Open Content Communities


How to Cite

Jr., J. R. (2004). Open Content Communities: Introduction. M/C Journal, 7(3).
Vol. 7 No. 3 (2004): Open
Published 2004-07-01

In this brief essay I sketch the characteristics of an open content community by considering a number of prominent examples, reviewing sociological literature, teasing apart the concepts of open and voluntary implicit in most usages of the term, and I offer a definition in which the much maligned possibility of 'forking' is actually an integral aspect of openness.


What is often meant by the term 'open' is a generalization from the Free Software, Open Source and open standards movements. Communities marshaling themselves under these banners cooperatively produce, in public view, software, technical standards, or other content that is intended to be widely shared.

Free Software and Open Source

The Free Software movement was begun by Richard Stallman at MIT in the 1980s. Previously, computer science operated within the scientific norm of collaboration and information sharing. When Stallman found it difficult to obtain the source code of a troublesome Xerox printer, he feared that the norms of freedom and openness were being challenged by a different, proprietary, conceptualization of information. To challenge this shift he created the GNU Project in 1984 (Stallman 1998), the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985 (Stallman 1996), and the authored the GNU General Public License in 1989.

The goal of the GNU Project was to create a free version of the UNIX computing environment with which many computer practitioners were familiar with, and even contributed to, but was increasingly being encumbered with proprietary claims. GNU is playful form of a recursive acronym: GNU is Not Unix. The computing environment was supposed to be similar to but independent of UNIX and include everything a user needed including an operating system kernel (e.g., Hurd) and common applications such as small utilities, text editors (e.g., EMACS) and software compilers (e.g,. GCC).

The FSF is now the principle sponsor of the GNU Project and focuses on administrative issues such as copyright licenses, policy, and funding issues; software development and maintenance is still an activity of GNU. The GPL is the FSF's famous copyright license for 'free software'; it ensures that the 'freedom' associated with being able to access and modify software is maintained with the original software and its derivations. It has important safeguards, including its famous 'viral' provision: if you modify and distribute software obtained under the GPL license, your derivation also must be publicly accessible and licensed under the GPL.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds started development of Linux: a UNIX like operating system kernel, the core computer program that mediates between applications and the underlying hardware. While it was not part of the GNU Project, and differed in design philosophy and aspiration from the GNU's kernel (Hurd), it was released under the GPL. While Stallman's stance on 'freedom' is more ideological, Torvalds approach is more pragmatic. Furthermore, other projects, such as the Apache web server, and eventually Netscape's Mozilla web browser, were being developed in open communities and under similar licenses except that, unlike the GPL, they often permit proprietary derivations. With such a license, a company may take open source software, change it, and include it in their product without releasing their changes back to the community.

The tension between the ideology of free software and its other, additional, benefits led to the concept of Open Source in 1998. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded when, "We realized it was time to dump the confrontational attitude that has been associated with 'free software' in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that motivated Netscape" (OSI 2003). Since the open source label is intended to cover open communities and licenses beyond the GPL, they have developed a meta (more abstract) Open Source Definition (OSI 1997) which defines openness as:

  • Free redistribution
  • Accessible source code Permits derived works
  • Ensures the integrity of the author's source code
  • Prohibits discrimination against persons or groups
  • Prohibits discrimination against fields of endeavor
  • Prohibits NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) entanglements
  • Ensures the license must not be specific to a product
  • Ensures the license must not restrict other software
  • Ensures the license must be technology-neutral

A copyright license which is found by OSI to satisfy these requirements will be listed as a OSI certified/approved license, including the GPL of course.

Substantively, Free Software and Open Source are not that different: the differences are of motivation, personality, and strategy. The FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) survey of 2,784 Free/Open Source (F/OS) developers found that 18% of those that identified with the Free Software community and 9% of those that identified with the Open Source community considered the distinction to be 'fundamental' (Ghosh et al. 2002:55). Given the freedom of these communities, forking (a split of the community where work is taken in a different direction) is common to the development of the software and its communities. One can conceive of Open Source movement as having forked from Free Software movement.

The benefits of openness are not limited to the development of software. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) host the authoring of technical specifications that are publicly available and implemented by applications that must interoperably communicate over the Internet. For example, different Web servers and browsers should be able to work together using the technical specifications of HTML, which structures a Web page, and HTTP, which is used to request and send Web pages. The approach of these organizations is markedly different from the 'big S' (e.g., ISO) standards organizations which typically predicate membership on nationality and often only provide specifications for a fee. This model of openness has extended even to forms of cultural production beyond technical content. For example, the Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia and the Creative Commons provides licenses and community for supporting the sharing of texts, photos, and music.

Openness and Voluntariness

Organization can be characterized along numerous criteria including size; public versus private ownership; criterion for membership; beneficiaries (cui bono); Hughes's voluntary, military, philanthropic, corporate, and family types; Parsons's social pattern variables; and Thompson and Tuden's decision making strategies, among others (Blau and Scott 1962:40). I posit that within the contemporary usage of the term 'open,' one can identify a number of defining characteristics as well as an implicit connotation of voluntariness.


