The Coming Drupal Fork

In recent days there's been a bunch of insightful and thought provoking reflection within the Drupal community (as well as a share of bullshit). I've benefited from hearing perspectives that remind me of my biases and privileged placement as a cis white male. A comment by Melissa Anderson, someone I know and respect, had particular impact for me.

A lot of attention has focused on a particular action by Drupal project owner Dries Buytaert. But many are going deeper.

The trouble with Drupal is not so much any individual action.

The trouble is that, for all its collective trappings and thousands of contributors, Drupal is formally structured as a dictatorship.

Really? In 2017? Yes, really.

The Thing About Dictatorship

As detailed in documentation of the Drupal project structure, the self-anointed "benevolent dictator for life" not only exerts ultimate control over code but also "preserves [that is, controls] the philosophy, culture, and principles of the project."

Wow. Think about that for a minute.

The occasional overt dictate can indeed be worrisome. But I'm actually much more troubled by what's so normalized in the project that it passes without comment.

I won't repeat what I've gone on (and on!) about in previous comments and reflections on Drupal's power structure going back over a dozen years. Here's a selection:

But I will add I'm struck anew by what seems to me the unusual depth and reach of the authoritarian model in the Drupal project.

I've often heard it said, for example, that Linux, too, has a so-called "benevolent dictator for life".

True. But, contrary to Drupal, the Linux dictator doesn't individually set the terms of reference of, and appoint every member to, key community structures. (Come to think of it, isn't there something Orwellian about a so-called "Community Working Group" appointed by a dictator?) Unlike Buytaert with the Drupal Association, the Linux dictator doesn't have his name written into the bylaws of the Linux Foundation as a director with own reserved slot, nor has he served as the de facto permanent board president of the Linux Foundation since its inception. He doesn't have a seemingly permanent seat on the committee that vets every nomination to the Linux Foundation board.

And, crucially, unlike Buytaert in Drupal, he isn't a founder and key executive of the Linux company that exerts the deepest influence on the software.

Effective checks on the absolute power of the project founder? It's really hard to find any.

For thousands of people caught up in the Drupal project, what does all this mean in practice? As in many communities, boundaries often blur. Drupal can come to define not only one's work life, but also leisure activities like volunteer coding or meetup organizing, even key daily social links and interactions.

Put that together with a patriarchal model, intimately tied to capitalism and corporate power, permeating all these realms - work, leisure, friendship, community - and you get a deeply troubling degree of influence. One that, precisely because it's everywhere, may be almost invisible. In a community where it's all about personal ties and influence, power seldom needs to act overtly.

"Dictator for life". This, too, is something to think long and hard about. That's a lot of future years. For those who stay, what does it mean, this prospect of being part of a dictatorship culture most of one's life?

There's a tonne of beautiful energy in the Drupal project. There are brilliant and passionate people who care deeply about our community and are rightfully proud of our collective project.

Not thanks to the dictatorship model. In spite of it.

Is what we're seeing the beginnings of a "Drupal spring"? If so, where might it lead?

The Coming Fork

Conditions are ripe for a fork of the Drupal project. But what kind of fork?

For a software community mired in regressive power dynamics, a fork can be a positive source of renewal, allowing participants to resolve contradictions and carry forward the project's best attributes.

Or a fork can replicate the same regressive crap that prompted problems in the first place.

Worse--given the current context, a fork could reinforce and enshrine forms of cis white male privilege.

So the key question is not so much whether to fork. Rather, it seems to be: if so, how?

A cultural fork

Yes, there are deep problems with Drupal's code base, many resulting from the warping effects of corporate interests. But the primary challenge of a fork is not about code. It's about culture.

The dictatorship model in Drupal runs deep. So, no, a light makeover isn't going to cut it. A fork needs a radical cultural reset.

We need to look to voices of diversity and inclusion.

We need to create room for critical perspectives and insights that too often have been shouted down by louder voices in the project--ones that, over and over, have rushed to attack questioners of the founder's prerogatives. (I speak as someone who's repeatedly been targeted for my critical voice. And sometimes, yes, silenced.)

We need to deeply question a culture that promotes living for the cause as a positive or even a required leadership quality.

In the Backdrop fork of Drupal, I and others promoted a "project management committee" structure, replacing the single dictator with a group of lead contributors. And I do think the more diverse and inclusive Backdrop leadership team is a huge improvement over Drupal.

But, here, is it enough? Not nearly.

I personally want to look for inspiration and ideas to the platform cooperative movement, which is opening horizons for free software collectively owned by those who use and build it.

That vs. dictatorship? I know where my heart is.

Existing strengths

A fork should draw in existing progressive initiatives and structures in and around the Drupal space.

One that I'm involved with is Drutopia.

We've also got an expending number of engaged, radical organizations and cooperatives in the Drupal sphere. How do we draw them in? Or, maybe better put: how can we be open to them drawing us in?

A fork shouldn't require people to switch

Strategically, a new fork will probably have the most scope and impact if it doesn't force people to switch immediately to something new. Instead, it could work as a drop-in replacement for Drupal 8--and future Drupal versions.

