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Drupal Community Dynamics: The Emerging Politics of a Growing Meritocracy

Submitted by admin on Fri, 06/20/2008 - 13:55

... now wouldn't that be a great blog post!? Actually, it would probably take a dissertation to cover the topic adequately. For now, I decided that I might as well share/re-use/build-on a comment I just submitted in the g.d.o forum.

The informal "5 à 7" format of the last Drupal meetup in Montreal was really nice. I met new people and got to follow-up on some really interesting conversations with people I already knew and respected. Personally, the discussion that stands out was related to the dynamics surrounding the current patch review and the lack of a prioritisation process. Topic such as this are, IMO, ultimately political in nature and will be increasingly unavoidable in the context of a growing community.

It started with the question of how we can try to avoid "popular" patches from sitting in the issue queue for too long. On the one hand, the "+1/-1" approach doesn't cut it at the moment since what we really want are reviews and comments. On the other hand, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We could certainly benefit from some kind of rating or prioritisation system which could, among other things, help developers identify tasks to work on.

But these are murky waters. We are all far too familiar with the weaknesses/"gameability" of technocratic solutions and, IMO, the community is weary of any discussion that could spill over into a debate about its "internal politics". The facts remain, however, that the community is getting larger all the time and that there are always political dimensions when large groups of people collaborate.

The way I see it, back in the day Drupal was like a village where a typical resident had a good chance of getting to know most of the other residents and could keep an eye on pretty much everything going on. In such a situation, meritocratic (social control) systems work very well and little structure is needed. At this point, however, Drupal is like a city where there are new people coming and going all the time and where nobody can truly claim to be aware of everything happening. While meritocratic structures can still work in this context, they require tools and metrics to function.

At the moment, AFAIK there is little talk about the nature, representativity or effectiveness of existing decision-making structures and echelons within the Drupal community. Nobody wants to get bogged down in a political quagmire, especially not one that will highlight the varied nature, interests and access of the contributors to the project and, in doing so, threatens to create divisions and tensions within the community.

Moreover, many would surely say that everything is working fine as it is. Ultimately, however, I don't think that we will be able to avoid asking the question "For whom is it working fine or from what perspective it is working fine?"

In DrupalCon in Boston, for example, when discussing various approaches for prioritisation of issues and rating of comments, one very prominent member of the community said flat-out "If I see anything with 'fivestar' in it, I'll shoot it out of the sky". To him it boiled down to "the people who have more time to invest in reading/commenting/debating should have more say". While this seems reasonable on the surface of things, it is overly simplistic in that it doesn't take into account a whole series of dynamics that exist in the community and that, IMO, ought to be recognised. These include:

* Some are paid to spend hours/days reading/commenting in forums while others are not, thereby creating different classes of users;
* The loudest/last/most-eloquent-in-English-commenter-wins syndrome (as opposed to the "most persuasive");
* The fact that non-experts, especially in large numbers, can provide valid alternative opinions.

Needless to say, this person was 1) somebody who is paid to maintain a high-level presence in the community, 2) a person who can communicate/argue clearly and ferociously in English, and 3) is an long time contributor/expert with lots of cred in the community.

My point here is not that we should undertake a which hunt, or to propose the establishment of some kind of eutopic decision-making process/structure (at least not yet ;-)). Rather, it is to encourage recognition of the power-dynamics that exist within the community such that the solutions we come up with will reflect the needs and concerns of a broader range of players. This is not, after all, a zero-sum game.

I'd argue that there is a lot of place for tools that, while not decisional in nature, could facilitate and encourage participation for developers and implementors/users alike by reducing the overhead involved. Whether this involves a rating system allowing more people to contribute to prioritisation of tasks, a Slashdot-like comment filtering, or any number of other possibilities has yet to be seen. However we need to start by avoiding the "every is working for me" mentality. We are all self-interested beings. There's nothing wrong with that. There *is* something wrong, however, if/when we don't recognise other people's perspectives, especially those belonging to groups who are not already positioned and equipped to express them.

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