FLOSS Weekly 723 Transcript
Please be advised this transcript is AI-generated and may not be word for word. Time codes refer to the approximate times in the ad-supported version of the show.
Doc Searls (00:00:00):
This is FLOSS Weekly. I'm Doc Searls. This week's Simon Phipps and I talk with Seth Fry of University of California Davis. He's a professor there. Sociologist, studier of all things, all interesting things I think about community and open source, democracy, how it all works, governance, how it's never quite done. And there's so much to study. Really interesting stuff. Great dialogue between him and Simon especially cuz Simon's involved in that kind of thing. It's a really good show. And that is coming up. Next,
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Doc Searls (00:00:44):
This is FLOSS Weekly, episode 723. Recorded Wednesday, March 15th, 2023. Freedom to Fork. This episode of FLOSS Weekly is brought to you by Kolide. That's Kolide with a k Kolide is a device trust solution that ensures that if a device isn't secure, it can't access your apps, it's zero trust for Okta. Visit Kolide.com/floss and book a demo today. Hello again, everybody everywhere. I am Doc Searls and I am joined this week by Simon Phipps himself in yet another place in his house or lair, or a boat or location in South Hampton.
Simon Phipps (00:01:31):
In, yes. Aboveground. Again, up in the <laugh>, the, the upstairs office.
Doc Searls (00:01:37):
Don't let, don't let the altitude get to you. <Laugh>. I'm fairly cut. You're only four. You're only four hours ahead of me now, so, so I've been, yes,
Simon Phipps (00:01:46):
It's like the middle of the afternoon all because you're having your, your daylight savings over there. I, you know, I, I hope you can save daylight. I trust that you're gonna be able to do it,
Doc Searls (00:01:55):
<Laugh>. Yeah, well, we, we have some here. It's been, I'm in the middle of Indiana, Indiana, as far west as you could get, and still be in the Eastern time zone. So when I talk to people in Boston or New York, it's dark there. While it's still light here. It's weird. But anyway, there it is. So, so our, our our, our guest today is Seth, Seth Fry of uc, Davis, and much else. Have you read or checked out any of his stuff?
Simon Phipps (00:02:21):
Absolutely nothing. Yeah, yeah, absolutely Nothing. Get
Doc Searls (00:02:26):
A crash course. Oh, man.
Simon Phipps (00:02:27):
Yeah. Yeah. So I, I had a look at, I, I, I click, click Used around to doing your homework. <Laugh>. Well, I, I, I, well, I, I got your email yesterday saying I was on the show, which was a surprise. And I, I, I clicked through some of the links and I've had a little look about what Seth is doing, and I'm still completely unfamiliar with, with what he's doing. I've honestly never run into anything he's done before. So this is a great big learning
Doc Searls (00:02:52):
Experience. Well, now now's your chance to crash hard into it <laugh>. So, so with that, I'm just gonna go ahead and, and, and give the brief incomplete bio. And Seth, he's a, a cognitive scientist, computational social scientist who studies human decision behavior in complex social environments, which you are expert in, in Simon. And with your open source background his expertise is a computational approaches, approaches to self-governance and the cognitive science of strategic behavior. He's a professor in communication at uc Davis in California in the Computational Communication Lab, an affiliate in Neo Ostrom workshop at Indiana University, which is where I intersect with him also at DW Camp where we got to hang out a bit. He's gonna say in, in fascination on the transmission of wonder there's got a blog that connects the mundane daily practice of science with the experiences of wonder and humility that make it all worth doing. So, welcome, Seth <laugh> that. There you are. Where, where are you by the way? I, I believe you're at an Airbnb I heard or something like that.
Seth Frye (00:03:59):
<Laugh>? No, I'm on the I'm on I'm on university campus. I'm on,
Doc Searls (00:04:04):
I suspected that cuz you seem to be surrounded by whiteboards and
Seth Frye (00:04:08):
That's right. Dirty ones well used.
Doc Searls (00:04:10):
Yeah. Yeah. I know. They've, they've got that look like, you know, it never comes off, but it kind of smudges around and, and I think cave walls were like that. <Laugh>
Seth Frye (00:04:20):
Doc Searls (00:04:23):
So, so, so tell us a a bit about, you know, what, what you've been doing and, and I, I'm especially interested in the in the governance side, but just tell us, give us the whole ing cuz you cover a lot of ground. Okay. And that's why I wanted you on the show.
Seth Frye (00:04:39):
Yeah. So so I've cared about self-governance for a long time personally, because I, I live with a bunch of people. I lived in community for a long time cooperative houses as small as you know, four people as big as 400 people. And there's amazing variety and diversity in how they all succeed or fail at keeping the kitchen sink clean, <laugh> and, and this is the fundamental problem of, you know, it's a microcosm of the biggest problems facing humanity, you know, that is climate change and, and deforestation and overfishing and, and super bugs. Even. They'll have the same logical structure. They're all examples of common pool resources. And,
Doc Searls (00:05:20):
Go ahead. Yeah, sorry.
Seth Frye (00:05:21):
And so you can imagine my delight to find out that there's you know, in the middle of doing this and struggling with it during grad school I discovered that there's a silence of it. There's a woman named Eleanor Ostrom and she had developed really impressive methodologies and performed very impressive studies of <inaudible> resource systems. And the key to it was she was able to get lots and lots and lots of them into one book governing commons, and then lots and lots and lots of them into two other books. So, you know I'm trained as a cognitive scientist, so I get thousands of people in the room if I want to understand humans. So if I wanna understand commons, I, I shouldn't really do a, a case study, which is what you normally do because it's hard to go to hundreds or thousands of communities.
But, but she managed it and would compare hundreds and hundreds to extract general design principles of sustainable common pool resource management, sustainable self-governance effective, empowering leadership or structure or voting. And I've over the years taken my career more and more in that direction, moving to online communities, comparing hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of online communities that self-govern in order to extend these insights into common resource management and also serve the, the, the mission of a lot of these online communities, such as open source software projects.
