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:
- Making Drupal fully 'community-driven': A Proposal for restructuring the Drupal project (January, 2005).
- Will The Revolution Be Drupalized? (September, 2014).
- Tag1 Spotlight: Nedjo Rogers (April, 2015).
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.
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.
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.