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?