Ubuntu a Work in Progress

Debate goes on about the political nature of Ubuntu. Nothing new there you might be thinking, well I want you to consider two examples of external factors that push and pull at “Dictatorship vs Meritocracy vs Democracy” and I’ll conclude with some of my own thoughts. First the prologue:

I didn’t get to see Jono Bacon’s post Ubuntu: meritocracy not democracy until today. Shame I missed it, I like reading this stuff.

I’ve been a critic in the past that the DX and Design teams have not been in any way resembling a meritocracy. I’m happy to report that I think that’s changing and there is a real appetite from Canonical to work towards having a community of merit not just a community of business appointment. The mood is set…

It’s the Economy

We want to decide who is more important because we can not reasonably listen to everyone, nor can we reasonable expect to be able to invest our time or money into the personal ventures of every commentator online. So there has to be models to limit who your going to listen to. One way is to listen to the money, you don’t care how dumb the idea is so long as your being paid to do it, economic necessity and a way to create a nice authoritative decision making process.

There is no doubt in my mind that economics drive decision making.

Currently in Ubuntu we have a handful of major economic investors: Community Members, Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical’s Customers, the extended community and Upstreams[5]. Each investor has their own rationales, thoughts on direction and motivations, upstreams don’t tend to care too much what happens in Ubuntu even though they have a large economic input and in the other extreme the extended community has a low economic input in development but want large decision making. Ubuntu Members fall somewhere in between and Mark Shuttleworth falls in a very interesting large impact, single person category.

Who would I say has the majority of the clout? Mark Shuttleworth followed by Ubuntu Members then Canonical’s Customers and finally upstreams and the extended community. The reason OMG Ubuntu polls and brainstorm ideas have no effect? They’re mostly polling the extended community who is hardly involved economically in development.

Of course humans are not always able to conquer their own egos sufficiently to realise their shortcomings and economics has a way of sustaining bad decisions via ego. So we still need to discuss problems and we need to talk to people who have no economic dependence on us, otherwise we’re liable to simply get nodding heads. These discussions must be selective though since we need peer review of our dialectic, but do not have the time to listen to everyone in a very large community of users…

I’m not that Stupid

Users can feel like when they’re told to stop commenting that they’re not welcome in the community. I think it’s hard to tell a user that their point of view is valid but that their input is badly formed and their social awareness makes their opinion of minuscule importance.

No one likes being told they’re too stupid to be listened to, or that because they’ve got a full time job and can’t devote every spare hour to Ubuntu development that they aren’t worthy of someone’s ear and a few minutes of time.

Of course if you just speak a little louder, shout a little more aggressively, say more absurd and conspiratorial things, then maybe someone will listen. Because posting on your blog is helping the Ubuntu community right? Somewhat, if what you have to say is read by the right people, but then they might just ignore you anyway because of the confrontational language.

Of course scale that up to 12 million users and you suddenly see why some people want to start having democracy or at least hierarchy. Users can’t reasonable expect to be listened to, even though their input is vital to drag Ubuntu out of the programmer paradise and into the mainstream.

It’s frustrating being a user and noisy as hell being a developer.


I like the balance that basic Meritocracy brings to the community, Mark could easily be more fallible, more human and simply demand more and talk less about it based on his huge personal investment (est $50m a year). Having and treasuring the idea that any person can become worthy of listening to is important for proper peer review and it’s not a coincidence that this is a very similar process as in traditional natural sciences.

We could improve somewhat the ability for none-developers to have more say simply by allowing them to pay for Ubuntu’s development. It’s scary, hard to organise and damn near impossible in the current banking world. But if we want users to be served right, then we need users to give us the imperative to serve them. Taking money for Ubuntu development is one of the best ways to get the largest numbers of people contributing and thus giving them each a small voice with the developers they do business.

We could all be a little better at involving ourselves in multiple communities and cross pollinating, I know lots of people and most are not in the Ayatana mailing list so when people talk to me about design and dx decisions I can filter, mull over and then re-communicate the most important parts. This is a vital form of social organisation that we must account for, in a good Meritocracy it’s not just what you know or how much good work you’ve done in production but I think it’s just as important to consider the varied social networks we’re apart of that can add depth and experience to our communication.

Of course we could just elect everyone, but I’d rather not have to fight a popularity contest.

What are your thoughts?

14 thoughts on “Ubuntu a Work in Progress

  1. Transgaming had the concept of paying customers of Cedega could vote on the new features the dev team could work on for the next release. I think the customers could even submit new features.

    I haven’t used Cedega in years because I think wine and PlayOnLinux works better and is FREE.

    Could Canonical implement a paid voting service, where user’s could pay some monthly fee and then get rights to vote? What are the consequences of monetizing decision making?

    Should the people who pay for support have voting rights instead of creating a new payment option?

    I know for me, I don’t pay for support and am not really interested enough in making decisions to pay for that power.

  2. If we are talking about meritocracy in the sense that you get re-payed for the work you have done and the merits don`t accumulate then the idea is great if not then i think it`s just another class war.

    even stupid people can have genius ideas and genius people can have stupid ideas . If we stick a genius tag to a person and then we link everything that that person produces to that tag then i believe Ubuntu is doing something stupid.

  3. @Michael
    How about paying for wanted features ? and if the idea is good others will want it too and pay themselves for that feature and if the amount is satisfying someone will develop it . if canonical will make such a system and hold a small commission then they also can make money without developing anything.
    If the amount doesn`t get satisfying high in an amount of time (1-2 years) then it should get redirected to the feature with the highest amount bided on.

