The power of open-source communities
As the world becomes more and more proprietary, especially in the digital landscape majorly dominated by Big Tech, a lot of businesses are starting to look for alternatives in open-source software.
Indeed, there are a lot of benefits and appeals of open-source software; the most often discussed ones are in terms of openness and reusability, usually viewed from the techn(ologi)ical perspective.
However, an absolutely essential element of open source, responsible for much of its success, is the power of the communities backing the particular projects.
This is what we’d like to focus on in this article: how open-source communities drive the success of popular open-source technologies. We’ll be exploring four key components that make these communities so impactful, both for the projects they’re contributing to as well as for the contributors themselves.
Innovation has got to be the number one superpower of an open-source community. Ideas are spread faster and more easily in a strong community, and collaborating on problems tends to yield better results than trying to come up with solutions individually.
One of the most significant advantages of open-source software gets enhanced through a strong community: due to its open nature, it’s super straightforward to build a custom-fit solution based on already existing code, then (this is the best part) contribute back to the project by open-sourcing the new solution itself and making it available for public use.
The speed of innovation also enables faster responding to current trends and/or market needs, which is becoming increasingly important considering how the fast pace of change poses the risk of falling behind if you don’t move fast enough.
Ultimately, a steady pace of innovation is crucial for the ongoing development and success of an open-source project. A strong, active community allows for faster, more consistent release cycles.
A great example of this is the Facebook-backed React, which was released in 2013 and is currently already on version 17; as opposed to Vue, a similarly popular technology released at a similar time, but that has a smaller supporting community and is now on major version 3.
Security is a vital element of any software, and open source is no exception - in fact, since it’s openly available, this makes it more easily exploited, and hence security has to be an even bigger priority. There have to be avenues for providing quick fixes/workarounds as soon as an issue gets discovered.
Here, the popularity of a project can sometimes work to its detriment. This is often the case with WordPress, the most popular open-source CMS. While not in itself insecure, its widespread usage means more potential points of attack due to the sheer number of sites running on it, and thus a much greater chance of a percentage of these attacks being successful.
However, just as popularity can work to a project’s detriment, a big community also entails better reactions/responses to such security issues. Another popular open-source CMS, Drupal, has a dedicated security team responsible for taking care of these issues and if possible nipping them in the bud.
They promptly release security advisories with the then optimal solutions/workarounds and provide additional information on the resolution of the issue to keep the community informed - truly “by the community and for the community”.
The last point to mention here is security maintenance/support for websites running on older versions of an open-source software that cannot or do not want to upgrade for whatever reason.
While official support typically ends once a software version reaches its end of life, there tend to be many potential providers of extended support for those that only need occasional security fixes and no real new features.
Diversity and inclusivity
As digitalization increases, more and more people are starting to use digital on a daily basis and are consequently becoming digital-savvy. We’re also starting to see the rise of the so-called “citizen developer”, a unique subset of these digital-savvy users who are themselves responsible for creating digital experiences.
Naturally, the wants and needs of these users evolve with the technologies themselves - but now, this digital-savvy population is much more diverse than ever before, and technologies need to address that lest they introduce bias or discrimination into the solutions that they provide.
A diverse open-source community is uniquely positioned to cater to such a diverse audience, to understand the needs of so many different user types and come up with solutions that suit several of these. The diversity of ideas also enables faster and more resilient innovating with a smaller chance of letting biases slip through the cracks.
As we stated in the introduction, however, open-source communities don’t just benefit their respective projects, but their members as well. They tend to be very inclusive and supportive, focusing on members’ strengths rather than shortcomings.
They open up opportunities to people to whom doors have previously been closed, and they do so with a welcoming attitude and an intention of empowering individuals to realize their potential, while also keeping the goals of the open-source project top of mind.
While this falls partly under the point about innovation and partly under the diversity and inclusivity section above, we decided to treat it in a separate section as an innate human trait.
Indeed, the ability to form complex relationships is one of the greatest advantages of humans as a species which enables us to achieve more when united than when we’re alone, with the resulting collaboration thus often being greater than the sum of its parts.
What’s more, authentic human connection is in direct positive correlation with well being and performance. It reduces the risk of burnout and is all in all essential to a well-functioning immune system (the importance of which has been greatly highlighted in these past two years).
While the cancellation of open-source conferences due to Covid has hampered the ability to connect face to face, technology advancements allow us to connect and collaborate remotely better than ever before.
The bonds we form with other community members while working on projects together thus also have a greater chance of developing further and transforming into life-long personal relationships.
Anyone who’s part of a strong open-source community has likely felt the power of working and innovating together, and formed long-lasting authentic relationships with people they’ve met along the way.
Hopefully, we were able to give everyone who’s not yet had this opportunity a glimpse into what the power of open-source communities looks like and how being a part of one can empower you.
If you’d like to join and contribute to one, chances are high that a piece of software that you regularly use belongs to an open-source project, so you definitely can’t go wrong by starting there!