Open Governance – relation to Sapolsky

(This is the first in a short series of posts on the topic of Open Governance – see here for background).

The assignment for this week was to listen to a radio show and read some of the work of Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky is very highly regarded scientist who has made very significant contributions to our understanding of stress and its impact on the brain; much of his work has been done in the context of primates – baboons in particular, as they are known to be aggressive in general and (somehow) stressed.

In a (very crude) nutshell, the main point highlighted in the above work is that primates can change behaviour and the age-old question of nature/nurture is too simplistic and requires more nuance – I guess this is not a very new observation. In the radio show, this was discussed in the context of whether humans are genetically predisposed to war and whether there will ever be a future without war. The experience with baboons showed that even though they are predisposed to living in aggressive societies, in some particular circumstances it is possible that they can live together much more harmoniously. The presenters of the show tried to link this to humanity by asking whether we can take the observations from baboons and the fact that humans have weaker inclinations to violence and extrapolate that humans will eventually live without war.

I found it quite a difficult to relate this to governance of Open Communities; I guess the notion that it is possible to change people’s behaviours is not so new – the advertising industry has known this for a long time. However, I guess the more interesting link to Open Governance centres on people’s motivation – are people generally motivated by selfish needs or by the need to be part of a community. While this is an interesting question in and of itself, I thought perhaps linking it to genetics and the behaviour of baboons was a bit of a stretch.

Assuming, then, that the main topic for discussion this week centres on the motivation of participants in Open Communities, I think it is too simplistic to think of this group as being entirely homogeneous, formed of actors who all have the same motivations simply because they have the same genetic make-up.

If we consider the specific case of OSS communities, there are at least three types of actors in such communities:

  • students – their aim is generally to progress some project they are active in and often to build some visibility for themselves;
  • believers/fanatics – these are volunteers who think that a particular project is interesting and/or valuable and are working on it with no specific expectations of future returns;
  • employees of companies who have an interest in the software – these are people who may not specifically have an interest in an open source initiative, but their company does and they are responsible for acting within the aforemention open source community in accordance with the company’s strategy.

There may be other types of participants with other motivations and there are many people who may straddle two (or even all three) of the above categories, eg someone could be a fanatic in the first instance, but be offered a job by a software company in which they could be paid to continue working on the project in a way that fits with the company’s objectives. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress is an interesting example: he developed WordPress as it was a passion of his – the hosting business only came later and was not part of the initial plan.

There is the very interesting talk by Dan Pink on motivation which links strongly to open source communities – this looks like a much more natural fit than the work of Sapolsky for some context on the motivation of actors in open source communities. It makes reference to a quite extensive body of work which indicates that people are somehow inherently well disposed to engaging in open source communities as it gives them an opportunity to make a contribution and be valued by the community.

While considering how to compose this post, it became apparent that I had more questions than answers and hence this post is only an initial, rather inconclusive, foray into issues around this topic.

There are some basic questions which I need to answer for myself, which mainly centre on the definitions I will use throughout this short course, eg will I focus on open source software communities or consider some kind of wider definition of open communities which are not specifically focused on open source software development. That should be the topic of another post.

Other questions which arose, to which I did not get time to find any answers: how many participants in open source communities are there? what types of people are they? what is their motivation, etc. This looks like it is a really interesting subject and it is likely that it has been the subject of some research, so I will spend some time over the coming days trying to find some basic information on this.


About morphousmusings

Engineer, thinker, tinker, drinker, talker, walker, hiker, biker, liker, lover View all posts by morphousmusings

3 responses to “Open Governance – relation to Sapolsky

  • leighblackall

    Great post Sean, being very short of time lately, you’ve given me a leg up. Hope to find time to follow your link to the work on motivation in open source projects.. my question relating to that is, why (in my experience in Australian higher ed sector) is there seemingly no motivation what so ever to engage meaningfully in open source projects, whether it be contributing to Wikipedia, using free software, or even contributing code or addons to open source software and platforms.

  • e-prod lab

    […] Sean Murphy highlights the need to understand the objective/subjective motivation of participants in open communities. He recommended the nice RSA animate video “The surprising truth about what motivates us” (autonomy/mastery/purpose) from Dan Pink. <; […]

  • Philipp Schmidt

    Hey Sean and Leigh: More questions than answers – that’s the spirit, no?

    What I took away from the radio show and readings was more related to community norms and helping people join communities that might have norms and practices that are unusual. This might related to Leigh’s point about higher education. There is certainly the motivation aspect (and maybe we can talk more about that in the next few weeks) but also the transition into doing things in a way that might not be the current norm. So, for academics, they are trained to publish in high-impact (closed) academic journals. That world is changing, but change takes time. And many of the open communities probably seem “strange” and finding one’s way into them might not be as easy for others as you and I find it. Would be interesting to compare different communities, that have different mechanisms to bring in new members, and their success with different types of contributors.

    Sean: There is a huge amount of work on open source software contributors. MIT hosts a research hub that has links to the literature. Some useful starting points are Lakhani, von Hippel, Lerner/Tirole (especially the critique of their paper).

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