A PhD Thesis: Self-organisation in Commons-Based Peer Production (Drupal: “the drop is always moving”) by David Rozas. University of Surrey, Department of Sociology, Centre for Research in Social Simulation, 2017.


“Commons-Based Peer Production (CBPP) is a new model of socio-economic production in which groups of individuals cooperate with each other without a traditional hierarchical organisation to produce common and public goods, such as Wikipedia or GNU/Linux. There is a need to understand how these communities govern and organise themselves as they grow in size and complexity. Following an ethnographic approach, this thesis explores the emergence of and changes in the organisational structures and processes of Drupal: a large and global CBBP community which, over the past fifteen years, has coordinated the work of hundreds of thousands of participants to develop a technology which currently powers more than 2% of websites worldwide. Firstly, this thesis questions and studies the notion of contribution in CBPP communities, arguing that contribution should be understood as a set of meanings which are under constant negotiation between the participants according to their own internal logics of value. Following a constructivist approach, it shows the relevance played by less visible contribution activities such as the organisation of events. Secondly, this thesis explores the emergence and inner workings of the sociotechnical systems which surround contributions related to the development of projects and the organisation of events. Two intertwined organisational dynamics were identified: formalisation in the organisational processes and decentralisation in decision-making. Finally, this thesis brings together the empirical data from this exploration of socio-technical systems with previous literature on self-organisation and organisation studies, to offer an account of how the organisational changes resulted in the emergence of a polycentric model of governance, in which different forms of organisation varying in their degree of organicity co-exist and influence each other.”

Summary (excerpted from preface)

“This thesis presents a study of self-organisation in a collaborative community focused on the development of a Free/Libre Open Source Software, named Drupal, whose model responds to the latter: a Commons-Based Peer Production community. Drupal is a content management framework, a software to develop web applications, which currently powers more than 2% of websites worldwide. Since the source code, the computer instructions, was released under a license which allow its use, copy, study and modification by anyone in 2001, the Drupal project has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of participants. More than 1.3 million people are registered on Drupal.org, the main platform of collaboration, and communitarian events are held every week all around the World. Thus, as the main slogan of the Drupal project reflects — “come for the software, stay for the community”, this collaborative project cannot be understood without exploring its community, which is the main focus of this thesis.

In sum, over the course of the next eleven chapters, this thesis presents the story of how hundreds of thousands of participants in a large and global Commons-Based Peer Production community have organised themselves, in what started as a small and amateur project in 2001. This is with the aim of furthering our understanding of how, coping with diverse challenges, Commons-Based Peer Production communities govern and scale up their self-organisational processes.

* Chapter 1 provides an overview of the phenomenon of Free/Libre Open Source Software and connects it with that of Commons-Based Peer Production, allowing the theoretical pillars from previous studies on both phenomena to be drawn on.

* Chapter 2 provides an overview of the main case study, the Drupal community. Throughout the second chapter the Drupal community is framed as an extreme case study of Commons-Based Peer Production on the basis of its growth, therefore offering an opportunity to improve our understanding of how self-organisational processes emerge, evolve and scale up over time in Commons-Based Peer Production communities of this type.

* Chapter 3 provides an overview of Activity Theory and its employment as an analytical tool: a lens which supports the analysis of the changes experienced in complex organisational activities, such as those from Free/Libre Open Source Software communities as part of the wider phenomenon of Commons-Based Peer Production.

* Chapter 4, explores the fundamental methodological aspects considered for this study, which draws on an ethnographic approach. The decision for this approach is reasoned on the basis of the nature of the research questions tackled in the study. Firstly, on requiring an inductive approach, which entails the assumption that topics emerge from the process of data analysis rather than vice versa. Secondly, on the necessity of drawing on a methodological approach which acknowledges the need to understand these topics from within the community.

* Chapter 5 begins the presentation of the findings of this study. It presents the findings regarding the study of contribution in the Drupal community, a notion which is fundamental for the choice of the main unit of analysis, contribution activity, in Activity Theory. The results from this study enabled the identification and consideration, throughout the subsequent chapters, not only of activities which are “officially” understood as contributions, such as those listed in the main collaboration platform, but also of those which have remained less visible in Free/Libre Open Source software and Commons-Based Peer Production communities and the literature on them.

* Chapters 6 and 7 address the study of the development of projects, activities whose main actions and operations are mostly performed through an online medium;

* Chapters 8 and 9 present the main argument that binds this thesis together: the growth experienced by the Drupal community led to a formalisation of self-organisational processes in response to a general dynamic of decentralisation of decision-making in order for these processes to scale up. This research identified these two general organisational dynamics, formalisation and decentralisation of decision-making, affecting large and global Commons-Based Peer Production communities as they grow over time. Thus, throughout these chapters, the means by which these general dynamics of formalisation and decentralisation shaped the overall systems which emerged around these different contribution activities are explored. The exploration of the organisational processes of this case study does not only show the existence of these dynamics, but it provides an in-depth account of how these dynamics relate to each other, as well as how they shaped the overall resulting system of peer production, despite the main medium of the peer production activities studied being online/offline, or the significant differences with regard to their main focus of action — writing source code or organising events. For each pair of chapters this exploration starts with the most informal systems and progresses towards the most formal respectively: custom, contributed and core projects, in chapters 6 and 7; and local events, DrupalCamps and DrupalCons, in chapters 8 and 9. After carrying out this in-depth exploration of self-organisation, the overall identified changes experienced in the self-organisational processes of the Drupal community are brought together according to general theories of self-organising communities, organisational theory and empirical studies on Commons-Based Peer Production communities, in order to connect the exploration with macro organisational aspects in chapter 10.

* Chapter 10 argues that this study provides evidence of the emergence of polycentric governance, in which the participants of this community establish a constant process of negotiation to distribute authority and power over several centres of governance with effective coordination between them. In addition, this chapter argues that the exploration carried out throughout the previous chapters provides an in-depth account of the emergence of an organisational system for peer production in which different forms of organisation, varying in their degree of organicity, simultaneously co-exist and interact with each other.

* Finally, chapter 11 summarises the main contributions of this thesis and provides a set of implications for practitioners of Commons-Based Peer Production communities.”

The full thesis is available here.

Photo by Fernan Federici

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