  4. I dislike the word meritocracy, it sounds elitist. It seems part of what meritocracy get at is the contradiction between workers democracy and consumers democracy. There’s much wisdom to the notion that a great degree of decision making freedom should go to those who expend their labor.

    What frustrates me is the FU attitude Ubuntu has had with their recent ideas. One would think Steve Jobs just bought the company.

    It really comes down to the notion of doing it to vs doing it with. Way to much emphasis on branding gimicks vs putting out a stable distro.

    I much prefer the way Linux Mint approaches the user. Rather than moving everything in Jobs direction it gave the users a choice.

    Ubuntu feels like AT&T to me. You happily use their infrastructure but you get your service from a local telco or distro that is Ubuntu based.

  5. I agree with Henry with the use of the word meritocracy, it sounds very much like doublespeak – maybe someone in marketing could come up with a clearer word?

  6. I’m not a developer, but for my business I use numerous Bash and Python scripts to get my work done. One of my Bash scripts stretches 8 pages because of the multiple menus in them. Writing those scripts requires that I write the code correctly, that the static router settings are correct, etc., etc. Thus I’m in a meritocracy of one.

    There is just no way I could delegate that code-writing endeavor or democratize it. The problems within those scripts fall right at my desk and stay there until I solve them. I’d spend weeks trying to explain my code to another person and would prefer not to do that.

    I can imagine very easily that developers prefer a small closed group who understand things at the same level, get along with each other and know who does the best stuff and in which realm. No democracy there either and what isn’t meritorious would get dumped very quickly.

    Then there are the users who want every feature in their software, want all their problems fixed immediately and don’t understand why, after multiple attempts to yell loudest, they aren’t getting what they want. (like a kid in a grocery store showing bad behavior but demanding ice cream)

    So there’s a natural collision between developers and users. It would be nice if they could “respect” each other, but first they need to talk together with a base understanding about what’s involved.

    Democracy is more like a circus with multiple clowns when emotions crowd out reason. I’m much closer to the meritocracy camp.

  7. I think everyone has a opinion which should not be worthless, but I still agree that someone who has contributed significant amount of time in development should have a stronger influence and a louder say than a person who just voices his opinion.

    It isn’t saying FU to the users, but you cannot please everyone. If there is a deadlock, the person with more contribution should be listened more carefully. It is more like rewarding for your contributions.

    Just imagine, I contribute a lot of Ubuntu, give a lot of time, I am ont doing this for money, so there is hardly any such incentive. It is pure out of passion. When it comes to taking decisions, some random dude’s opinion is given more importance than me who knows the thing inside out and has also being contributing.

  8. any OS is meant to be used by users or is it meant to be just for it`s devs?

    Software isn`t just writen … it is also designed … you don`t have to know something inside out to come with a briliant idea even if that is from chance/ mistake it shouldn`t be disregarded .
    Meritocracy leaves everything coming from outside the established contributors on the outside .
    Meritocracy enables those that contributed more contribute more even if their contribution is of less value then those that contributed less. do you think this is healthy?
    So should I , the user, just shut up?

  9. @valentin

    Even I am not a developer, but I feel that people who have given their tremendous efforts should have a final say after considering all the options.

    “”Meritocracy leaves everything coming from outside the established contributors on the outside .””
    Disagree! Disagree! Disagree!
    Meritocracy means your opinions carry more weight and you can influence decisions because you have given your best to improve the thing. Don’t forget – many developers at one time were users who got interested and contributed and now have a good say in the decisions.

    No one is saying that normal users should be left out, I only say that normal users should stop freaking out when their proposals are turned down.

    “”you don`t have to know something inside out to come with a briliant idea even if that is from chance/ mistake it shouldn`t be disregarded .””
    I again agree, but giving everyone equal share in voting is a bit turn off for long time developers. Voting can be used to gauge public opinion, but final decisions should not be taken in polls.

    People participating in polls think if that feature is useful for them or not. The developers don’t think that way. They need to think how a feature is useful for vast majority of people. When I participate in a poll. I mark the answer with bias thinking if that is good for “me” and hardly think of whether it can be disastrous for others.

  10. If Ubuntu.com encouraged engaging your local programmers to add the feature, then Ubuntu’s primary goal around this concern will be making it very obvious how to access the latest version of code (mostly done already) and how to get changes reviewed (not easy to figure out).

    I’m a user who professionally writes C/C++/Python code, but with Ubuntu bugs (some I’ve fixed!) I have no idea how to contribute back the changes.

    Site should say:
    Want a feature? Hire a dev etc
    Are you being paid to add a feature to Ubuntu:
    Determine which program
    Get latest from Launchpad
    Submit changes back

  11. I’m in the Ayatana mailing list and an admin on the Ayatana UX team, but I never read anything on the ML. I just have it filter into a label in Gmail. I had so many emails a day from it, it was just unrealistic to be able to read them all – most of which are long, boring essays.

    I think the talking : doing ratio of Ayatana is way out of balance.

  12. @Benjamin

    This is exactly why I stopped reading Ayatana. The list is incredibly dense full of mails. The subsequent replies are usually longer than one mail prior to it.

    Ayatana has incredible ideas, and sometimes I feel we are short of implementers.

  13. Comment from a humble user: I am sure that development cannot be democratic. People usually don´t know what exactly they want and what exactly annoys them. There is probably only one solution – testing, testing, testing on human beings. It is expensive and difficult, but imho the only way forward. People don´t tend to give you second chance.
    On the other hand, I am sure that Brainstorm is not useless. It can (and should) serve as a good starting point for research. Like hugely voted-for system menu-associated ideas, for start.

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