Ant behavior may explain open-source forking...or the lack thereof

Open source relies on swarm behavior to work.

Martin Peacock sent me a link to this fascinating study of ant behavior in The International Herald Tribune. The article tracks the research of Iain Couzin on ants, locusts, and even humans and their instinct and ability to swarm.

While it doesn't call out open source specifically, I found the "follow-the-leader" behavior corresponds nicely to the forking of open-source projects. Despite the talk about the importance of the fork to open source, we actually rarely see it happen. Why? Probably because the group inertia is such a strong force:

Couzin and his colleagues have built a model of the flow of information through swarms. Each individual has to balance two instincts: to stay with the group and to move in a desired direction. The scientists found that just a few leaders can guide a swarm effectively. They do not even need to send any special signals to the animals around them. They create a bias in the swarm's movement that steers it in a particular direction....

Two leaders may try to pull a swarm in opposite directions, and yet the swarm holds together. In Couzin's model, the swarm was able to decide which leaders to follow.

"As we increased the difference of opinion between the informed individuals, the group would spontaneously come to a consensus and move in the direction chosen by the majority," Couzin said. "They can make these decisions without mathematics, without even recognizing each other or knowing that a decision has been made."

In other words, groups may have a natural, innate tendency to stay together. When would-be leaders of the group try to fragment the group, the group is tuned to quickly make a decision and maintain the swarm. This may be why we rarely see a truly fragmented open-source project. We find small off-shoots of big projects all the time, but the bulk of a developer community tends to stay together.

For those looking to invest in open-source communities, whether as a corporation or as a venture capitalist, it makes sense to hire/acquire the leaders of the project. JBoss used to do this to excellent effect. However, investors need to understand that "owning" a leader on the project won't necessarily mean leading the project, not if the investor really means "hijack" instead of "lead."

As Red Hat and other experienced commercial open-source "investors" long ago discovered, you need to give developers a long tether to let them do their own thing/lead their projects. You can nudge them in a direction, but you can't steer them. Why? Because the swarm will likely reject the jolt in a new direction.

The best you can do is to swarm with the colony and derive benefit therefrom.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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