Doc Searls (00:06:55):
So, I, I wanna go back briefly to you're living in a house with people because call me back. I, I think the biggest divider of people is between those who leave dishes piled up in the sink and those who clean them up. I, I am a messy person, but I'm one of the ones who cleans them up. My wife is a very neat person and who I think at least some of the time believes that putting dishes in the sink cleans them <laugh>. And I have a son as well. But, but I'm wondering about that. I mean, to, to, to what extent do those kind of things reveal something about people like and out of sight, out of mind sort of thing?
Seth Frye (00:07:34):
Oh, you know, I, I, I don't need it to mean anything. We're really different. And society is the process of us, despite being really different, managing to kind of get along together and whatever solution you can reach to in your household you know there, there's room for what, what, what we might call institutional diversity. I'm not too normative about things.
Doc Searls (00:07:59):
Yeah. So, so, ha have you looked at opensource communities? Is there any in particular, or can we speak of them in a more general sense? Because that's where Simon comes in. He's been involved in lots of them. I'll just observe them as a reporter.
Seth Frye (00:08:12):
Right, right. Well, so I do have this comparative angle will actually be a Python next month talking to communities that are transitioning from benevolent dictatorship to community management. But I'd say my, my deepest studies have been of the Apache Software Foundation incubator, which is a nice little clash of 300 projects that are transitioning their governance style from whatever they started up with, whatever got them off the ground to the Apache Software Foundation's kind of more standard formal umbrella. And I have a project on GitHub projects as well.
Doc Searls (00:08:51):
So Simon <laugh> chatting in
Simon Phipps (00:08:54):
The back channel.
Seth Frye (00:08:55):
Simon Phipps (00:08:56):
Both, we're both reading a different screen there. Yeah, <laugh>, so, I, I, I, I have questions, Seth. So I, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm quite fascinated. So I, I, you know I admitted at the beginning that I, I've been speed reading your website over the last few hours, <laugh>. So one, one of the things that concerns me about the the, the, the study of governance mechanisms is it's constant reference to the tragedy of the commons. Because I, I've seen quite a lot of work that has suggested that Garrett Harding's original work is, is actually deeply flawed. That basically he is a, a person who is rediscovering his initial suppositions rather than uncovering a truth. And that actually other elements of the of the conduct of human nature means that a tragedy of the commons is not inevitable in a self-governed community. Do you wanna comment on the validity of tragedy of the commons before we go anywhere near open source?
Seth Frye (00:10:06):
Sure. you know you can start a social system in one way, and it can end up in lots of ways. And there's no doubt that the tragedy to commons is one way that you can end up I, so I wouldn't agree that the, the concept of the tragedy of the commons is flawed. Certainly Garrett Harvin was flawed but the tragedy of commons is an outcome. <Laugh>, you know is inevitable, certainly not. And, you know, and and he argued that it different institutional regimes that, you know, there's also centralized enforcement and privatization which was sort of what he ended up advocating, which aligns very well with the whole 20th century narrative of, you know, freedom versus communism or whatever. And, and, and so he fits into like a broader 20th century narrative and sets up the scene nicely for figures like Eleanor Ostrom who who won the Nobel Prize in economics precisely for breaking that d state versus market dichotomy or state versus tragedy dichotomy.
By, by demonstrating that, yes, just like you say people can talk, come up with solutions negotiate solutions to the tragedy of the commons that align with their own values that exhibit you know, community values that exhibit norms, care mutual regard and also, you know, some extent leadership centralization that in between those extremes of, you know, failure or the state you have a whole bunch of stuff. And, and everything she developed was to expose the US language for talking about everything in the middle including de democratic solutions
Simon Phipps (00:11:52):
Right now when it comes to open source I've, I've been involved in, in both establishing and coaxing along a number of open source communities. And I have to tell you that I'm getting much less persuaded by the the, the value of a, a purely democratic approach to community governance. Do you wanna talk a little bit about what you've found in the long term from communities in, in open source or, or you know, I dunno whether you've, whether you've looked at that or whether you've only been looking at the transition from ad hoc cruses to to more formal governance. What, what, what is the best way of preparing for the long-term future where nobody that's involved today is involved tomorrow?
Seth Frye (00:12:44):
I can, before I get to longevity, I can actually maybe speak a little bit to this, you know, question. The, the value of democracy. You know two audiences that are more accustomed to this kind of market, state market versus state dialogue. I'm, you know, I'm a, I'm a big old advocate for democracy, big enthusiasts and big practitioner living, living it every day in little mundane ways. Two democracy advocates. I tend to be one of the loudest voices in favor of leadership hierarchy bureaucracy. I, I, I think there's a lot to be said for institutional diversity, even if it looks like a backstep sometimes, and you really see it in, in open source democracy's overkill for an early project just starting. So in the communities I'm involved in, we tend to be really big advocates for what you might call temporary benevolent dictatorship which is have one person drive their passion project until it's worth it to other people to put in the extraordinary amount of work of self-governance.
So democracy is a pain. And Americans especially people who live in, in market societies, societies based around private property, are sharing muscles of atrophy. Our, our, our democracy engagement mutual regard muscles in many ways are ated. It takes a lot of practice to be effective in democracy and for democracy to be worth the work. And I think it takes quite high stakes. I think you need to be managing something that's really, really meaningful to you for democracy to be worth the work. That's not to say there isn't a lot of room for participation, but I'm often impressed by how benevolent dictatorships or or other structures can effectively integrate the needs and values in multiple stakeholders, which for me is a little more fundamental than democracy. Democracy is one way of executing, integrating the needs of lots of kinds of people, of all of your stakeholders. And that, and that's the kind of general design I'm interested in.
Simon Phipps (00:14:47):
So you know, I, I, I don't think that the dichotomy is between dictatorship versus democracy. I, I've observed that generally speaking, there needs to be a democracy amongst the people who are concretely contributing. And I think the thing that makes a difference in open source is that in the wider society, we've gone for global enfranchisement, whereas in open source, you, you really should only be enfranchising the contributors, not also the the, the consumers of the work of the community. Would, would you agree with that, or do you think that we should also be enfranchising end users who contribute? Nothing?