For those familiar with the MySQL database, think MariaDB, the community-led fork of MySQL. If you already use MySQL, you can switch very painlessly to MariaDB--and get some great improvements for your effort. Your existing MySQL databases just work. The MariaDB project maintains compatibility by merging in changes from MySQL.

In the same way, a Drupal fork could "just work" if your site was originally built on Drupal.

Moving Forward

Crises in authoritarian systems play out in familiar ways. There will be - there already are - calls for a brand of "healing" that involves returning to the fold, reflecting sagely on lessons supposedly learned, and pledging renewed faith in the beneficent leader. Ah, I see one such post just appeared from the Drupal Association. Right on cue.

And there will be organizing on the ground. By those of us truly fed up with a corrosive patriarchal agenda, one that once again masks its power behind a false and exploitative language of inclusion.

Who are hungry for progressive change.



A fork would be painful. That

A fork would be painful. That is why I have raised my voice, for what it is worth, in appealing to Dries to relinquish the 'dictator for life' model (for example, here). If he ignoes calls of that kind, which probably also come in private from people with a higher profile than mine, I agree that a credible fork is coming. Dries is probably smart enough to see that, and to see that it will damage his own interests and Drupal. The hope is that he will permit change without the need for a fork, although quite what the change will look like is a matter for debate, a debate which, if fortune smiling on Drupal, Dries will encourage rather than impede.

I agree with this in so many ways. Especially for DESIGNERS.

The disconnection for Drupal and quality design is immediately evident for any Designer either recently coming out of school or those with experience. Drupal sucks for design.  There's so many new and exciting open source projects that are much more likely to capture a designers interest because they are immediately reflective of a "smart design methodology", one that incorporates the highest level of technology available. Looking at projects like React, Docker, Reaction, UIkit - smart design exists and does not look like a Bartik theme. Design on the internet is a moving target. I fully support a fork of Drupal 8 and have been talking to my business partner about doing it anyway.  The only way to get smart design into Drupal is to fork it into a new project.

A fork is actually a design concept for code in a way. It's basically saying, there is a problem that cant be solved with the existing architecture, and that to achieve the solution, a fundamental change must take place in the foundation or structure, not in the facade. It's time to re-design the Drupal we know now.

The Coming Drupal Fork

I took courses at Harvard Law (I was an MBA student and cross-registered for some regular law courses) and one was Law and the Corporate Manager. The first day of class our Professor, Detlev Vagts, read from "The Restatement of Agency," then quoted from the Bible that a person "cannot serve two masters." 

Questions only arise in organizations, for-profit and otherwise, when processes and motivations are unclear and/or secret. It gives the impression, deserved or undeserved, of being arbitrary or unfair.

In the United States, under the American system, we have the Sixth Amendment that deals with criminal acts and though in the case above no criminality so far has even been suggested, there is something we also believe in called due process inasmuch as Larry's livelihood might be economically affected.

I include the whole text of the 6th to minimize any selective reading,

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Again, this is not a criminal matter as far as we know, but the judge in Larry's case may have a conflict of interest that taints his impartiality. A person cannot be judge and jury and "for life" at that and come off looking fair.

In the American system we also are believes in the appeal process. In the present situation there is no appeal except to the court of public opinion and because of the Byzantine rules and structures of the Association that is where this matter has landed.

It is not clear in all this who the leadership in Drupal is serving--the Association and its members or a privately held firm with closed books standing to enrich its shareholders by making millions from an IPO or a merger/acquisition. 

New leadership model

Great post. I can't help but think much of this self-destruction is caused by an extremely centralized and conflicted governance model. Drupal is a community; Acquia is not - yet both share much of the same leadership and inertia.

If a broader, more robust governance model had been in-place, this drama would not have occurred. We can see the current model has/is playing out in general opaqueness and discord - all of which could and should have been avoided. Because one man had such sweeping influence we are now at this juncture, and there's no process in place for any sort of reconciliation.

If there is no reconciliation, then clearly Drupal and the community is under the yoke of a private firm, which means Drupal, as open source, is effectively done as an open community. However, if we see a little more thought and back peddling come out of leadership, then maybe we can avoid the fork which will happen if nothing else does.

That is to say--I see you

That is to say--I see you mention the platform cooperative model, which I've only barely begun to understand and explore. I'm very familiar with worker cooperatives and other cooperative forms! However, I'm not sure the "platform" module fits the Backdrop project well; does platform imply centralized hosting?

Short of switching to a platform cooperative model, what else would you want to see shift in terms of Backdrop's governance or that of a similar software project?

Thanks for the questions!

Thanks Jack for these great questions.

You've prompted me to try to finish up a more detailed article I'd started earlier on alternative economic models. I'll post here when that's up.

Article up

Hi Jack,

I've put up a post reflecting on economic models. It's perhaps long on idealistic examples, short on practical steps, but hey.

From what I can tell, the project management committee structure on its own has a fairly unimpressive record when it comes to promoting diversity in leadership or alternate economic models. It expands but doesn't necessarily contest the centralized power of the dictatorship model.

