towards an aristocracy. Not all contributors are equals, and the ruling government cannot be replaced.
There has been a long debate over what the most central trait of a democracy is. Opinions differ, but there is one question – can the citizens, on a regular basis, re-elect or replace the ruling government in a structured process, without the need for a revolution? With this argument in mind, it becomes apparent that not all Open Source communities are democratic. KDE is to an extend, with a weak government and regular elections where every active member has exactly one vote. Think about electing a new government for Android, and the difference becomes apparent. Of the Open Source projects Glyn mentioned in his post, few can be considered democratic by this standard.
Back to the question on how to reduce the distance between users and developers and how to build communities that thrive on collaboration. Users, like any contributor, will consider the effect their investment of time into the project will have. If the utility they gain from contributing outweighs the cost of the effort to contribute, they will join the community and help with the project. The utility is directly related to the openness of the community governance; it will be less if the contributor’s influence is only on mundane details, and greater if she has the chance to become the next president of KDE e.V. This emphasizes the importance of Open Governance for the longevity and community spirit of Open Source projects. Only with both the Open Source way and Open Governance, the user experiences the freedom to create that convinces her to join the project. Democracy in communities is Open Source combined with Open Governance.


From the status of being a contributor – a citizen – follows the right and duty to take part in the community’s affairs. Open Source can be democratic if it treats all the community members equally. Three requirements for considering an Open Source community democratic have been developed in the discussion above:

  • To be democratic requires not to discriminate amongst contributors (users and developers). Users are contributors. They need to be encouraged to join the community, to give feedback and to otherwise help improve the project.
  • Democracy in communities means Open Source combined with Open Governance. The availability of the source code under a Free Software license is not sufficient for an Open Source community to be democratic. Without equality, without the contributors controlling the project as equals, it may be Open Source, but it is not democratic.
  • Governance is open if the contributors are equals and the community elects its own representation. Defining Open Governance as the situation where the contributors are in control of their project on all levels, democracy in an Open Source project can only be achieved when all contributors have equal say on all matters of the project.

Whether or not contributors fully are equals amongst peers can only be decided by actions, not by words. The ethical question whether or not democracy is desirable for an Open Source project has been avoided in this article. In my personal opinion, Glyn is absolutely right: For Open Source to continue being successful, direct and indirect contributors need to get back to working together. With the widening appeal of Open Source software, naturally developers will become more experienced and professional, and the average user will turn to be less technical and computer savvy. This trend will likely continue with the growing user base of Open Source. And because it is inevitable, Open Source projects should instead prepare to liaise more with users and generally get good at integrating users and coders in the community.

@mirkoboehm • Mirko on LinkedIn • @AgileWorkers

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25 responses to “Is Open Source democratic?

  1. Users vote by choosing the things that listen at them or giving them what they want (or think they want/need) They did it with Firefox and many other popular open source projects that are now mainstream.

  2. >democracy is commonly considered to be a greater good as well


  3. “democracy is commonly considered to be a greater good”
    I think this thinking is a very common mistake. People think democracy in a political/economical system would be the most important good, it would imply legitimation in a ethical sense. But it does not, it is just an instrument, which might help to establish freedom.

    What has this to do with your post? I think we should consider it in the context of free software, too: What are the objectives in that case? It is not “democracy”, that does not mean anything. But it is freedom, with free software software is no longer a commodity, no longer the property of anybody, but it becomes a common good. Everybody should get empowered to use it and to be independent of the creators (or anybody else). It is also a social issue. That are the important things, and that are the reasons why we need open gouvernment: It somehow guarantees (to a certain degree) that the freedom is not just fakery, that you actually have good chances to change the software (a fork is in most cases no real option). Let us forget the term “democracy”, it is way too glorified.

    • Fair point. It is hard to say whether democracy in the “rule of the people” sense is a greater good or the lesser eval. Letting go of democracy in this sense, though, requires to weight the freedom it brings against the benefits of the rule of another power. I think Churchill represented the problem quite well when he said: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
      Or to put it the other way around: When all alternatives are worse, democracy is still the greater good.