The definition of an 'open' community in the previous section is extensional: describing the characteristics of Free/Open Software (F/OS), and open standards and content. While useful, this approach is incomplete because such a description is of products, not of the social organization of producers. For example, private firms do release F/OS software but this tells us little about how work is done 'in the open.'

The approach of Tzouris was to borrow from the literature of 'epistemic' communities so as to provide four characteristics of 'free/open' communities:

Shared normative and principled beliefs: refers to the shared understanding of the value-based rationale for contributing to the software.

Shared causal beliefs: refers to the shared causal understanding or the reward structures. Therefore, shared causal beliefs have a coordinating effect on the development process.

Shared notions of validity: refers to contributors' consensus that the adopted solution is a valid solution for the problem at hand.

Common policy enterprise: refers to a common goal that can be achieved through contributing code to the software. In simple words, there is a mutual understanding, a common frame of reference of what to develop and how to do it. (Tzouris 2002:21)

However, these criteria seem over-determined: it is difficult to imagine a coherent community ('open' or otherwise) that does not satisfy these requirements.

Consequently, I provide an alternative set of criteria that also resists myopic notions of perfect 'openness' or 'democracy.' Very few organizations have completely homogeneous social structures. As argued in Why the Internet is Good: Community Governance That Works Well (Reagle 1999), even an organization like the IETF with the credo of, "We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code," has explicit authority roles and informal elders. Consequently, in the following definition of open communities there is some room for contention.

An open community delivers or demonstrates:

  • Open products: provides products which are available under licenses like those that satisfy the Open Source Definition.
  • Transparency: makes its processes, rules, determinations, and their rationales available.
  • Integrity: ensures the integrity of the processes and the participants' contributions.
  • Non-discrimination: prohibits arbitrary discrimination against persons, groups, or characteristics not relevant to the community's scope of activity. Persons and proposals should be judged on their merits. Leadership should be based on meritocratic or representative processes.
  • Non-interference: the linchpin of openness, if a constituency disagrees with the implementation of the previous three criteria, the first criteria permits them to take the products and commence work on them under their own conceptualization without interference. While 'forking' is often complained about in open communities -- it can create some redundancy/inefficiency -- it is an essential characteristic and major benefit of open communities as well.


In addition to the models of organization referenced by Blau and Scott (1962), Amitai Etzioni describes three types of organizations: 'coercive' organizations that use physical means (or threats thereof), 'utilitarian' organizations that use material incentives, and 'normative' organizations that use symbolic awards and status. He also describes three types of membership: 'alienative members' feel negatively towards the organization and wish to leave, 'calculative members' weigh benefits and limitations of belonging, and 'moral members' feel positively towards the organization and may even sublimate their own needs in order to participate (Etzioni 1961).

As noted by Jennifer Lois (1999:118) normative organizations are the most underrepresented type of organization discussed in the sociological literature. Even so, Etzioni's model is sufficient such that I define a -- voluntary -- community as a 'normative' organization of 'moral' members. I adopt this synonymous definition not only because it allows me to integrate the character of the members into the character of the organization, but to echo the importance of the sense of the collaborative 'gift' in discussions among members of the community. Yet, obviously, not all voluntary organizations are necessarily open according to the definition above. A voluntary community can produce proprietary products and have opaque processes -- collegiate secret societies are a silly but demonstrative example.

However, like with openness, it is difficult to draw a clear line: one cannot exclusively locate open communities and their members strictly within the 'normative' and 'moral' categories, though they are dominant in the open communities I introduced. Many members of those open communities are volunteers, either because of a 'moral' inclination and/or informal 'calculative' concern with a sense of satisfaction and reputation. While the FLOSS survey concluded, "that this activity still resembles rather a hobby than salaried work" (Ghosh et al. 2002:67), 15.7% of their sample declared they do receive some renumeration for developing F/OS. Even at the IETF and W3C, where many engineers are paid to participate, it is not uncommon for some to endeavor to maintain their membership even when not employed or their employers change.

The openness of these communities is perhaps dominant in describing the character of the organization, though the voluntariness is critical to understanding the moral/ideological light in which many of the members view their participation.


I've attempted to provide a definition for openness that reflects an understanding of contemporary usage. The popular connotation, and consequently the definition put forth in this essay, arises from well known examples that include -- at least in part -- a notion of voluntary effort. On further consideration, I believe we can identity a loose conceptualization of shared products, and a process of transparency, integrity, and non-discrimination. Brevity prevents me from considering variations of these characteristics and consequent claims of 'openness' in different communities. And such an exercise isn't necessary for my argument. A common behavior of an open community is the self-reflexive discourse of what it means to be open on difficult boundary cases; the test of an open community is if a constituency that is dissatisfied with the results of such a discussion can can fork (relocate) the work elsewhere.


Author Biography

Joseph Reagle Jr.