Opinion: The Overlords of Moodle

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Wired Magazine is one of the only monthly publications I can read from cover to cover in one sitting and not skip an article.  Each one is masterly crafted and I consume it eagerly for it’s new, fresh ideas or codification of my previously held assumptions.  Even better when an article piques my interest and speaks directly do some of the work I do day-to-day.

Case in point is this month’s “The Overlords of Open Source: Why are people-powered projects ruled by tyrants” which is less about tyranny than it is about the (surprising?) success of new business models which eschew profits for trust and community.  Moodle is one such open source project. “Overlord”  may be a bit much, but I have heard Martin Dougiamas referred to as “the benevolent dictator”.  Lead Developer and Founder is his more serious title which are both well earned and descriptive.

The article in Wired discusses the rise of open source and ‘community-led’ projects like Wikileaks, Craigslist, Wikipedia and others, but I would certainly add the open source projects I use day-by-day to the list: WordPress (Matt Mullenweg), Moodle, Linux/Ubuntu, etc.  These organizations are often led or directed by an individual figure-head who sets the tempo, stage and direction of development and projects and who’s sacrifices (profit, slow growth, old cars) are a trade off for higher “customer” satisfaction, the growth of a fanatical fan-base and the creation of a community founded on trust and sharing.  These individuals’ ideas and hopes are projected on to the projects,

As indispensable as these people-powered projects can be… the paradox is that they’re often more authoritarian, even autocratic, than the most tightly controlled for-profit firms. The volunteer model makes them almost feudal in structure: an enormous mass of unpaid serfs, kept in line by a small group of paid manager-nobles, in turn serving at the pleasure of the kingly founder, whose authority is more or less absolute. After all, when you create a dominant website but eschew the vast wealth that could come with it, conventional checks on your power no longer apply. You have no shareholders or paying customers to mollify. Competitors don’t bother challenging you, since how can they beat a market leader when that leader is unbound by market forces? [link]

While the article is talking specifically about Julian Assange’s tactics and leadership, there are some interesting thoughts about the structure and “ingredients” of successful community-led and trust-based projects in open source.  The above quote nails Moodle’s structure almost perfectly (if not in somewhat negative terminology).

What’s for sure is that the ‘benevolent dictator’ model is working for Moodle.  The community is thriving, there’s development on many fronts and there’s a bright future for the software despite the bumps along the way.

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