Are You An Open Source Pragmatist, Really?

As far as I’m convinced, one of the things that will forever exist within the WordPress development community is the various degrees to which we align ourselves with the principles of open source software.

Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is that the development community is forever going to be debating over the “spirit of the law,” or the “letter of the law” of the GPL, and will be deriving their actions and choices based on their interpretation.

But this post isn’t so much about my particular stance on the GPL. Instead, it’s more about something that I’ve seen being shared throughout the rest of the WordPress development community since late last week.

Scribu – a prominent figure in the WordPress development community – recently shared a quote from Eric Raymond about open-source and pragmatism.

To pragmatists the GPL is important as a tool, rather than as an end in itself. Its main value is not as a weapon against ‘hoarding’, but as a tool for encouraging software sharing and the growth of bazaar-mode development communities. The pragmatist values having good tools and toys more than he dislikes commercialism, and may use high-quality commercial software without ideological discomfort. At the same time, his open-source experience has taught him standards of technical quality that very little closed software can meet.

I’ve seen this post retweeted, reblogged, or shared by a number of other developers – some in WordPress, some not – and all of them basically reduce to the following point:

I’m realizing then I’m an open source pragmatist.

I love it when I see people take a stance on an issue - especially a divisive issue – and do so in a respectful manner.

But here’s the thing: The quote shared and being retweeted is part of a much longer article that I’ve found extremely fascinating. So much so, that I’ve read it a number of times in order to make sure that I’ve fully grokked all points that it contains.

You can choose to read the entire article or not (but if you’re going to be identifying yourself as a sort of pragmatist, wouldn’t it make sense to know the larger context? :)).

The Varieties of an Open Source Pragmatist

Anyway, the article – aptly named The Varieties of Hacker Ideology - reduces the hacker ideology into two varieties:

1. “Zealotry”

The article identifies three characteristics of people with varying degrees of zealotry.

To quote the article, a person of…

  • “Great zeal might say ‘Free software is my life! I exist to create useful, beautiful programs and information resources, and then give them away.’”
  • “Moderate zeal might say ‘Open source is a good thing, which I am willing to spend significant time helping [it] happen.’”
  • “Little zeal might say “Yes, open source is okay sometimes. I play with it and respect people who build it.’”

2. “Hostility To Commercial Software”

Next, the article identifies three characteristics of people with varying degrees of hostility.

Again, to quote the article:

  • “A very anticommercial person might say ‘Commercial software is theft and hoarding. I write free software to end this evil.’”
  • “A moderately anticommercial person might say ‘Commercial software in general is OK because programmers deserve to get paid, but companies that coast on shoddy products and throw their weight around are evil.’”
  • “An un-anticommercial person might say ‘Commercial software is okay, I just use and/or write open-source software because I like it better.’”

The Combinations Thereof

Assuming that the above variations are accurate and true and aren’t excluding any other degrees of zealotry or hostility, there there are nine combinations of which a person may be:

  1. Having great zeal, and being very anticommercial
  2. Having great zeal, and being moderately anticommercial
  3. Having great zeal, and being un-anticommercial
  4. Having moderate zeal, and being very anticommercial
  5. Having moderate zeal, and being moderately anticommercial
  6. Having moderate zeal, and being very un-anticommercial
  7. Having little zeal, and being very anticommercial
  8. Having little zeal, and being moderate anticommercial
  9. Having little zeal, and being very un-anticommercial

When it comes to where the WordPress development community, my guess is that we actually fall all over the map; however, that doesn’t keep us from having bi-weekly (or weekly?) debates over some aspect of the software or the nuances that come with it.

Granted, we all have our positions because we’re passionate about the software and we’re passionate about publishing. That much we can agree on, but there is a lot of room for conversation in between.

Given the combinations of ideologies above, I think it’s fair to assume that when debates arise, I don’t think it’s the same two (or three or four, etc.) groups of people who are arguing about the idea.

Instead, I think that the topic in question breeds debates with the ideologies with which it most aligns and clashes.

So the next time that a debate in our development community arises, perhaps we could continue to have productive conversations by having a bit of a clearer understanding as to where the opposing viewpoint is positioned.

So Where Do You Stand?

Whenever a debate within the community arises, I’ve often been asked my opinion on what I think about certain things.

For the most part, I tend to remain quiet primarily because I personally don’t think arguing about things via Twitter is very productive, and I’ve mixed feelings about doing the same in blog comments (though I do think they are a bit of a better medium).

Anyway, I figure that if I’m going to write a post like this and say this:

I love it when I see people take a stance on an issue - especially a divisive issue – and do so in a respectful manner.

Then I should at least provide my general stance on the whole thing.