Seth Frye (00:15:28):
I, I think there's something you said in a, in a highly expert community for you know, things that approach or aspire towards meritocracy and, and have multiple levels of engagement. I think you know direct democracy to me is always most notable for its very dramatic failures. You know, I was always struck living in in Switzerland. I lived in Zurich for a brief period. And yeah, it's famous for you know, it's anti mosque rules that that result from from referenda California as well living in California. It's, it's direct democracy. You know, it can be subject to, to, to mob rule. I think it has its place. And I think more importantly we should recognize that, you know elected representatives or are elites aren't that great at it either.
You know, if politicians are making effective choices, it's because they have a staff. They're surrounded by a staff of experts. They have a library, the library of Congress, for example. They do that. They have to do their research. They have to learn about domain and make effective decisions in it. So it's really more about having the, the time and having the resources. If every citizen, or if the, the, the more passive co contributors to your community had a cabinet of experts to access in the process of making decisions, and they had the motivation and the time to, to contribute those, then I would trust them as much as any more invested contributors. So it's less about how much you've given to the code base, it's more how much you're willing to give to the management of the project.
Simon Phipps (00:17:13):
Right. I, and I think I'd agree with that. I think that contribution has many colors. And, you know, I, I'm very happy to the idea of franchising the people who do the the, the run public events for the community or the people that create the documentation. My concern is more about franchising. And this is, this comes from, you know, an experience of a community where it has a very large global community of end users. And a lot of people believe that that community of end users should have the deciding voice in what the open source project does. And, and I actually think that's, that's wrong. I think that an open source project,
Seth Frye (00:17:53):
I'm not gonna go as far as
Simon Phipps (00:17:55):
Is it a collaboration of co contributors? And when you're not contributor, you probably shouldn't be getting a vote.
Seth Frye (00:18:03):
Where I'm going to, I, I, I'll go slightly different, which is that every governance design decision has upsides and downsides. And d director democracy is gonna have clear upsides and clear downsides. We know them at least that it's a it's a known quantity. And it, and, and I can see it, you know, the most utopian picture is gonna be that, that warts and all is gonna be a starting place starting point to something worth value, which is a, a large community of people that you're providing these skills of self-governance to. Now that's a little idealistic, and I wouldn't fault anybody for using a more closed circle leaving at least key core community decisions to core contributors who have demonstrated their willingness to put the time into the project necessary to make good decisions.
But I'm, you know, I'm, I'm still hopeful for bad direct democracy as a pathway to a utopian good direct democracy, which, you know that's where you get spillover effects into maintaining large scale democracies. Like, like the countries we live in. Democracy is a muscle you have to practice every day. And there, there's no better way of gaining the skills than daily participation. So providing opportunities for that is both naive and the upside of naive, which is hopeful. You know, a way, the one way I like to put it is there's no better way to develop a really fine-tuned radar for abusive power than to have had the experience of being able to abuse power yourself in, in running the, the small things in your daily life, whether that's the kitchen sink or the garden club, or your OSS project.
Simon Phipps (00:19:47):
Right? Right. So, you know, to to, to round that thought out, my instinct as a community designer is to enfranchise those who are qualified and to not enfranchise those who are not qualified. Do you think that's, that's a fair approach? Should I be enfranchising the uneducated and unqualified as well,
Seth Frye (00:20:09):
<Laugh>? Well, first I would it's not your instinct. I, I think your, your, it's your experience your instinct sounds like it, you know maybe you started off as more of an advocate of direct democracy and, and you saw the downside, you experienced the downsides of it. I would be a little less binary. I think there are some types of decisions or some types of pathways that make a lot of sense for including everybody, and, and, and, and you see it, right? Bug trackers issues on, on, on, on GitHub. Those are a pathway for everybody. You know, even sometimes participation in roadmaps and user surveys, these are all ways integrating the, the, the needs. And they're less direct. Maybe they don't provide the, the, the freedom or opportunity to vote. So I would be, so I tend to think in terms of little steps there's really, really substantive decisions. And I would like to see those made by people who have a track record of, of contributing meaningfully to substantive decisions. And so I'm, I'm in favor of a more continuous version of what you're describing personally,
Simon Phipps (00:21:16):
Right? I, I, I, I have to say, we, I've got very bad experiences of voting in Bugzilla where every end user in the world all votes for the impractical thing that they want implemented, but nobody can possibly afford to do. That's right. The, the, the one difference, of course, between open source communities and public communities is that if an open source community goes badly wrong a group of people can simply fork mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, where, whereas that's generally frowned on in, in civil society, you know I, I'm not allowed to comment on politics on this show, but I could imagine a situation where there might be people in, in, in a country who want to fork, and I believe that's called an insurrection. So do you think
Seth Frye (00:22:00):
Forking is a,
Simon Phipps (00:22:01):
Does, does that difference really make a difference? You know, the, the, the, the freedom to fork?
Seth Frye (00:22:07):
Absolutely. I think you can call it you know, voting with your feet isn't really a credible mechanism in a lot of places. Voting with your feet is sort of the basis of economic applications to, like municipal governance. When the, when we do economics on cities there's sort of this basis of, of voting with your feet that doesn't really make a lot of sense, cuz you can't just up and leave. It's not that easy. You have to change your life. A move is one of the most stressful things that happens to people. But in an online community, the fact that you can vote with your feet with a click of a button, and you don't have just freedom to exit, but what you might call entrepreneurial exit, the freedom not just to leave for a competitor, but to leave for your own version of, of this system is really unique to the internet and adds a whole other dimension to design.
Now, I, I, I think you can react to that by <laugh> putting all putting everything in exit as a solution to everything. I think that's a huge mistake. What I, what I think is important to do is recognize it as a tool in the toolkit and, and, and continue to use everything else. You know, you really see this in DAOs DAOs really went naively into direct democracy, and they see all the failures of that and more the DAOs that I'm most impressed by are the ones that are using very old, you know, centuries or millennial old toolkits. They do politics, <laugh>, they, they they talk they build community very intentionally out, off the chain outside of the software. Those are where you see high participation and more, more and less high levels of, of being informed voters.
