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The Social Structure of Free and Open Source Software Development

Saturday, January 1, 2005

Abstract

Metaphors, such as the Cathedral and Bazaar, used to describe the organization of FLOSS projects typically place them in sharp contrast to proprietary development by emphasizing FLOSS's distinctive social and communications structures. But what do we really know about the communication patterns of FLOSS projects? How generalizable are the projects that have been studied? Is there consistency across FLOSS projects? Questioning the assumption of distinctiveness is important because practitioner–advocates from within the FLOSS community rely on features of social structure to describe and account for some of the advantages of FLOSS production.

To address this question, we examined 120 project teams from SourceForge, representing a wide range of FLOSS project types, for their communications centralization as revealed in the interactions in the bug tracking system. We found that FLOSS development teams vary widely in their communications centralization, from projects completely centered on one developer to projects that are highly decentralized and exhibit a distributed pattern of conversation between developers and active users.

We suggest, therefore, that it is wrong to assume that FLOSS projects are distinguished by a particular social structure merely because they are FLOSS. Our findings suggest that FLOSS projects might have to work hard to achieve the expected development advantages which have been assumed to flow from "going open." In addition, the variation in communications structure across projects means that communications centralization is useful for comparisons between FLOSS teams. We found that larger FLOSS teams tend to have more decentralized communication patterns, a finding that suggests interesting avenues for further research examining, for example, the relationship between communications structure and code modularity.

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