But first, I’ll make single disclaimer: I think it’s possible to have a different ideology based on the aspect of open source software about which you’re talking.

For example, I may feel one way about, say, Linux than I do about WordPress than I do about Rails than I do about jQuery, etc.

And I say this simply because these applications are relevant to a different place in the market, so the philosophy behind, say, an operating system is not necessary true for the philosophy behind, say, a JavaScript library.

We get involved with open-source for different reasons and those reasons are often rooted in a variety of things the least of which does not have to do with zealotry or hostility.

So, with that said, I identify myself as someone having moderate zeal and I am un-anticommercial. I do consider myself an open source pragmatist.

But now it’s your turn. If your willing to share, retweet, or get in on the “open source pragmatist” original, then share where you stand and I urge you to even go as far as to declare your level of zeal and hostility.

I’m genuinely interested in hearing it.

25 Comments

moderate, moderate.

here here.

Moderate, un-anticommercial

I make a living building things on top of Open Source software and I use some great commercial software while doing it.

moderate zeal, non anti-commercial

In my current thinking, I am moderately zealous, and un-anti-commercial software.
Please read my blog for a more detailed explanation.

6. Having moderate zeal, and being very un-anticommercial.

As an aside, this is all about values, and values along with resources/assets are the things people have fought some of the bloodiest battles over for time eternal (just google “English Reformation” for a great example.) And values are usually intertwined with identity.

Sadly values and identity are so engrained in many people feelings of right and wrong, self-respect and self-worth that having respectful conversations can be very difficult if not impossible, especially among those who do not identify with the middle.

But I digress…

P.S. Funny what a tortured choice of label this is: “un-anticommercial” :)

    Sadly values and identity are so engrained in many people feelings of right and wrong, self-respect and self-worth that having respectful conversations can be very difficult if not impossible, especially among those who do not identify with the middle.

    But do you think that this can be overcome?

    Honestly, I’ve no idea. There are some friends of mine who are die hard on one end of the spectrum (or the other), but they’ll entertain a respectful conversation – at least in person – even if we don’t come away changing one another’s minds (though I’m not sure that’s my goal to begin with, anyway).

    We typically see that people are far more on the offense (or the defense) on the web than we do face-to-face. The irony is that most of us who work online for a living know that we behave that way. So why not aim to change it a little?

    Anyway, yes – “un-anticommercial” could’ve been said better. In fact, there are a few terms with which I was discussing with John that really made me question my stance – terms such as “better” or “evil.”

    But that’s a longer conversation.

      But do you think that this can be overcome?

      Frankly, no. I think it’s human nature and we’ve just got to individually learn to deal with it.

      Not to be a pessimist, seeing how technology has helped empower the political parties to enrage the extremists in their base against “the enemy” (people with differing values who identify with the other party) I just don’t see much hope for a Kumbaya world, at least not in my lifetime. And especially not online.

        Frankly, no. I think it’s human nature and we’ve just got to individually learn to deal with

        Truth be told, I’m apt to agree with you. I don’t like to consider myself a pessimist, but I generally don’t assume that “the enemy” is going to use technology or whatever means for the betterment of anyone but their own agenda.

        Thing is, we’re all someone else’s enemy.

        That’s a bit of hyperbole, of course :). I just mean that we’re each a person with which someone else disagrees.

          “we’re all someone else’s enemy” is a sad conclusion.

          maybe if you approached “pragmatism” from a point of view of the people (you would call them users) for whom you are developing you would discover something else? I believe Matt Mullenweg has repeatedly made this point … it’s about protecting end-users freedom’s, not yours (as developers)!

          I also believe that this debate about “pragmatism” is another reflection of a self-centered (I do not mean this as a criticism, but as an observation) mentality that I believe dominates open-source development (and developers). Developers love to develop what they love to use (this is probably true of most people, but developers actually have the skills to bring this to life). Developers tend to develop for themselves … resulting in (usually) very poor (or at least highly debatable) user experiences … which is one of the greatest limiting factors of open-source adoption … and that, in my mind, is a very pragmatic problem!

          Sidenote: I did not have patience to read through the original article you linked to. I was turned off by the definition of open-source in the 1st paragraph: “software that is freely redistributable and can readily evolved and be modified to fit changing needs”.

          Shouldn’t it be something like “software that protects its users freedoms”?

          It’s not about you. It’s not about how you view yourself. It’s about your role in and relationship with the world around you. It isn’t about enemies. It’s about friends.

            “we’re all someone else’s enemy” is a sad conclusion.

            To which I immediately followed saying that this was hyperbole and went on to define this: “I just mean that we’re each a person with which someone else disagrees.”

            And I think this is a fact of life: There are simply going to be people with which we disagree (just like you’ve disagreed with something I’ve said).