In Drutopia we've started with a leadership team structure similar to Backdrop's. It's an interim measure while we figure things out.

For Backdrop or similar projects, I wonder about a blended coop structure that includes both users and developers. Such a structure could empower user members to pool resources to support development on shared configuration solutions, as opposed to individual site builds. I early on advocated and offered to work on approaches that would provide back end support for such models in Backdrop. At the time there didn't seem to be much interest, so instead I ended up working on Drupal 8 initiatives including the D8 version of Features. But likely I gave up too quickly. I'd be happy to take up those Backdrop conversations again.

Some remarks...

In general I definitely think this could be a good idea. We do have some small differences in opinion though, you say dictatorship I say commercial interests. I personally believe that most of the recent drama also ensued because of said commercial interests.

However, I would like to make 2 very important observations here... You compare the situation with Linux where the head honcho is less "oppressive". You make a good argument yet you also fail to address one very important factor: Linus still has the last say over what does and doesn't get into the Linux kernel. Usually based on solid arguments, but the fact still remains.

Personally I think a better comparison would be the several major open source projects which set up a foundation to try and avoid any possible conflict of interests. Take for example the Apache foundation or the FreeBSD foundation. They handle monetary value, they handle donations and all but their only goal is the benefit of the project involved. But please don't think that such a model is an ensured way that no drama will ensue. I'm somewhat of a FreeBSD advocate and even though I don't involve myself too much I can tell you that even there you'll have your upsets from time to time. However.. the decisions at hand are not made by one individual.

Second... I've also outed some very critical remarks on a few blog posts because I'm also upset with what I read and the massive contradictions which you can find in several statements. For the record: I don't use Drupal myself, but I am an open source advocate. Despite all that 'the powers that be' still allow people to out their frustration and criticism, even outsiders like myself. And the whole environment even gives you a platform with your post here about a fork.

I also think it's fair to acknowledge those facts. A true dictator would also apply some serious censorship, especially when things really become awkward for them. Yet Drupal doesn't do that so far.


Id read your article but you

Id read your article but you are just a cis white male and thats way too problematic. 

you don't need a fork to change a leadership structure

Anyone who finds this post interesting and believes they have something to say, should first hit the "required reading" list for OSS community dynamics and organization.  A lot of what Drupalists are discovering for the first time is actually well-trodden territory, examined and discussed for more than 15 years. If nothing else,please read The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and Raymond's other important work, Homesteading the Noosphere.

> There will be - there already are - calls for a brand of "healing" that involves returning to the fold, reflecting sagely on lessons supposedly learned, and pledging renewed faith in the beneficent leader.

That process does not have to end with "pledging renewed faith in the beneficent leader" - and I think that at this juncture, it's unlikely to. Please remember that structures like the DA, the CWG, the Dictator-For-Life, the CoC are all things we (Drupal community members) just made up, to try and solve our problems at the time. None of this was handed down on stone tablets, and it all can (and SHOULD) change over time.

Nedjo, you've been an important community leader for long enough to remember all of this. We basically started the CoC at a BoF at Drupalcon Copenhagen in 2010, copying the model from the Ubuntu community that someone suggested on By 2012 it was clear that this punted the issue of conflict resolution onto a handful of people who didn't want the job, so we held a bunch of Drupal Governance "sprints" to figure out what to do. In the end we the community decided to create a special Community Working Group to deal with it.  Even the DA itself, maybe the most established structure we want to reform or "fork", is barely 10 years old. Every one of those structures was formed by community members who were upset with the status quo and wanted something better.

Dries' position is titled "Dictator", but the leadership doesn't repress opposition. On the contrary - the people who were involved in shaping this governance structure are constantly trying to get people to give feedback and help define the structure. Drupal governance BoFs and sessions are too often sad affairs, with the board member at the front trying to drag input out of a handful of participants.

If you want to change the structure of how Drupal is led, you don't have to fork it. You just have to get people to show up to the meetings.

Do you remember when Dries started Acquia in 2007, and the Drupal leadership really WAS corporate controlled? Do you remember how we got him to separate Acquia from the Drupal leadership, and the uneasy truce of his conflicted position? All it took was enough concerned community members at the meetings.

So you want to remove the role of BDFL, or make Dries end his conflict-of-interests position, or completely restart the DA, or rewrite the way the CWG works, or form a totally separate structure... that's great! Please come to the meetings and help us get those changes passed. These are not new ideas or taboo options.


Regarding the Drupal Association, I served as a permanent member of the Belgian-based organization, and thus was intimately involved in its behind the scenes workings, for most of its existence. For the current US-based Drupal Association, I served on the first board nomination committee and was a inaugural member of the "conflict of interest committee" (based on my own experience, I have trouble writing that phrase without putting it in quotes). Thankfully, I've been free from involvement in the DA for several years. Still, my perspective doesn't stem from knowing too little. It stems from knowing way too much.

So I understand the perspective that it's possible to significantly reform an authoritarian system from within. Apparently, I once even shared it.