Simon Phipps (00:23:56):
Of course, you know, the problem with Dows is they, they embrace the the, a worship of the perfection of code to the point where people discover that the bugs that have inevitably rewritten take all their money away. <Laugh>. So, I, I I, I, I tended to view Dows as a, as unfortunately naive in their you know, they, they, they have a, a dis a dyspeptic view of humanity. And and they believe code is perfect, and I think they've probably got it wrong in both counts there.
Seth Frye (00:24:27):
I've, I've been fortunate to meet a lot of people who are on a lot of DAOs, and that's where they start <laugh>. But you make enough, you know, 30 million mistakes and you start to lose your naivete really quick. And so I'm, one thing that makes me hopeful about DAOs is that they are thousands of little laboratories for people to learn these lessons on their own, hopefully you know, cheaply and sometimes very expensively.
Doc Searls (00:24:58):
Well, I need to jump in here. And, and I, there are a bunch of questions that are backed up on our back channel including from other co-hosts, at least one other co-host who is eager to contribute. One of his questions already Simon asked, but we'll get to those in a moment. But first, I have to let everybody know that this episode of FLOSS Weekly is brought to you by Kolide. That's Kolide with a K Kolide is a device trust solution that ensures unsecured devices can't access your apps. Kolide is a big news. If you're an Okta user, Kolide can get your entire fleet up to 100%. Compliance Kolide patches, one of the major holes in zero trust architecture, device compliance. Think about it, your identity provider only lets known devices log into apps. But just because a device is known doesn't mean it's in a secure state.
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Seth Frye (00:27:46):
Yeah, I can, I can touch a bit more. You
Doc Searls (00:27:47):
Touch a bit more on that. Yeah, that's good.
Seth Frye (00:27:53):
You know, feature, kind of feature request, feature voting or, or a great example. What do you vote for when you're voting on a feature? You're voting on what you want. And what you're doing as a core contributor when you're voting on a feature is you're voting on what the code needs, what the community needs. And so users are, you know, it's a, the popularity contest is, is what I want, and that's your framing. If you frame it as what, forget what you want, what is best for the community, we have, here's our roadmap, here's our mission, here's what we're trying to accomplish in the world as a, you know, as a, as a code base. What's best for that? Now will that, does that magically solve everything? Do users suddenly stop being self-interested? No.
Will you get more reflection? And, and maybe if you even asked the question twice, what do you want? What's best for the code base? The or and, and, and this is what you get. So focusing on core contributors gives you that as a side focus, that people thinking of what's best for the project you get it as a side effect. And there's other ways they get that. There's other ways to get people thinking about what's good for the project. So this comes down to informing people, setting things up, and making it clear what they're voting on when they're voting. You're participating in the project and needs for the project. This isn't a user survey for us to find out what the users want. This is a, a decision making mechanism for us to support this common support, this public goods support this project collectively.
Doc Searls (00:29:30):
So I don't know how, how relevant this is, but I think it's important. You know, obviously for 24 years, an editor, Phil Linux Journal, and every time I talk to Linis or anybody talked to Linis, he'd always say when people brought up user issues, he'd say, that's user space. I'm kernel space. And there's this very sharp distinction in Linux kernel development between kernel space and user space. And kernel developers would tell me, we only care about what's good for the kernel and what the kernel is good for. And it's very, very broad. Yet we know that obviously the needs of large corporate customers, large corporate users, the, the, the entities that are one step that are between the kernel developers and the actual users of, of the kernel in whatever application it might be. And now with Linux, it's everything pretty much. But how, how that influence works and how you keep that influence, especially big corporate influence from corrupting, as it were, the kernel itself. And I'm, you may not have a direct answer for that, but it's an interesting one because there are these layers that are involved between the creators of the code and the actual uses of code.
Seth Frye (00:30:40):
Yeah, it's nice to bring in corporate because it breaks these dichotomies you know, core contributors first user, and it really gets you in this picture of, of types or styles. There's very different types or styles, a stakeholder, they all have really different needs and wants and resources. And, you know, and an ideal design has made all the mistakes. And then taking into account those potential mistakes gives, you know, corporate stakeholders this extra power, but denies them this, that extra power and gives users this extra power, but denies them that extra power and gives core contributors maybe a bigger slice of the pie, but places checks on them. You know, this is your heightened site is 2020 kind of governance design where you really have a clear sense of every potential you know, plate at the table and what they're gonna try to get away with.
And you can design for that. Linux I'm involved in a large comparative study of several open source foundations. There's about over a hundred in the world. And you can really see in the variety in their designs how they've each come to the problem of inordinate corporate influence. You see a very different approach at Linux Foundation, which is a little bit pay to play versus Apache Software Foundation, which is very strict rules about how corporate actors, corporate sponsors and, and the the volunteers that they pay to contribute what kind of role they can play in a project. And, you know, even in Apache, you see inordinate corporate influence. But it's tempered and I think in intelligent ways and ways that reflect a lot of foresight in ways that reflect a lot of care for the fundamental values.
Simon Phipps (00:32:26):
Right now. I've looked quite, looked quite a lot at both of those. One thing I, I, I think I have to point out for listeners is that Linux Foundation and Apache Foundation are very different organizationally because the Linux Foundation is a trade association that's acting on in the interests of the members who are paying to support it. Whereas the Apache Software Foundation is a a public charity that is there to serve the general public, and consequently is not swayed by the money of any contributors. And as I look across open source foundations, I generally see there are many more public charities than there are trade associations, but there is a lot more publicity for the trade association. So a lot more people have heard of Linux Foundation than have heard, for example, of the Python Software Foundation or the Document Foundation.
And so I, I do think it's very important to make that distinction between, just because they use the word foundation at the end of their name, it doesn't mean that they're a charity in any way. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> they might well just be another Delaware corporation. Like for example, the Rocky Linux Foundation is just a B Corp. It's not actually a, a charity of, of any kind. So I think you, it's very important to make that distinction and not let people hide behind that word foundation. Do, do you think that we should emphasize that more as we are talking about governance so that people are able to understand that the governance that's serving the stakeholders varies between trade associations and public charities?
