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Open source values: Consensus

Every successful open source project I know operates through consensus. Orders aren't given, instructions are worked out. Raised voices, fists hammered on tables, these lead to code forks, and to volunteers abandoning a project.

Consensus by Rick Voerman
Last week I wrote about transparency as an open source value. Today, in the second of this informal series, I want to discuss the value called consensus.

Consensus is an essential open source value, and a value which distinguishes open source from the proprietary models which came before it. (This picture first appeared here in May.)

The Internet is based on consensus. General agreements, put into practice, rather than narrow majorities enforcing their will. If your browser is to work its maker must support what the consensus among developers consider key features.

Internet institutions like the W3C, the Internet Society and ICANN also work through consensus. They seek a united front on technical questions, and on larger issues as well.

Every successful open source project I know operates through consensus. Orders aren't given, instructions are worked out. Raised voices, fists hammered on tables, these lead to code forks, and to volunteers abandoning a project.

Successful open source entrepreneurs do their work through consensus. They listen to the people under them, and they seek shared responsibility. The best will say "we" did what works but "I" take the blame for what goes wrong.

All this is in stark contrast to the proprietary model, which is at heart an entrepreneurial model. Bill Gates and Larry Ellison give orders, set direction, and play business differences like great poker players. Neither could have succeeded, I think, if open source were the chief model for software success 20 years ago.

Consensus, as a value, also has political implications. Working through problems together, rather than forcing through stark choices, may seem foreign in the present environment, but it's how the Constitution and Declaration of Independence came about. It's how the European Union works.

When seen on TV, consensus comes off second-best as a political value. But on the Internet it's essential, and that is where I think politics is headed in the future, to the Internet.

The next political revolution will not be televised. It will be based on the open source value of consensus.