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From Critique to Action: Transforming Drupal Through User-Centered Economics

April 5, 2017
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As controversy swirls around the Drupal project leadership, community members are asking searching questions about the role of corporate influence in the project.

It's a good time to take a step back and look at broader questions of economic structure. What different economic models could help spur alternatives? What would an economic model look like where free software is owned and shaped by users as well as producers?

Fortunately, there are many dynamic and successful models to learn from.

User Economics

Users are the experts in their own needs. As they start to find their way around software, users have the potential to be invaluable peer teachers and mentors, able to pass on information and tips in a style free of the jargon that often seeps in when developers try to teach. Yes, exercises like bringing together focus groups and doing usability studies have their place, but they’re no substitute for users who are fully engaged and involved.

However, there are significant barriers to bringing users in as shapers of software. One is simply available time and resources. At a typical small organization, staff or volunteers are hard-pressed to keep on top of their own work. Taking on a significant role in outside projects that seem to have little to do with their job description or organizational mandate? Not likely.

Related to time constraints is the lack of familiar models. Most groups are used to contracting for services, but less familiar with models that may involve contributing back. Viable alternatives need to fit with the resources that organizations can realistically contribute, and do so in ways that are attractive and understandable.

For example, members of cooperatives may be used to the idea of working with other cooperatives. Similarly, nonprofit staff and volunteers may be used to the idea of working in networks. Strategies that fit with these existing networking links may be more compelling. And groups may be better able to allocate staff resources if doing so is structured as part of receiving services, like through a website build or support contract.

Scrum Writ Large?

Scrum is a software development approach familiar to many in the tech sector.

In a scrum project, stakeholders in the software are represented by a “product owner” who develops and prioritizes the “user stories” (use cases) that the project will meet, and also has a key role in ensuring that those requirements have been met.

On a scrum-style individual Drupal site build, the product owner might be a staff person at the client organization. By consulting with colleagues and others at their organization, the product owner gathers and channels input to ensure that what’s built intimately reflects actual needs and priorities.

In a sense, scrum can be thought of as an analogy for the challenge of creating new user-centered economic models. How can users gain an effective collective voice to shape the software for their needs and priorities?

Incentives to Share Design and Configuration

Alternative models need to have logics that mean that pooling design and configuration work – not just abstract functionality – is built in rather than being merely incidental. Likely it means something along the lines of what have so far been produced as Drupal distributions. However, rather than one-off and incompatible distributions produced by single shops, viable alternatives will need to channel efforts into collaborative and compatible solutions.

Crowd Sourcing

The idea that catering to the largest users will bring in resources that makes the software better for everyone – what might be called the “trickle down” theory of free software design – has obvious problems. In some cases, what’s good for the biggest multinational corporations will be antithetical to the needs and priorities of the vast majority.

A successful model will need to enable many users to pool their resources – both financial and in kind – to make small contributions that add up to big changes.

Also important is enabling collaborative development among many developers and shops. Individual collectives or companies may have their focuses, such as particular distributions, but they need to fit into a larger whole, including pooled components.

Cooperatives and Shared Solutions

Free software movement founder Richard Stallman says of the early days of the GNU project, “our goal wasn't just to be popular; our goal was to give people liberty, and to encourage cooperation, to permit people to cooperate.” With its focus on pooling knowledge and working for common benefit, free software from the start had strong ties to the ideals of the cooperative movement.

The seven international cooperative principles – voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community – provide solid bases for cooperative ventures.

Two common types are consumer and worker cooperatives. A consumer cooperative is owned by the consumers or customer-members and run for their mutual benefit; a worker cooperative is owned by the people who work for it – the worker-members.

In the U.S., the National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) is an example of a larger software-focused consumer cooperative. Member-owners of the cooperative are mainly utility cooperatives and telecommunications companies. With more than 1,000 employees, NISC produces software products that run systems used by more than five million consumers.

In the NISC case, though, access to the software is an incentive for membership. If the software is available without charge, what is the incentive for users to pay for it?

Likely the best way to learn about alternative models is to sample what’s already out there. What are some successful models for inspiration?

Alternate and Local Currencies

The Spice network enables members in the United Kingdom to earn time-credits through volunteer activity and, in turn, spend them on any of a huge range of services.

In Japan, Fureai Kippu (Caring Relationship Tickets) provide care for older people through exchanges of time credits.

These are just two of thousands of alternate and local currencies that are being used to bridge the gap between economic need and ability to pay by resolving the dichotomy between buyer and seller.

There are at least two Drupal-based alternative currency initiatives: Community Accounting forms the basis of the Community Forge distribution. And the Integral Community Exchange System is a suite of modules for local currency management.

Used creatively, time banking could play a role in facilitating users to both contribute to and benefit from software development.