Seth Frye (00:33:58):
Well, you, you're talking to a person interested in institutional diversity, so of course, you know, the world should know <laugh> I think I am on some level comfortable treating them as apples to apples in terms of what support are they providing to their specific open source projects that are, you know, under their umbrella. And if they're, you know, if they're both, you know, more or less devoted to providing resources and supporting that code and making it healthy in the long term, then I, I'm comfortable treating them on the same level at the same time. Totally different organizational forms, totally different governance structure, totally different stakeholders and balance among those stakeholders. And so I like that we have a, a large ecosystem, again, hundreds of, of umbrella organizations that call them foundations are not that support open large numbers of open source projects and help them solve that collective action problem.
And I like that open source project developers have a lot of choice in, in which way they go. I think it's okay that you know corporate needs are specific and it's okay for a large number of companies to work together to develop open source code. Now, it's a little unfortunate perhaps that the venue they found to do that involved capture <laugh> to some extent of Linux and it's development. But you know, there's, there's other places to go if, if you want to be involved in development and want an umbrella organization that's acts consistently with your values.
Simon Phipps (00:35:29):
So now you've, you've studied Apache and I, you know, that's, Apache is a, a fascinating software foundation. It was in many ways the first fiduciary host for open source project. And we can see a lot of the effects of maturity in there. I I posit that the bigger the number of rules is, the more games there are that are playable on a foundation, do you think that's true? Or do you think that organizations as they solve their problems, gradually reach a position of stability in their government?
Seth Frye (00:36:06):
That is a fundamental question of political science <laugh> that is thousands years old. A hard answer empirically, and a really fun thing for me about studying open source projects is I don't just serve open source software. I serve political theory. There's a chance you don't have a hundred earths, and you need a hundred earths to answer the basic questions of governance. But you do have a hundred or a thousand or tens of thousands of open source projects. Subreddit discussion forums are an amazing place to study governance design at small scale. One of my favorite cases, and actually honestly, one of the cases I'm most proud of, is a large comparative study of self-hosted Minecraft servers kids designing governance systems, essentially a la carte in line with their own folk theory of collective action to solve the very important common pool resource and public good problems involved in running a game server and playing with your friends.
Simon Phipps (00:37:07):
Right? So I I, I, so I've posited that any stable system of rules creates a gaming space proportional to the number of rules and the length of time they've been in operation. Do you think that it is viable to have subjective rules in an organization so that you can defer to your leadership and let them use the, I know it when I see it approach? Or do you think it's better for open source communities in particular that tend to have a lot of very detailed, focused individuals in them? Do you think it's better to have concrete rules that people can objectively and mechanically apply?
Seth Frye (00:37:52):
You're gonna tend to be really disappointed at, at, at my willingness to take a strong stand on how things should be. There's clear failures failure modes, so there's clear potential failure modes to giving your leadership a lot of discretion. And there's clear benefits to that and vice and, and, and the other, and, and same for, for, for community management. So what I think is important is just be aware of what's gonna go wrong, what's gonna go right when you earn this versus that direction. What's most exciting to me for open service and for a lot of online communities is lets tell them how to run and more design the software design tools that let communities continually ex experiment with their own. That, Hey, let's try benevolent dictatorship for a week. Let's try corporate overload for a week.
Let's try total anarchist cratic governance for weeks ridiculous. For several months for this year, for this next roadmap for the, for this next product release. And encouraging a culture of learning helps communities nav learn those downsides and navigate and iterate so that you don't so that the price of learning your really important lesson about the value of, of user input doesn't come at the cost of being entrenched in the system that you stop respecting because it is learn that failure so dramatically. So encouraging change and dynamism and providing tools that make it possible for entire communities to go at this meta level play with how they run, I think is really the way forward Now but again, you're getting my values. I, I care about open source.
I think open source is really important for the world. It's not my leverage point, honestly. It's not my, it's not where I am investing myself to change the world. I, I love serving it and I love working with people who are driven by values. My leverage point is providing experiential education in self-governance to lots and lots of people. Open source is amazing for that, and a lot of other online communities are as well. And so by encouraging experimentation, we not only provide a, a probably rocky pathway towards better governance systems that are fit to each project, we also provide the education in sharing that's useful in every aspect of our lives. And that transfers beyond the specific project we, we cut our teeth on.
Simon Phipps (00:40:21):
So the reason that I, you know, I, I, I, I keep on trying to get is, is cuz I've actually gotta design. So I'm in involved in designing the governance for a community at the moment, and, and I'm not gonna have the luxury of putting in place a system where we can change the governance every two months based on our experience of what didn't work. And so I really do need to be able to look at a, a community and make some, you know, concrete determinations. And so I, you know, the community that I'm helping design here, I've given them some concrete guidance. I've expressed my skepticism about direct democracy. I have expressed my skepticism about pay to play, and we've put in place some public charity governance. But I, I, you know, my experiences with Apache show that there are plenty of ways that a determined individual can take all of the good intent that we've put into our governance and use it against us. And, and I'm really looking to work out now what can I do about that? What can I do about that in advance?
Seth Frye (00:41:27):
And you're absolutely right. The way you're designing a governance system depends a lot on, if you can assume good interest in the common cause or not. And so the, the more open your boundaries are, the less you can assume that that everyone is acting good faith. And the, and the more valid it becomes to assume that out of your thousands of contributors there's gonna be a handful who are highly motivated to pursue their own interests and gain the system toward their own ends. And the more you can close the boundaries or create boundaries that, that filter very intentionally, maybe very slowly for people who have evidence of caring about the needs of the community and putting the needs of the community above their own needs, then you can design an increasingly utopian or assume good faith type of governance system.
The answer is both, you know design. This is acknowledging the existence different stakeholders with different levels of commitment. So for the random person coming off the street, I really would give some levers because that creates a path for them to demonstrate that good faith, that build that gets them into maybe the core contributor group. You know, open source softwares, they tend to confound the core contributors with the people who have the, who are most likely to have the project interest in mind. And those, you know, are probably like, mostly overlapping, but not completely overlapping in a Venn diagram. So however you want to represent or filter for those people some pathway where you can create a smaller set of rules for this proven set of people where you can assume good faith and you can provide a lot of power, authority and and, and freedom because you are able to assume that these people are going to put their interest first. There's no way of enforcing put it in community interest first. And you, I think it is valuable. I think you're onto something in protecting against that. But I think you can also be a little bit less absolutist. Yet yes, you've been burned, you know, yes, you've seen things go really bad. There's ways to protect against that without without you know, cutting users out.