  4. Isn’t the big difference that in a democracy, people have _equal_ rights? From wikipedia definition of democracy: “Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.” Applied to a project this would mean that every contributor could vote for or against feature X, and it wouldn’t matter if you’re actually working on that feature, are the maintainer for the module or are just someone with an opinion: All votes would count equally.

    That’s obviously not how open source projects are run: Surely things can and should be discussed in the open, and everyone can voice their opinion. But usually maintainers, and the people working on a feature have the final say, not the majority. This has been often described (as you mentioned) as a meritocracy or even ‘do-cracy’.

    • There is no contradiction between a do-ocracy and having equal rights, because the right is not to vote on something, it is to work on something. KDE’s principle of joint ownership is an instance of this approach. If the community decides that to exercise your rights means to change something in the code and that access is allowed equally to everybody, that is democratic. The community could also decide that everybody has a right to vote on a feature and developers may only implement it in the agreed upon way. As long as everybody is an equal in this process, it is still democratic.
      The problem with the do-ocracy is that what it really means is that only technical contributions gain merit in the community. That is a form of discrimination that denies influence to indirect contributors. Strangely, programmers seem to find that convenient and likeable.
      Glyn pointed out in his post that that is an actual problem that hurts Open Source in the long term.

  5. anonymity is great

    If the indirect contributors had equal say in KDE as the direct contributors, then KDE 4.x would not exist (remember the flame wars when KDE 4.0 came out?). So, while users must be encouraged to give positive criticisms (i.e. criticisms that really help to improve the software), they should also understand that, unless they pay, the coder is the one who makes the final decision. If they want to have the final say, then they should start paying developers to implement their ideas, similarly as in a democratic regime the politicians are paid by the tax-payers and are therefore expected to follow their desires.

    For my software, I have a tendency to listen to users, and my software has had many improvements as a consequence of the ideas of the users. But when some idea does not fit in the concept of my work, then I explain that to the user and I take the liberty not to implement it.

    • Are you sure that KDE 4.0 would not exist? It is an assumption that users would not understand the pressures of software engineering, nobody has tried it really.
      The argument “they should also understand that, unless they pay, the coder is the one who makes the final decision” does not appeal to me at all, this is not what Open Source is about.

  6. horncologne

    I am very happy to report that the Drupal community is giving clear recognition to contributors of more than just code. Our \”do-ocracy\” values designers, event organizers, documentation writers, trainers, and everyone else who makes a difference to our community. I can\’t say it is a democracy – and I\’m not even sure it is relevant – but Drupal runs on great code and great community. Lots of transparency, lots of respect, and lots of hugs help. :-)

  7. The democratic aspect of open source reside at the possibility to change the code not to have power in some organization related to this kind of content.

  8. Democracy == mob rule
    Meritocracy == the cream rises to the top
    A Republic == the most likely environment for a true Meritocracy to thrive in.
    Humans have never achieved any of the above in a form that lasts more then a short while. They all collapse based largely on people disagreeing about the very definitions of what each form of ‘government’ really means.

    But at the end of the day, the day belongs not to the wise or the popular but rather to those that deliver the goods even while in the midst of flux.

    Too often the efforts of those that ‘deliver the goods’ are not recognized and their efforts are also often usurped by those who devoted their effort into making the masses believe the lie that with out them the goods could not have been delivered (we generally call them politicians).

    My whole point here is that while this thread is a worthwhile subject, all must agree on the definitions of the terms used in said discussion, i.e., what is a democracy, exactly? And so on.

    Else it just becomes a tower of babble.

    To which I have now added my bit of babble. But I hope some thought is given to making sure all are actually on the same page when using terms like democracy, etc.

