Historic DrupalCon Amsterdam 2014 – Let the Debates Begin – Part I

I really think that a debate needs to continue around Keynote: Dries Buytaert for the purpose of understanding the forces at work competing for the future of Drupal and indeed all open source projects. Leaving to one side without comment the really weird Dries doppelganger designed somehow to elevate the image of one of the sponsors, it was indeed saluted by many as being very special. A glance at the tweets feed for the keynote, for example, (or this one) were by and large ecstatic, and many interpreted the talk as exceedingly progressive. "The power of the people"... #digitaldisruption... "This is @Dries most socialist #Driesnote ever." "Applause even in the overflow room..." "Most relevant and interesting #DriesNote in a long time. Well done..." "Exciting. The best Dries keynote ever."

I really think that a debate needs to continue around Keynote: Dries Buytaert for the purpose of understanding the forces at work competing for the future of Drupal and indeed all open source projects. Leaving to one side without comment the really weird Dries doppelganger designed somehow to elevate the image of one of the sponsors, it was indeed saluted by many as being very special. A glance at the tweets feed for the keynote, for example, (or this one) were by and large ecstatic, and many interpreted the talk as exceedingly progressive. “The power of the people”… #digitaldisruption… “This is @Dries most socialist #Driesnote ever.” “Applause even in the overflow room…” “Most relevant and interesting #DriesNote in a long time. Well done…” “Exciting. The best Dries keynote ever.”

And it certainly was amazingly ambitious, and courageously stated.

Dries published a blog post the same day as the keynote, Scaling Open Source communities, and the slides from the talk are available here.

But the talk presents one point of view. I would like to see more debate around the concepts stated in the community as a whole, since they have far-reaching consequences and high impact for all, and as Dries says there are many questions and concerns.

First I will review the key concepts presented in the meat of the talk, and then I will list some questions I think the Drupal community should debate immediately. After all, the conclusions of this talk are on the verge of being implemented byt the Drupal Association, even though they are presented as “starting points for discussion” and not a final solution.


First, “Public Good” is defined, in strict Wikipedia terms, actually, as something that is non-excludable (anyone can use it: not just download it, but use it) and non-rivalrous (use by one individual does not reduce the amount available to be consumed by others). Dries continues his talk right along with the Wikipedia article, which explains the problem of “excessive use” of such public goods as air, water and roads, information goods, and software development (Drupal!) leading to the “free-rider” problem.

Basically, and as reflected in Dries rendering of the Wikipedia article through the history of roads, people are purely rational and selfish (“homo economicus“) and act purely in terms of the benefits they may receive when deciding whether or not to volunteer to support Public Goods.

Fortunately for these lazy masses (easily capable of falling asleep during an important “academic” wikipedian talk), private businesses step in and eventually privatize the public good, and the community benefits because even though they now have to pay, they do gain access to an improved public good which had deteriorated due to their just using it and giving nothing back.

However problems develop here too and eventually the government must step in and transform the original invention or discovery cum product into a public utility. This results in the current state of our parks, national defense and open source drones, education system, road and public health systems, etc.

The same thing is happening with Drupal. So “commercialization of a volunteer open source project is not a bad thing, it’s part of the natural life-cycle of open source projects.”

The best method for Drupal to face its problems as a Public Good will be the formation of Privileged Groups (over Social Capital, Privatization, Altruism (donations), for example). Those that contribute get benefits, those who don’t, don’t.

  • Agencies and Companies (producers and consumers) to be actors with their own profiles, and with visibility and influence in the community in proportion to contributions (i.e. economic power, since a negligible effort by a large company greatly outweighs maximum efforts by a single individual or small shop)
  • Contributions are accurately tracked and benefits awarded accordingly
  • Companies that do not contribute to be penalized (and/or not benefited)


Aren’t free-riders free testers? Free requirements analysts?

Dries attributes the breaking down of roads, and of public goods in general, as being due to the growth in complexity that they undergo, causing the need for government to step in. But the question needs to be asked: is this how it happened historically (think under-investment amidst huge profits)? Let’s just leave that as an open question for now.

Was it an acceleration in the development of Public Goods thanks to businesses getting involved, or was it the acceleration that attracted the businesses, especially in such areas as information, software development, authorship, etc?

Now, specifically, how is corporations charging for what used to be freely available Public Goods something that can teach the Drupal community anything in terms of facing their own problems? Unless the plan is to “privatize” in some way?

Isn’t it true that businesses bear the main responsibility for the “free-rider” problem in the first place? Aren’t they responsible for air-pollution, depletion of natural resources, and in the open source community, for poaching talent and pushing the product’s features towards meeting the goals of their own business models?

Why can’t Drupal be a better-defined component in a larger eco-system? Could it be less complex and top heavy if that were the case? Might it reduce the need for rocket scientists? Must Drupal be all things to all men in a world growing in leaps and bounds in its consciousness of the need for micro-services?