            I also do think that there is a self-centered mentality in a subculture of the development industry, but not all of us are like that.

            Based on your comment, I assume you’re addressing me directly (since you make the disclaimer that it’s not a criticism), but I’m one of the biggest proponents for understanding our users – not for creating things for myself:

            Some examples of things I’ve written about this:

            Thinking Holistically About WordPress Plugins: The User’s Experience
            Creating User Interfaces: A Developer’s Perspective
            WordPress User Interface Design

            Additionally, I try to blog here for the sake of discussion as well as other parts of the web (see here and here), so I do take issue with being lumped into a self-centered mindset when the majority of work that I do outside of my own contract work is meant fully to discuss and educate others.

            Finally, the things that I’ve released freely have been done so to help other publishers – not to benefit me.

            If you’ve not read the entire article, there’s not much I can comment on regarding that, but you mention:

            Shouldn’t it be something like “software that protects its users freedoms”?

            Sure, free software does that (or should do that – that’s another debate). But it’s not mutually exclusive to being “freely redistributable and can readily evolved and be modified to fit changing needs.”

            Couldn’t “readily evolved and be modified to fit changing needs” be a long way of saying “protecting users freedoms?”

            I don’t know – perhaps. Regardless, the two terms aren’t at odds with each other.

            Finally, I don’t disagree with this:

            It’s about your role in and relationship with the world around you. It isn’t about enemies. It’s about friends.

            I’ve admitted in a previous comment that I have friends with which I disagree:

            Honestly, I’ve no idea. There are some friends of mine who are die hard on one end of the spectrum (or the other), but they’ll entertain a respectful conversation – at least in person – even if we don’t come away changing one another’s minds (though I’m not sure that’s my goal to begin with, anyway).

            And I enjoy said conversation with them.

            But the truth of the matter is that, in the world, not everyone gets along and we all have different ideologies – we still make progress, though – that’s a good thing.

              I REALLY (please pause and read that word a few times) wasn’t talking about you specifically. I don’t know you at all. This is the first of your posts that I’ve read … AND that goes again to my point (which I again offer as an observation not as a criticism) that tendency to think it IS about you.

              This is a big issue (I invite you to watch the video currently at this page: http://sacred-economics.com/) … and my experience has shown it tends to be more prominant with developers (generally speaking!).

              As for the open-source definition, I am not inclined to argue with you as that would be disrespectful and probably pointless. I can offer two reflections. I do believe that the second definition (protecting user’s freedoms) is more clear, simple and has wider reach and applicability. It provides better, simpler answer when moral questions do arise. It is harder to argue. I believe that if you reflect on the recent Envanto story – that the first definition did not provide clarity. The second did.

              As for user experience design:
              1. If I get around to reading your other articles I may be able to relate more/better.
              2. The only way I know of to demonstrate the differences in our opinions is to work together. Otherwise its just intellectual masturbation. I have (for now) given up on trying to do this within the WordPress ecosystem … but who knows … maybe one day.
              3. The best (and entertaining) argument on this point that I’ve come across is this book: http://www.amazon.com/Inmates-Are-Running-Asylum-Products/dp/0672326140/

              I’m not a fan of ideologies.

              If you are up to it go to minute 17 of this talk and listen for 30 seconds: http://nextberlin.eu/2013/04/harper-reed-big-data/

Thanks for posting this and breaking down Eric Raymond’s article. It’s on my reading list but for now I would identify myself as “Having moderate zeal, and being very un-anticommercial”

I suspect most people in the community who make money off WordPress or release plugins and themes for sale would identify themselves in the same category. For me, that’s one thing that made WordPress very accessible and attractive. My pragmatism said it was a good platform to align to and build a business on :)

    I suspect most people in the community who make money off WordPress or release plugins and themes for sale would identify themselves in the same category.

    Maybe. I’ve been around the various communities long enough to recognize that this isn’t always the case.

    I’d definitely say that a portion of the people are, but most? I don’t know. Hard to qualify.

    My pragmatism said it was a good platform to align to and build a business on.

    And there you go. I can get behind that.

Indeed, it is a matter of values. Which do we value more, consensus or diversity?
In my humble opinion, it’s not really possible for the individual to be value-neutral.
The best we can do, is let everyone do their thing, and hope that the emergent behavior is beneficial to all.

I believe that we are all students of the Universe. Some share notes/code/art and some don’t. There’s more than one way to do it.

Malcolm X said, “By any means necessary.”
In my mind, I have updated it to, “By any means handy.”
Free yourself from ideology? That’s not possible. Use closed-source software to build Free Software. Don’t stop there. Keep that process of Freedom going. Or not. Freedom is a value.

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