    • I agree, terms are important. Over the course of history, “rule of the people” has been interpreted in vastly different ways. For example, the GDR called itself a democracy, even though the rule of the socialist party was set in stone in it’s constitution.
      The problem with meritocracy though is the definition of what the cream is that rises to the top. Far too often, developers think they are that cream, and nobody else should have a say. Which means we have another problem of definition, that of the term merit. Does a user who reports problems in a program gain merit? What about a designer or translator? Who, in the end, really delivers the goods? Only the coders?

    • horncologne

      “But at the end of the day, the day belongs not to the wise or the popular but rather to those that deliver the goods even while in the midst of flux.”

      So maybe good/successful open source projects are “do-ocracies” rather than democracies, republics, etc.

      Whoever gets it done gets it done. If you are “scratching your own itch”, you benefit because your software now does what you needed it to. If you play fair, you give your improvements back to the community. At that point you may or may not garner merit or benefit beyond that, but it doesn’t matter because you got what you needed! And you helped anyone else who finds themselves needing what you did.

  9. Ah, you have indeed caught the real question –call it what you will, the question is who really delivers?

    The farmer that grows the food, the transport people that get the food to market, the people in charge of the market that enable a location for the consumer to come to buy, or the customers who makes the whole wheel spin with the money spent on the food? And where did the money come from that the customers spend?

    While that is on it’s face a rather money centric example, I believe it still does a fair job of describing any system where a good changes hands, which includes Open Source as well as most every human endeavor.

    One could (and I would) argue that it becomes a chicken and the egg problem, wherein one can not separate any part of the whole without destroying the system it’s self.

    On it’s face that would leave one with the conclusion that no part is more valuable then any other part –for removal of any part destroys the whole.

    I code some, but I got there by being a customer with an itch. And that isn’t cream rising, it’s more like churning your own butter (the cream was already there)… you know, ‘stood on the shoulders of giants..’ and so on.

    Who delivers the goods? That’s easy in one aspect –the community is both deliverer and consumer, and in so far as that goes, both are indispensable to each other.

    But that side steps the issue, which I think is actually not so much who delivers the goods as who decides what goods need to be delivered.

    And therein is the rub. I wish I had an answer that was feasible to implement –the answer is, of course, enlightened self interest on all parties part, which requires each recognize the value of the other… but somehow I don’t see that happening real soon.

    But I have not given up all hope, and neither should you (or anyone) because despite everything the community is both proving it possible, and paving the way forward towards the point where all will be aware of the others value to the system.

    It’s just early days yet, in the sense that FLOSS is redesigning the world, and major redesigns like this take a long time, and often much pain and sometimes even blood must be spilled along the way. Awful thought but no doubt true over a long enough time span.

    Possibly the end result will be a form of governance we don’t yet have a word for. That may be a good thing, or a bad thing, I don’t know which but I intend to do my best to help it be a good thing.

    And yes without doubt a user that reports a problem gains merit –but based largely on how he reports it… my coding skills (such as they are) become greatly diminished by someone screaming “X doesn’t work, fix it –right now!”.

    So back on point; ‘Is Open Source democratic?’ I’d say no it is not truly democratic and is not likely to be unless everyone becomes a fair coder… because coders only hear what they want to respond to, and so long as the group that has the ability to scratch the itch remains the only ones that can scratch that itch, you can bet that the only itches that will get scratched are the ones the coder(s) feel (if it’s not their itch…).

    I do not think this is really the best way forward, but as it stands it’s pretty much the way it is, I think.

  10. Credit to horncologne who pretty much covered it while I was busy writing a novel about it.

  11. I don’t think open source is democratic in the traditional sense of the word. As one of the first community-elected Directors of the Drupal Association, what I have seen is that what has been built up over the last twelve-or-so years is both a Free/Open Source Software project, but more so a framework for freedom to happen, mostly focused around the and sites where issues are discussed, cats are herded and things get done – in a more democratic way than in other places, but not a democracy I would say.