Simon Phipps (00:43:46):
Right? So the, the another question that comes out of all this, you know, there's you, one of your threats is your own people and people for whom assume good faith doesn't apply. The other category that I've seen happening in other organizational styles is where you employ staff and gradually you get pernell's law cutting in and the organization begins to transform into one that's run for the benefit of its staff rather than for its community. Do you have any hints for how to prevent that from happening?
Seth Frye (00:44:25):
Yeah. there's lots of kinds of stakeholders. Yeah, I've definitely seen it. It is a threat. I don't, let's see, I haven't studied it specifically. I tend to study volunteer, run communities. But what can, but I can add, you know it's analogous to the way that you protect against capture of any entrench entrenched interest. But really the most fundamental thing you can do is hire onto staff people who care about community. Because there is gonna be some level in the most successful systems, there's gonna be some level of norm driven rather than rule driven protection of, of community values. So, you know, to some extent you're really powerful. People just have to internalize the importance of in hearing lots of stakeholders and remembering who they serve.
Simon Phipps (00:45:21):
So at the risk of spooking you and and, and cursing a community, are there any communities that you look to that have got their governance pretty much perfect?
Seth Frye (00:45:36):
Oh no one doesn't complain about their governance. I think governance is just something you complain about <laugh>. And, and, and it, it illustrates to the point, right, that there's no right system that, that you're always making decisions that are gonna have upsides and downsides. And people just tend to be more in touch with the downsides because that's the cause of the problems they have to spend, you know too much time dealing with. But what, what I really admire a system it's because they've actually, you know, there's no, there's no shortcuts, but one shortcut hire a community manager have someone who's doing project management for creating, creating a population that's ready for that's up for democracy. And that's trained for democracy, that's trained for participation. I'm, I'm, you know, I'm less interested in how do we create the, the governance system that's right for this population.
And I, and I'm kind of interested in how do we create the population that's right for this governance system, making ourselves worthy of, of the systems that we're serving. And community managers do that. They create a pathway for finding people, for building excitement, enthusiasm, and creating a pathway for the most enthusiastic and excited and reliable people to gain leadership, to get responsibility in a system. And so rules are great. Rules are important. The most exciting action where the action is for me is in culture building instilling norm's, values. And so some of my most exciting conversations are with culture builders, community builders, community managers because that's the work, that's the work in making democracy not a flaming pile of crap. And, and and, and I don't know, there's good problems and bad problems. And so yes, everyone's complaining about their governance, but when they're complaining about no one being involved, that's a, that's a problem that doesn't impress me when they're complaining about the users who are kind of too passionate and taking up too much space at meetings. If there's more than one of them, then I'm impressed. Then I'm like, wow, you're doing community, right. So that's a little bit of an answer to your question.
Doc Searls (00:48:08):
So you just said something that really struck me about, there seemed to be a distinction between democracy and contribution being d at least being different things. Obviously they can, democracy can involved contribution, but contribution is a different thing. And I think people mean contribution sometimes, and they're talking about democracy, a sense that one has value that one can contribute to something. Even if one's level of contribution or one's vote doesn't count for more than a unit of one where others may be 10 or a hundred or, or something like that. I'm wondering if you could explore that a little more. And partly just to get people's definitions, right, because I think people tend to think of democracy as as way approaches to voting, you know, rep, direct representative you know, representative in a sense that the US has, you know, like the, the the, the electoral college, for example, very indirect form of democracy. Yeah. And I think one that's deeply flawed, and I don't think we're being political in saying that
Seth Frye (00:49:18):
The yeah, I mean, voting in my in my view is neither necessary nor sufficient for democracy. So I, I, I think you've got that right. The, there's kind of two things in there. Well, you know, so, so I don't know which direction you're asking me to riff one is
Doc Searls (00:49:33):
Any like <laugh>.
Seth Frye (00:49:35):
Okay, great. Great. well so your first point separating kind of contributor from governance this is another reason why it's so important to evade utopian questions is the governance system. You, you, you start, you end up with is dependent on the govern on the system and the context you started, and you see it really clearly in open source projects, this conflating, which I think is a productive conflation of code contributors and sort of political power. So Python made a very intentional choice that core code contributors have a lot of political power, and I think that's smart. I think it's good design. I think it probably has downsides. For example maybe it undervalues other types of contribution of the project. And maybe it asks, you know, political skills are different than code skills, so so you kinda, you know, can get yourself in trouble.
But overall, it just makes a lot of sense because those are the people who have demonstrated care at the global level for the global project. So, great, great design, you know take advantage of that upside, and then design for the downsides by providing how to run a meeting, training for your code for your code contributors by having extra projects or pathways for other kinds of contributors to give. And so this is that path dependence in play. Well, we found great people, they don't have the right skills, and they're not everybody who matters, but they make a lot of sense as a, as a first stab for our governance system. So this kind of path dependent or evolutionary view of governance growth, it really kind of drives it home that it's not about imposing or, or, or, you know, copy pasting one perfect governance system on every project as more about providing tools, capabilities for change and evolution over time, you know, as a function of your own project specific history. So that's riffing off of the first kind of theme you offered. I and then on the second, I can probably stop at what I, how I started, which is voting is neither necessary nor sufficient.
Doc Searls (00:51:42):
I, I know, I know Simon has went into waiting, but I, I had to look, I thought I'm gonna go back and look at the Linux colonel mailing list to see if Linis is still in charge. <Laugh>, and the only thing I see there is what he says to somebody shut the F up. <Laugh>. So <laugh>, and
Simon Phipps (00:52:03):
I was very pleased to see last night, linis testing a new Macon account. <Laugh>, there's a, oh, really? Yeah, there is, there's social.org opened yesterday, so we're gonna see a Oh, really? Avenue. Yes. Yes.
