How Do Leaders Emerge in Open-Source Software?

Ola Bini recently gave a talk entitled, “Anarchy, Cooperation, and the Bazaar” that caught my attention and relates to our discussions last week. I was particularly interested in Bini’s views on the emergence of leadership in open source development. In open source projects, he says, leaders are only necessary when the group size exceeds ten. Leaders can emerge from “anarchy” (a group without a leader), they can be founders who led from the start (in projects that grew rapidly, early), they can be individuals whose participation made them vital to agenda-setting for the project (someone who contributes code and makes useful recommendations for where the project should go next).

These three processes are immediately analogous to conventional politics. Last week we considered how leaders might emerge from anarchy in the views of Robert Nozick and Mancur Olson. Examples of founders-as-leaders abound, from Romulus to George Washington. Leaders as agenda-setters do not rise as readily to mind, but political scientists dating back to Robert Dahl have been interested in the way that engaged citizens shape what is on the table for discussion.

It seems that leadership within online communities, particularly open source software development, is a ripe area for research.