If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, open-source software represents the democratic promise of the internet: collaboratively developed source code being used to kickstart the projects of vast numbers of individuals and organizations. People all over the world can contribute as much as they want to creating, critiquing, and refining code. The pool of contributors is large, and the mission is a shared one that can be owned by the masses, rather than by traditionally powerful entities like large companies or wealthy individuals.
But if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person, this dream ignores the realities of our economy: Power and money themselves are not the only manifestations of wealth. Time is the currency that open-source technology relies on — but time is not readily available to those who are caring for family members or working multiple jobs. The open source community has recently come to recognize and grapple with the predominant role of time-privileged people within open source projects.
Compounding this issue, corporate behemoths have become adept at capturing the value of open source. Recent acquisitions of open source pillars such as Red Hat (by IBM) and Github (by Microsoft) exemplify this trend. Open source advocates are also sounding the alarm about “open source abuse” by opportunists, such as Amazon, who are quickly launching proprietary products by taking advantage of open architectures and free code bases that volunteer contributors have built up over many years, without actively participating in the open source project and making an appropriate investment back to the community.
These two issues combined raise serious concerns about equity and fairness. Diversity and inclusion are important values to Blue State and many of our clients. We’ve looked at our own company and identified where we need to improve. Developing with open source is a core pillar of Blue State’s technology practice — nearly all of the platforms we build for clients are built on either Drupal or WordPress — so it’s important to consider how our commitment extends more broadly to our support of open source software.
In April, our New York team trekked to the West Coast to present at DrupalCon 2019 with our client Teach for America. We shared how we’ve used open-source frameworks to take a more modular approach to designing and building websites.
The conference paid more attention than usual to the topic of inclusion. The multi-tracked schedule was peppered with training sessions, talks, and discussion groups centered around inclusivity and diversity in tech. Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, dedicated a solid portion of his keynote to acknowledging the need to actively welcome and bring more diverse voices into the Drupal community.
While the effort was admirable, some of the attendees felt like it was too little, too late. The friction Drupal is feeling is more about economic inclusivity than other identity factors. We heard from some contributors who are unhappy about lack of compensation — especially given the toll the project can take on volunteers’ personal lives. These developers feel tremendous pressure to finish their work to meet release milestones — the same pressure that any employed software developer feels from their employer. However, the only reward these volunteers receive from Drupal.org is shout-outs to the most active contributors.
The picture becomes worse when you consider Drupal’s increased focus over the past few years on the enterprise market. Fewer — but bigger — customers means fewer individuals are benefitting from the innovative work built into Drupal, though labor that goes into development is still freely contributed by a diffuse group of volunteers. If big commercial interests are capturing the value created, shouldn’t they be funding development more directly?
What could the future of open source look like?
A few solutions were batted around during DrupalCon. Drupal could push more of the contribution responsibilities to larger enterprise customers and partners who have been benefitting from the free labor of its community for so long. Open-source projects like Drupal could compensate top contributors with more than just a “shout out” and a pat on the back by investing in paid work for its most important pillars, making sure the community includes more than the people who can afford to do unpaid labor. In a June 2019 blog post, Dries has applauded Github Sponsors and Open Collective, new peer-to-peer funding initiatives for open source communities, potentially signaling something similar may be coming for Drupal.
The future of Drupal and other open source projects doesn’t have to be dystopian. Many smart, creative people have volunteered so much time to the project because they believe in it — so there’s reason to believe that that same community can design solutions that are more inclusive and respectful of the value of the labor that has made it such a successful platform.
Have ideas about the future of inclusive software? So do we — let’s talk.