Doc Searls (00:52:18):
Simon Phipps (00:52:20):
Interesting for at social dot conal do org that, that, that account went live yesterday. So have to be, so, so what do you, what, what's gonna happen there, do you think, Seth? Because, you know, Masteron is attempting to be a a, an a, a distributed emergent governance system. I, is that gonna work or, or are we gonna be overrun by people who want to put up walls against every other server in the end?
Seth Frye (00:52:52):
Both, right? I mean, yeah, you don't have to ask me. It's going to introduce more fragmentation in the media space which is gonna be which means the communities that do develop are going to be more unique and be really good at specifically serving the people they serve. And it's gonna be hard to find those if, if you're an outsider trying to find your way and it's gonna, you're gonna struggle a bit, you know? Yes. There's this federation component, yes, they're linked to each other that's gonna provide some tempering of this fragmentation kind of tendency. You know, there's clear, there's a clear upside to Twitter, right? That it's, it's the one place everyone's on. And there's clear downside to Twitter and, and the same, same with <inaudible>. Sorry to be so evasive <laugh>, but yeah,
Simon Phipps (00:53:41):
No, I, I see a very clear downside to Twitter at the moment, which is why I've stopped using it. That's right. That's right.
Seth Frye (00:53:46):
I, I always try to, that's a, that's a little bit of a, a mental hygiene when I'm experiencing the downside of the system, I just try to remember there's upsides to this, you know, shut the F up you know, very clear downsides to strongly centralized unitary governance. And the upsides are crystal clear. You know, it doesn't struggle with roadmap <laugh>, it doesn't struggle with direction. And it's become very successful. Yeah. and so I'm, I'm willing to, you know nod at that. And it's a really important hygiene for me to always remember when I'm really facing only the upsides of a system, in the case of, of Mastodon it's a, it's ability to filter effectively and build communities, practice what downsides are gonna come with that. We have to get ahead of that, otherwise, we're just gonna be that pendulum swinging from one platform to another.
Simon Phipps (00:54:41):
Yeah. And so, I mean, the, the good thing about Mastodon is that when I do decide that I'm tired of wherever I'm hanging out there, I can actually move and take my social graph with me, which is a thing I simply can't do on Facebook or, or Twitter. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> so beautiful. You know, the, I have the freedom to fork as a, as a, as a non coder on Masteron, but the question really to ask about Masteron is when the governance that's gonna emerge, there is gonna be one that's very much the expression of Lawrence Lessings Cody's law approach to, to governance. We are going to see what's encoded into the system, set the rules much more than the, the norms of the individuals who are using the system. Do, do you agree with that, or do you think that we're going to see the users find a way to take control?
Seth Frye (00:55:32):
Well, I mean, to whatever extent that's true on Maan, it's more true on Twitter. So Maan is gonna be a step in the right direction towards a normal social-based order, which I'm, which actually has huge downsides. It can be super oppressive and and difficult, but I'm generally a fan of moving that direction. So if there's hope of getting out of Coda's law into something more dynamic where Koda, some of the law and norms are some of the law, I think math sounds really a separate in, in the right direction. And and I'm definitely watching closely, you know, if I have anything if I have any, you know lack of hope for it. And I'm overall hopeful for it. It's less on this design. I think the design's wonderful and, you know, very inspiring and it's great to have an open source foundation for social media. I'm just a little, you know, I just don't know if it's going to capture those network effects. And, and you know, if, if, if our, if our best hope for Macedon isn't something Maan dos, but you know, Elon Musk continuing to mess up that, that's not, I wouldn't call that strategy for growth, but on the governance, I'm very excited. I'm very excited to provide governance tools to MAs on instances and let them turn into laboratories for governance for themselves.
Simon Phipps (00:56:45):
Are you hanging out on master on somewhere. Can I, can I follow you there?
Seth Frye (00:56:49):
You can see below my name, it still says at Twitter, right?
Doc Searls (00:56:54):
Simon Phipps (00:56:55):
Kind of, it does look kind of-ish. What's, what's
Seth Frye (00:56:57):
Down. Yeah. ITish. Yeah. Yeah. I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm overdue.
Doc Searls (00:57:03):
<Laugh>. I, I, I am in two places, unmasked and, and I admit to still using Twitter more. And but I could see a, I could see a some, some kind of moving over, but I, but I'm thinking too, Seth, we don't have much time left, but I, I wanna get your thoughts on media fragmentation itself. I think part of what's going on is that the Internet's eaten everything. And I mean, it, it is now, you know, we are living digital lives now that are far more interesting and complex than what they were 20, 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. And I was thinking, for example, in music it used to be able to only produce music through a f relatively few record companies and, and consume it only through physical media. And now you can produce it anywhere.
I mean, again, you get a little dependent on a YouTube or on a Spotify, but you, you have an awful lot of, I, there's enormous optionality in both production and consumption and music to the degree that you know, there's no common, there's a less of a common anyway sense of what music, you know, what's popular music now. It, it's very, very fragmented. So, but there are communities within those, those fragmentations and, and they do cross pollinate to some degree. I mean, you know, I was with a bunch of relatively older people at a, at a country show a country music show recently, cuz that's, I'm in a small town. You go to whatever's on <laugh>, and then there's opera this weekend, and then there's some country music and there's, you can go to the country bar on the street, and it seems to be a relatively safe and fun place. So there is some cross pollination. So I'm wondering, and I don't know if this goes to your, to your specialties or not, but I'm sure you're paying attention to it.
Seth Frye (00:58:54):
Absolutely. Yeah. It's a design decision, right? There's a, there's a quip I lean pretty hard on that I heard ages ago, which is, it's about Photoshop. Photoshop made good design better and design worse. And I see this really as the general effect of technology. When people are asking, what's this change gonna do? That, you know, you can you can get pretty far by by leaning on that fragmentation as well. Fragmentation's gonna make strong communities a lot stronger, more effective and, and, and, and more influential and beneficial to their participants. And it's gonna make bad communities worse, which is not just like null but you know, hurt people. And I think that's what we can look forward to as media fragmentation increases whether that is distributed social media or the democratization of a lot of traditional gatekeeping tools, music, books, radio, podcast, so on.
