The emergence of governance norms in volunteer driven open source communities

Mirko Boehm


Free and open source software communities develop their governance norms and practises as they grow from small to medium to large size social groups. Communities with a small number of participants typically organise informally.  As the community grows, the need for coordination grows as well and at some point more pronounced organisation becomes necessary. The growth stages are defined by the coordination mechanisms applied - ad-hoc coordination for the initial small group, consensus focused auto-organisation for the medium size group, and structured, more formalised coordination for the large size group.  The main interest of the communities is to attract and retain contributors and to facilitate contributions to their products.  The communities studied in this qualitative embedded multiple-case study exhibit governance related debates and conflicts as they reached a large size, leading to difficulties in further growing the number of involved contributors and sustaining the community activities. The paper researches the emergence of governance norms in these communities and the role these norms, once established, play in the management of the communities in their current stage. The study finds that the governance norms in communities are commonly developed by participants that do not think them necessary for a community that does not want them at the time. The result is a pre-eminence of implicit, under-documented norms that increase barriers of entry for newcomers and afford incumbent contributors with instruments to derail unwanted decisions. The paper isolates the essential contradiction that the communities aim to maintain devolved authority at the contributor level, but require effective decision making and policing mechanisms to implement and maintain that. It recommends that communities, instead of deferring or down-playing the need to set up explicit governance norms, purposefully develop norms that explicitly define structure and processes so that they support, enforce and protect the devolved authority their participants should have.


Free and Open Source Software, Governance, Community Management, Contributor Motivation

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