Considering Open – Rethinking Cathedral and Bazaar

I was reading an excellent blog post titled “Open isn’t so open anymore” written by George Siemens. George makes points about how quickly things move from “open as activism”, “open as revolution”, and “open as an agent of change” to “sustainable open” and “organized and structured open”.

George’s particular concern is that the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is moving too quickly from the first phase to the second phase. I agree with George that the time where open movements make the greatest innovations and are at their best at exploring new problem spaces when they are operating with an activist perspective

My favorite quote of George’s article is here:

Richard Stallman has been somewhat replaced by, or even written out of, the open source movement. I’ve [George] stated in the past that I’m concerned about open education suffering the fate of Stallman – marginalized because it [the activist approach] is not palatable at the “power table”.

His article continues to talk about how the words “open”, “free”, “democracy”, “meritocracy”, and others have been used so much to mean different things by folks with different perspectives that the words themselves almost become useless in the debate.

We want to come up with some words and some criteria that we can generally apply and separate the “cathedral” from the “bazaar”.

Those of us who are long-term citizens of the bazaar are always frustrated when members of the cathedral adopt some of the approaches of the bazaar and some of the vernacular of the bazaar and then declare that they are “citizens of the bazaar” and that they have come up with some new combination of cathedral and bazaar that is better than the pure bazaar. Since cathedral and bazaar are the least confused terms in current use, I will use them in my own exploration of what it means to be a “citizen of the bazaar”.

Citizenship in the Bazaar

I will propose a few simple rules for a person or a project to be a “citizen of the bazaar” – if you violate those rules, you can be a citizen of the cathedral with bazaar leanings, a citizen of your own island that you found – you can be anything you want – just not a real citizen of the bazaar. We start with some of the fundamental rules for citizenship. Many non-bazaar people and projects follow these rules – these rules are necessary but not sufficient.

(1) Must release software/content under an open license that allows both commercial and non-commercial participation, remix, forking, and reuse.

(2) Must have open processes – must discuss everything about the project and product in the open. Must have open lists and let any interested party participate in the creative processes. There may be a core set of decision makers and it may take some demonstration of skill and commitment to become part of the core team (i.e. meritocracy). Decisions are made by the core team using open processes and considering all input.

Lots of projects call themselves “open” by following these two rules and figure that is enough to be a citizen of the bazaar. But there a few more difficult rules that leave a number of projects as “bazaar wannabes”. These rules are as follows:

(3) There is no “power table” (terminology taken from George’s post) nor hierarchy structure. In the bazaar, the closest thing we have to structure is King Arthur’s round table. Different people have different skills, and different roles (leadership is one highly valuable roles), and different contributions. But these different roles do not result in “layers” of structure where lower layers “report to” or “are controlled by” the higher layers.

(4) Participants are individual contributors – not institutional representatives. If an institution brings a lot of resources into a bazaar community – it simply makes things better – it does not automatically change the “balance of power” through the number of votes since the “power table” is round. An institution can greatly affect the future direction of a product by bringing resources to bear with a particular perspective. I have seen many situations where individual contributors make decisions considering the long-term best interest of the community over the short-term best interest of their particular institution. This is part of that “open as activist” principle and what you learn is that over time is that the long-term interests of the community and the long-term interests of the institution are the same – even if the management of the institution providing the resources does not (yet) realize it.

(5) There is no “complaint department” – if you are unhappy about something – don’t complain about it – do something about it. A common source of “complaints” is the people who use the software /content but are not part of its creation – the users see the “citizens of the bazaar” as a resource that has created a product that is 98% perfect for them – and as such they expect that by shouting at the software’s creators, once they are properly chastised about the missing 2% will leap into action and address the issues. Cathedral-dwellers are completely habituated to the notion that if you make a big enough fuss – you get your way. Sorry – the bazaar does not operate that way – you want it done – get involved and find a way to help.

(6) There is a culture of “choice” and “volunteerism” – people are citizens of a bazaar community because they want to be there. Even if their entire salary is paid by some organization – they are in the community because they like the community and would do the work for free even if they were not being paid for it. By assuming that everyone is volunteering, it engenders a culture of mutual respect and appreciation. There can be no “orders” or even the slightest bit of “coercion” – people who do something because they “must” do it or being “forced” in any way are not bringing their best energy. The goal is not to assemble a lot of brute force resources – but instead to accept a team of any size as long as their are there because they want to be there.

(7) Bazaar communities are characterized by patience. While these communities are amazingly quick, productive and efficient, they are seldom in a rush to get anything done. The goal is to do it “right” rather than do it “now” – because we all know that the quickest way to get something done is to do it the right way. When you compromise quality to meet a schedule it always takes more resources to fix something after release than to fix it before release. And investing in good structure in the short term makes all future resource investments far more effective. Bazaar communities always are thinking long-term – cathedral-communities (open or otherwise) often place things like schedule and features above the quality of the product.

(8) When some limited structure is needed for sustain a bazaar community great care must be taken to insure that the structure itself does not violate any of the above rules. For example, it is often necessary to create some sort of legal structure (like a Foundation) to gather funds, run conferences, pay for servers, buy beer, whatever. These Foundations often attract the cathedral-types because they look like a higher layer above the citizens of the bazaar and so it looks like a place to bring cathedral approaches into the bazaar community. So how does a bazaar community inoculate itself against the invasion of cathedral thinking? Well one approach is insure that all board members are long-term contributors in the bazaar and as such they *understand* the ways of the bazaar. As an example the Python Software Foundation members must all be Python contributors. This insures that the PSF board will never try to try to assert that the board is “above” the Python community. The Python board understands that its roles is to support the community – not to direct the community.


Words like “free software”, “open source” and even “open” mean so many things to many people and these definitions have been co-opted to mean whatever folks want them to mean. In essense when a project claims to be “open source” – then only thing you can be sure of is that they release source. A project can claim to be “free software” if they don’t charge for at least one version of their product. A project or product can claim to be “open” if they do not release source code and if they charge for their software – but somehow have a way to be “extended”.

I have given up trying to reclaim the words “open”, “open source”, and “free software”. So instead, I go back to “cathedral” and “bazaar”. And all I try to do is to draw a relatively bright border about what is and is not a genuine bazaar. I feel that there are lots of structures that are valid and correct – but to be a real bazaar, I set a pretty high bar and provide some pretty clear criteria.

The simple summary of the principles of the bazaar are: (1) free software, (2) open software, (3) flat power structure (a round table), (4) contributors are members as individuals, (5) don’t bother to complain – just get to work, (6) everyone treats everyone else as if they are “volunteers”, (7) the project focuses on quality and long-term value not short-term schedules, and (8) when structure is needed it is minimal and does not strive to become a “higher level layer of management”.

I reiterate that these rules do not define “good” and “bad” – they just try to put a sharp set of definitions around the kind of communities that I like to be part of. In the old days we called it “free software” or “open software” – but those terms have been co-opted by cathedral-dwellers – so I retreat to trying to define the word “bazaar”.

There is nothing wrong with being a non-bazaar community – communities exist for the purposes of those that are members and contributors to the communities. I just want folks who structure communities to be conscious about the choices that they are making when they create the structure and norms for community governance. But if you want to make a truly-bazaar community that is like Apache or Python and gain the benefits of a truly-bazaar community, you must follow *all* the rules.

Comments welcome.

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