Doc Searls (00:59:55):
Yeah, I, I'm, I'm developing a, a community myself, sort of I hate to say it's on Facebook, but it's in a group on Facebook where I never see any ads, but but it's entirely devoted to shooting pictures of radio transmitters into the off the air in five years, because radio is a dead medium walking right now. You know, a senator in the US is trying to save AM radio and AM radio. There's nobody investing in it. There's no, the radios all suck at playing it. And the few that still have it. And, but I, but I sort of see communities growing around everything that, that one is a purely accidental one that just has to do with an old obsession of mine. I like to look at towers and, and antennas, and I'm an old ham radio guy, and I kind like those things.
And antennas are invisible now because they're working on frequencies that are so high that an antenna can fit in your hand, you know, or inside a clock. And nobody knows it's there. And, and I'm, I'm not sure I'm going with this except that it seems to me that hu you know, human humans are social creatures. I mean, you study this, right? We're, we're going to develop groups and we're going to govern them, and civilization is doing that without violence. I think would that be a a, a summary statement of some kind? I'm not sure if it is or not.
Seth Frye (01:01:13):
<Laugh> yeah, if, if we're wrapping it up providing opportunities for for communities to be intentional about how they're structured and to and to either, you know change or, or bail ship when they've learned their lesson whatever hundreds of lessons that is I think is really inspiring direction to go. And I've been really honored, lucky to be able to push it.
Doc Searls (01:01:42):
Well, that's great. And I think we're about out of time at this point. So we, we always close with like three, three questions. One is the first, is the second or two brief to even mention right now. But but the first is, is there anything we haven't talked about you'd like us to have brought up?
Seth Frye (01:01:57):
Oh, <laugh> dozens of things. I, I could keep going all day.
Doc Searls (01:02:03):
I know I wanted to ask on Mego, some of is just a quick, quick one on what MEV does.
Seth Frye (01:02:08):
Great. medi gov, the meta governance project, meta gov.org is a resource organization that I'm active in bringing together developers e democracy advocates lawyers, media scholars, data scientists theoretical computer scientists, <laugh>. It's really a beautifully vibrant community that I'm very passionate about that is interested in using online communities as laboratories for governance, design and experimentation. And so that's really the hub for activity around providing tools that any community can bring in to experiment actively in how they run. Other organizations that I'm passionate or excited about while we're plugging. Oh yeah this seems like the best for that community so far.
Doc Searls (01:02:56):
Yeah. And that's at meta gov.org. And there are lots of things listed there along outline. So I advise people to take a look at that, to know more about one of the many things Seth's involved in. So Seth that to, to close, what are your favorite text editor and scripting language?
Seth Frye (01:03:13):
<Laugh>? I'm in Vim and I work actively between Python and r r is such, it's like fun. It's fun to build figures, it's fun to do stats now it's fun to do data munging in. So I'll start off in Python for kind of raw mune glue everything together, maybe with a bridge to S SQL L because that's also a lot of fun when you're above 10 million data points. But wrapping up an R, which I just have a lot of fun in and, and all in, yeah. Bam.
Doc Searls (01:03:51):
That's, that is a longer answer than I expected. I love it. So <laugh>, I think our, I think our our, our listeners and viewers will too. So Seth, thanks so much for being on the show. This has been a, a great hour and we have a lot left over and we'll have to have you back in a bit to see where things have gone. Wonderful. After some interval. Thanks for being here. Thanks for having. And so Simon, you, you, you learn a lot in this hour,
Simon Phipps (01:04:18):
<Laugh>? Yeah. yes, I think so. And, and I've, I've also revisited a whole load of things that I haven't read for a long time. Cuz it, it turns out, you know, I, I dunno the degree to which you, you knew Doc, but I've written about a whole load of these things previously about
Doc Searls (01:04:35):
Yes, I do know, and
Simon Phipps (01:04:37):
Between, between seven and nine years ago. And and so there, there's lots of flashbacks coming back from evaluating the some of my, my, my greatest failures in community design. And I I could mention some of them because they've ceased to exist others others live on, and so I probably shouldn't mention them. So all all fascinating stuff. All I wish is that Seth could give me the answers rather than just tell me what the questions were. <Laugh>
Doc Searls (01:05:10):
Yeah, well, you know, it's, it's, it's all a project. I mean, that's, that's what strikes to me about every open source code base. If it's alive, it's a project and and it's not done. I mean, when I talk to Andrew Morton, who we haven't had on the show, maybe he's been on the show before, I came along a few years ago but he said, you know, his whole work is stamping out bugs. That's it. You know, he's a Linux kernel guy. I don't know if he's as active as he used to be, but he used to be a real alpha dude in the, in the Linux community and, you know, and he said it would still be a project 200 years from now. He said it is most likely just likely code base to be going in 200 years than anything else he knew. So I think these things never end. So, so what do you wanna plug this week? I, you know,
Simon Phipps (01:05:53):
I'm, I'm, I'm, I have very few holes that need plugging at the moment. Doc
Doc Searls (01:05:59):
Simon Phipps (01:06:00):
I'm, I'm still spending all of my time dealing with the European Union's cyber Resilience Act and its consequences. And the main thing I'd like to ask is if there's anyone who is a member of a community open source project in Europe who would like to provide me with a case study of the impact of the CRA on their community, then please get in touch. All the details are, well, that'd be great on the website or on the screen, but that's really the only thing I have to plug.
Doc Searls (01:06:28):
Well, that's great. I, and I need to plug next week when we have Levi Maya on Levi's, another friend guy know personally, he lives in Santa Barbara where we are plugging everything right now. We're getting huge rains there, which is unusual. We have friends staying in our house too, which needs plugging <laugh>. Turns out they went there for the sunny Southern California thing and it's not there. I think where Seth is, it's even, it's even Rainier Anyway, but he's coming up next week and I believe Sean Powers is gonna be joining us for that. So come back for that. It's gonna be really interesting because he's a pilot and he's a hacker and he's involved and a filmmaker. He is involved in a lot of stuff. So that's coming up next week and I will see you all then.
Leo Laporte (01:07:10):
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