Jeremy Felt

In reply to: @lesley_pizza @dan_knauss

Dan asks:

Are there any of Ostrom’s findings or principles that you think could be especially useful to the WordPress community?

I don’t know if I have a clear answer to that, but here’s a rambling one… 🙂

The “tragedy of the commons” was made popular by Garrett Hardin, a white nationalist and pusher of eugenics whose argument kind of meanders through a variety of topics. It’s a short read, some of it makes sense—pollution is bad, sure, sign me up!—but the vibe behind all of it oozes “only people like me know how to use the commons”.

The conclusion of his paper reads like a grumpy old man writing a letter to the editor. And it ends with some clarifying statements:

Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.

Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons

So, in my nutshell description: Hardin believes humans are inherently selfish and will act only in their self interest. To avoid the tragedy of the commons, only allow humans who can handle it to have more humans. Humans like Hardin will determine who can handle it.

How does that apply to open source? I’m sure I could read it in a less literal way, but I also think you can say “people need to pitch in and tend to the garden if they want the garden to flourish” without citing Hardin.

Most of that was to say: I think everyone should stop citing The Tragedy of the Commons. It’s bleak, outdated, and inaccurate.

Okay, Elinor Ostrom—who I think we can safely say was by far a cooler person than Hardin.

I have (unfortunately) not read most of her book, Governing the Commons, but my nutshell summary of what I have read is: Everyone relies on these lazy hand-wavy metaphors that are decades old, but look: the commons works and can be collectively governed.

“Oh gee, you know the commons, it’s like sheep and grass and you can’t trust people and then the grass is gone.”

Instead, she does the work, shows examples of communities who are successfully governing their commons, and analyzes how it works and doesn’t.

So, in rambling conclusion… 😅

Lesley notes Ostrom’s 8 principles in WordPress as a Commons. I think I can find a way to align each of those at least loosely with how WordPress is governed, with a couple exceptions:

  • I think conflict resolution is a weak area. I’m not sure how often it is needed, but I am sure there have been times where an external party would have been useful for hashing out a disagreement.
  • While I think the current model of benevolent dictator, albeit poorly named, is the right governance model for WordPress, I think there would be value in better documentation around the project’s governance. I also think quite a bit more documentation exists now than several years ago.

My extra guess is that Ostrom would have likely found a fascinating study in the WordPress project.


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Jeremy's profile photo: a selfie taken while walking through Berlin.

Jeremy Felt wrote this and published it on the internet.

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Responses and reactions



Dan replied on 

What do you think about the idea of an Ostrom reading group?

Good insights — I feel like "conflict resolution" might begin with being able to communicate broadly and responsibly what the conflicts are, what significance they have, what the stakes and stakeholders are, etc. Otherwise, people genuinely don't know and just pick up the sense that "the parents are fighting."

Brian Krogsgard used that analogy a long time ago, and the paternalism in it is awkward but real. It stuck with me. A low-information environment infantilizes those without access to a good grasp of the environment and the major forces or interests acting on or within it.

All conflicts tend to float around as undifferentiated public fodder in communities or groups where there isn't a standard process for handling them, and that tends to intensify the negative, immature, or "hot" aspects of conflict, which is not a bad thing by itself. Conflicts are unavoidable and essential to group health and creativity.

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