    Loud voices get heard, interesting insights get listened to, but not every decision is made by going out and asking all the community for their views. This can especially be seen on the “business” side of Drupal, where I attended many meetings which seemed to suffer from the same issues coders had before they discussed things online – many people would be working around the world on the same things thus duplicating work and not collaborating and innovating as fast as their coding counterparts.

    In order to address this issue – the fact that a wonderful modular piece of software has been built but we haven’t matched that and built the modular business model on top of it, is one of the main reasons we recently set up a Drupal Association Branding and Marketing Committee, developed a charter, and at the recent DrupalCon Munich we took over the Marketing of Drupal group at and are starting to converse with the community at large over there – I urge anyone with a keen interest to come and join in our efforts. We are Open Sourcing Marketing!

    It takes me a lot to put my name behind one particular project, and whilst Drupal, like many other projects, has its issues, I truly believe the structure put in place enables the community to be in control at all times, and however hard that may be to sustain and improve, every time someone manages to stand up to the task and do something about it.

    Thanks for this article, apologies I can only really speak from the Drupal point of view but that’s what I’ve been immersed in for a while.

    Steve Purkiss

    Director, Purkiss Ltd.
    Director, The Drupal Association

    • Thanks for your response! From it and other comments I got, I do get the sense that the Drupal community is a very positive example for community governance. We can all only speak for the communities we are involved in. To generalize and abstract is hard since different projects are run in totally different ways. That makes your insight in Drupal insight even more helpful.

      • It is an amazingly interesting subject – I remember when Eben Moglen’s GPLv3 launch speech where he said people will look back in years to come and find it funny that we only worked these sorts of things out as a community (as opposed to the lobbying approach) for software and not every part of life.

        As you say, every project is different and it’s great to look at other projects for inspiration, and what may fit for one may not fit for another. We are forging new ways, sometimes we stumble, but from what I’ve seen we are growing stronger by working together – not only in Drupal but across many projects, a truly great time to be alive!

  12. @Steve Purkiss

    I read the Defining the PURPOSE of Drupal Branding efforts, on the Drupal Groups site, with particular attention to your ‘Ends, not means please!’ post.

    I found it very interesting that it seems your point is pretty much what I was trying to say when I said “I think is actually not so much who delivers the goods as who decides what goods need to be delivered.” –i.e., The Ends are what in many ways defines the ‘means’.

    I see from reading the thread that you ( the Drupal community) do indeed entertain a good many, sometimes divergent, views. But it also shows how a cohesive group can express differing views, yet understand that eventually some one (or some smaller group) will eventually be defining the ‘Ends’, thus determining the ‘means’.

    Not a democracy, but not a ‘we don’t want input, we’ll let you know our decision when we are ready’ either.

    Seems a reasonable approach, from the brief overview I got from reading one thread.

    I don’t know exactly what form of governance to call it, but keep up the good work.

    • Yes – by focusing on the ‘ends’ we take out any individual / lower-level bias which may affect what ‘means’ we use.

      BTW – you have the most awesome contact form ever on your website that totally made my day ;)

  13. What I noticed most about the thread I read on the site was that there was zero ‘bike shedding’, at least in so far as I could tell –different views, but still on point views.

    That is a rather unusual state in my experience with open forum discussions among developers or coders. In fact ‘bike shedding’ is one of my main reasons for thinking that true democracy’s will probably never work very well in any project.

    Even Anonymous has leaders –and followers.

    I’m happy you did not end up color blind after reading my contact page –but it was my hope to be ‘colorful’, in both meanings of the word. Glad you found it… interesting. I will say it achieves it’s goal.

    • horncologne

      Thanks for the kind words, Don! I’d say we do our share (or more) of bike shedding as a community, you just hit the wrong thread :-)

      I, for one, am scared to email you – mission accomplished! /thumbs-up

  14. Pingback: I ♥ Free Software (and why) | Creative Destruction & Me

  15. Pingback: KDE e.V. General Assembly 2013 | Creative Destruction & Me

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