Isn’t a lot of the complexity of public goods as products actually the result of corporations imposing their own business models on the requirements? For example, Drupal being aimed at the “Enterprise” market instead of small and medium sized organizations, and individuals? Is the growth in complexity to meet everyone’s needs, or just those having an up-market “enterprise” business model?

Would a project like Backdrop, lately gaining huge momentum in the CMS community, not then need to emerge or fork from Drupal if that were the case?

Also, does the growing complexity of the product really require corporations in order to find a solution? I mean, how do you then explain the Obamacare debacle and Microsoft Vista in contrast to, say, the Apache server, Linux, Drupal running the Emmy’s and an army of NGO’s, or Wikipedia itself (“altruism”???). Since when are corporations “more efficient”?

And Wikipedia is mentioned in the talk, but it is not explained why donations + social capital should be in any way inferior to privileged groups. What’s up with that? If Wikipedia can do it why can’t we? Or is kickstarter a failure too as it grows?

Why is commercialization of open source projects synonymous automatically with the most powerful economic groups (agencies and companies) being given privileges less economically powerful organizations and individuals don’t have? Why can’t commercialization of open source projects be synonymous with fair use and the development of products equally suitable to small concerns, not just large enterprises? What happened to the “social capital” idea of just a few weeks ago, where the more you contributed, the more recognition and customers you got?

Isn’t “privileged groups” just a fancy name for privatization. Doesn’t privatization just lead to high priced under-invested products that forced the government to step in and manage utilities in the first place? Obamacare websites? Like the California water (Chinatown!) and power debacle?

Aren’t the “free-rider problem” and “homo economicus” simply (all too familiar) ways of invalidating the value of collective and cooperative efforts in order to justify privatization and the creation of privileged groups, like the two-tiered internet proposal, or private medicine?

How is there a “free-rider problem” in Drupal anyway? If more people download it, how is that a burden on the community? Wasn’t the growth in the number of people downloading and using Drupal a benefit, in terms of long-tail testing and feedback? Wasn’t that always one of Drupal’s strengths?

So what scarcity does exist? Isn’t the scarcity that of programmers and developers willing to participate in the Drupal 8 issue queue, building, perfecting and maintaining an extremely complex system? So who might the “free-riders” be, then? Not the end users of Drupal, but rather those who sell their services configuring, building and maintaining web apps using Drupal, without contributing back to the community in some way? So the larger the agencies, the bigger free-riders they are. Will gameification buttons and baubles and some free advertising on d dot o do the trick?

But how is creating privileged groups, especially going to the extreme of a VIP Drupal (as in the WordPress example given), going to do any more than make someone rich and reduce the reach of Drupal as a whole? How is it going to solve the very real problem of programmers leaving the Drupal community and being unwilling to participate in the maintenance of Drupal?

Is this why “Headless Drupal” rears its head so often and means something different to everyone? Is it an attempt to lure developers back, saying “you can use all your great new stuff, the revolution is in the front-end, ok, go ahead, shear off Drupal’s front-end, we got back!”?

But does Drupal really have scalable back? Not according to several of the presentations at this paradoxical, and for that reason, historical DrupalCon.

Can the Drupal community meet its need for a critical mass of developers when they have to stand on their heads to use Drupal without giving up the exciting new (supposedly only front-end) stuff they have to learn anyway?

Can privatizing Drupal pay for attracting more core programmers? Is the opposition of Drupal as a private good to Drupal as a public good going to lead to a solution? How does VIP Drupal jive, in actual practice, with helping young people get jobs in Rwanda with Drupal as a Public Good (public to use not just to download) that was stated at the beginning of the talk? With “we have the power to change lives”? Can the character of Public Good be truly preserved if important effort goes towards improving something like Drupal VIP (a la WordPress VIP from Automattic)?

Is it the formal license, or what is really going on?

Doesn’t the fact that millions of people will be coming on-line over the next few years open up the solution of crowd sourcing Drupal’s needs, based on a model of collective and cooperative work, rather than re-privatized public utility?

Isn’t the whole gameification (badges and baubles) route for large agencies and companies over individuals and small shops just a blue-print for the domination of the community and its decision making process, even more so than today?

You just gotta ask yourself, there might be short-term gains for some companies, but are real, durable solutions for the Drupal community being proposed here?

Let the debate wail!

(Still to come in coming articles this week: discussion on what’s going on with Headless Drupal, with the rise of new languages and frameworks, including rapid maturity of PHP itself in many ways; what are the concrete steps we need to learn how to take in order to build web application from now on, no matter what framework we use; how is the build process and how are our teams to be best organized from here on in… let’s start dealing with all of these things together! Solidarity forever!)