Where are they now?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 18, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Years ago, the short-lived Maximum Linux magazine ran a graphic showing Eric Raymond, Richard Stallman, and Linus Torvalds wearing the gang colors of open source. Naturally, Stallman protested in the next issue that he was an advocate of free software, not open source, but the point is that, back then, it was easy to point out the leaders of free and open source software (FOSS) in a way that would be impossible today. And I can't help thinking that's a healthy sign.

I was reminded of how much things have changed when I read about Bruce Perens' keynote at linux.conf.au this week. If the Maximum Linux graphic had added a fourth or fifth figure, that figure would probably have Perens. But now? Although I was peripherally aware of him giving the occasional talk, his influence had faded. I doubt that many newcomers to the community would be even aware of his involvement in the early days of FOSS.

The same is true of Eric Raymond. The Cathedral and the Bazaar was influential in its day, and left a lasting influence on the way people think of FOSS. Yet, today, people rarely cite it. Moreover, Raymond himself has been marginalized, partly because he is keeping quiet for whatever reason, and partly because of his gun advocacy and whacked-out Libertarianism, which includes racist views of blacks and Arabs.

True, Richard Stallman is still president of the Free Software Foundation and spends much of his time on the road, repeating what he has said for the last quarter century. Yet like Raymond, Stallman has also marginalized himself by eccentricities and repeated gaffes, while the free software movement, I regret to say, has visibly lost influence in the last few years.

In fact, of those who were seen a decade ago as speakers for the community, only Linus Torvalds can be said to have anything like the same influence today -- and even he might be said to have stepped back as lieutenants such as Greg Kroah-Hartman have become more active.

But, then, unlike the other supposed community speakers, Torvalds has never seemed particularly interested in being a thought-leader, or anything else but the supervisor of the Linux kernel. If anything, he seems genuinely embarrassed when thrust into the spotlight, appearing there only out of a sense of obligation and for as brief a time as possible.

Meanwhile, nobody else has stepped forward to replace these community representatives. Nor does anyone lament their absence. Apparently, FOSS has outgrown the need for such figures, and no one notices or cares.

Outgrowing leaders

Probably, such community representatives are to a large extent a media creation. Journalists always like to explain an unfamiliar topic by focusing on a few people, and, while this tactic is understandable, it is not always accurate. Even when the Maximum Linux graphic ran, all community members didn't depend heavily on prominent colleagues to tell them what to think. FOSS has always been too anarchistic for that.

Even so, such figures were influential in their time to a degree that is hard to imagine today. So what happened?

Burnout doesn't seem to have been a major factor. Stallman and Torvalds, at least, are still doing today what they have always done. And if you look at long-lived projects like Debian, you find many of the same people active today as they were a decade ago.

True, some are less active than they were because of family obligations, and some have returned after taking a rest. Still, in the long run, people who become active in the community usually remain active.

Instead, I take the lack of thought-leaders as an indication of FOSS' success. Back when the speakers for FOSS were obvious, the community was a smaller place. It might be an exaggeration to say that everyone knew everyone else then, but not much of one. Even in the first years of the split between free software and open source, the division was more an argument over branding than the acrimonious affair that it later became. Perens, for instance, could talk about "open source" but in terms that were no different than those a free software supporter would use.

In such circumstances, influencing or representing the community was easy. There were fewer interests to represent or placate. Such differences as there were hadn't hardened into permanent disputes.

Today, though, FOSS is a much larger and diverse place. That means that representing the whole has become harder. I've encountered one or two ambitious people who would like to speak for the whole of FOSS (or even simply to be the official representatives of their corner of it), but they are almost certain to fail, because the required unity of outlook no longer exists.

Some -- especially would-be community representatives -- might lament this change. Nor is there any question that the change might prove inconvenient if the need ever exists for the community to work together for a common interest, such as a sustained civic action against legislation like SOPA or PITA in the United States.

Yet, at the same time, a community that doesn't rely on leaders is a resilient one. A major reason why the Canadians were elite troops in World War One is that, before a campaign, every soldier was briefed on the objectives, and corporals carried maps. As a result, the death of officers didn't render Canadian troops ineffective; no matter what happened, they all knew what to do.

In the same way, FOSS today doesn't need the sort of leaders it once had. The philosophy and the goals are widely known, and the retirement, co-option or otherwise removal of a leader won't slow the community to any extent.

When FOSS was young, maybe it needed leaders. And definitely, every FOSS supporter today has reason to be grateful to the leaders of the past. But, unlike proprietary software, FOSS no longer needs the equivalent of a Steve Jobs to guide it. It's outgrown the need, if in fact the need ever existed.

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