Donation Ware

Some software projects incorporate voluntary financial contributions into the workflow for download. Libreoffice, for example, presents users who download the software with a donation form and the following message:

LibreOffice is Free Software and is made available free of charge. Your donation, which is purely optional, supports our worldwide community. If you like the software, please consider a donation. We have only a very few employees, supporting a community of hundreds of developers and other volunteers, serving tens of millions of users worldwide.

Free Software Cooperatives, Collectives, and Other Alternatives

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the gcoop workers cooperative use Drupal and other free softwares as a base for their socially engaged coding. See the brilliant video, “Códigos Cooperativos” (Cooperatives Codes) for an introduction to their work.

In North America, the Tech Co-op Network highlights technology worker co-ops and helps new ones start up through resources including “A Technology Freelancer's Guide to Starting a Worker Cooperative.”

Cooperatives active in the Drupal and Backdrop spaces include Palante, CanTrust, Praxis and Agaric.

Groups like Koumbit are similarly oriented, though not formally structured as co-ops.

Tech-worker cooperatives and related groups have know-how, connections, and commitments necessary to ground alternative models.

Drutopia (which I'm active in) is an alternative initiative in the Drupal space, while Backdrop is a fresh software project based on a fork of Drupal.

Crowd Funded Journalism

In traditional mainstream media models, a publication or outlet assigns staff writers to cover particular stories, or considers submissions from freelancers. The audience or readership has only an indirect role – as purchasers or viewers or, even more tangentially, as targets of the advertising. Inevitably, many topics and perspectives – particularly those at odds with the interests of advertisers or media corporations – are underrepresented or missing altogether.

An emerging alternative is crowdfunded journalism. A diversity of sites now enable journalists to directly engage with audiences, pitching stories and funding the stories that don’t make it through mainstream news rooms. Contributoria and the Dutch-language site Yournalism enable journalists to crowdfund projects and publish the results. Through the Cracks gives crowdfunded journalism a shared showcase.

Crowdfunded journalism is demonstrating how involved consumers can spur innovation and alternatives.

CiviCRM and User-Based Development

CiviCRM, a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) software, is an example of how software projects can draw on crowdfunding and related approaches to channel development effort solidly into reusable enhancements focused on end users.

The core CiviCRM team is available for hire for work that is “of general use to the community.” Clients can hire the team that knows the software best, but only if they reconceive their requirements in ways that others can also benefit. The CiviCRM team offers this tip: “Keep in mind that many projects that at first seem very specific to your needs can actually be turned into something that is useful to others in the community.”

And for each release of CiviCRM, “Make It Happen” campaigns allow users to plan and collectively fund new improvements. Users are encouraged to think of Make It Happen campaigns as “an opportunity for you [to] play an active role in getting some functionality you and others need into CiviCRM”. Users are involved in every stage of the process, from drafting the initial proposal and rallying others, to pitching in with development and user acceptance testing.

By bringing users directly into the development process, CiviCRM helps ensure that effort is solidly shaped by – and oriented to – the priorities of its users.

Platform Cooperativism

Platform cooperativism draws together many of these currents. The recently-published book Ours to Hack and to Own provides in depth information on this new movement.

Platform cooperatives are online platforms that are "collectively owned and democratically governed". An example is Stocksy, a stock photo platform by and for artists. Stocksy describes itself as

an artist-owned cooperative founded on the principles of equality, respect, and fair distribution of profits. Our contributing artists receive 50% of a Standard License Purchase and 75% of an Extended License Purchase – and every single co-op member receives a share of the company.

A recent article by Agaric cooperative member Micky Metts profiles a specific project blending Drupal-based initiatives with platform cooperativism.

Strategies for Renewal

Many of us have been actively engaged in issues and debates around corporate influence in Drupal and the “enterprise” orientation of the software. But the point is not to criticize – it’s to change.

Those of us interested in platform cooperativism as a model for Drupal or Backdrop have our work cut out for us. It's fairly clear how a single online platform like Stocksy lends itself to the model. A broader initiative that might embrace many related platforms is more of a challenge. But it's one with lots of real world examples to draw on. Strategies that might help ground a user-focused alternative model include:

  • Base software development in formal or informal consumer cooperatives that channel improvements into shared solutions for mutual benefit.
  • Build cooperatively owned hosting platforms.
  • Incorporate contribute back screening and language in site building contracts,
  • Organize through cooperatives, activist, and nonprofit networks,
  • Use alternative currencies, such as the ability for user-members to earn time credits for their contributions and redeem them for services,
  • Crowd fund to enable user-members to propose and jointly resource priority improvements,
  • Draw on existing tech workers cooperatives and similarly structured projects as a base.
  • Build distributions on shared bases so they don't each need to reinvent the basics.

To echo songwriter and labor organizer Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn – organize!”

Earlier drafts of this article benefitted from reviews by several friends and colleagues.