PhD Thesis

The drop is always moving: an ethnographic perspective of Drupal as a Commons-Based Peer Production community (tentative title and abstract)

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) refers to software that allows its use, copy, study and modification in any way. What started as a common and informal practice in the 1950s ("sharing software as we share cooking recipes"), became a scenario for the development and experimentation of new organisational dynamics and structures, as well as new models of development and practices that emphasise sharing, open collaboration or transparency among others. These FLOSS principles and practices have expanded into other areas such as collaborative creation, hacklabs, P2P economy or open source ecology.

This expansion is attracting the attention of many researchers from several disciplines, and has been interpreted by several scholars as an emergent new mode of production: Commons-Based Peer Production (CBPP). CBPP refers to a new model of socio-economic production in which groups of individuals cooperate with each other to produce meaningful products without a traditional hierarchical organisation. It is characterised for being a commons-oriented process (e.g. resulting in its openness, in the case of digital commons).

This research is focussed on how do these Commons-Based Peer Production groups organise themselves as they grow in size and diversity. There have been several efforts to understand CBPP, but there remains a need to improve our knowledge with regard to the organisational and structurational processes of the groups that produce and maintain these commons, as well as the conditions that favour its sustainability and the factors that foster participation and contribution in them.

This study focusses on the Drupal community as a case study to examine these organisational issues. Drupal is a free software content management framework released in 2001. It provides a robust platform for the development of web applications, that currently powers more than 2% of the websites worldwide. This percentage includes enormously popular websites with complex architectures and high loads of traffic, such as whitehouse.gov, mtv.co.uk, economist.com, etc. Drupal represents one of the most vibrant examples of the success of FLOSS.

Drupal cannot be understood without looking at its community. As the slogan of the community expresses: "you come because of the software, but you stay because of the community". The Drupal community has been growing constantly: there are currently more than 1 million people registered at the main platform of collaboration (Drupal.org), and more than 30,000 committers of source code. The community is also highly active offline, with events of different scope (local, regional, national, international) being held every week all around the World. The aim of this study is to shed light on the dynamics, social structure and organisational processes of the community behind the FLOSS Drupal.

This study follows an ethnographic approach, which provides the required flexibility in terms of participation for the study of how self-organisation and collective forms of action are developed in CBPP communities. Focussing on the study of contribution activities as main unit of analysis, this study draws on Activity Theory (AT) as a lens to understand the dynamics of the Drupal community. Instead of focussing only on the individuals, the interactions between the subjects, the artefacts and the rest of individuals under certain organisational settings will be explored. By combining participant observation, semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis, this study aims to generate and collect deep high quality data which will enhance our understanding of the organisational processes and dynamics of a large and diverse CBPP community.

The study is divided into two stages. The first stage explored the activities that are perceived as contributions in the Drupal community, as well as how they are represented in the main platform of collaboration in an individual level. The first set of findings from this study exposes the need to broaden our understanding of contribution activities in FLOSS communities beyond the most easily quantifiable and "object-oriented" ones. Empirical evidence of the relevant role that some of these less visible activities play to foster collaboration is also offered.

Drawing on the findings and the emergence of various relevant dimensions (such as its main medium or its level of formality) during the first stage of the study, the main stage will deeply explore some of the identified contribution activities. It will consist of a detailed study of the interactions between the different elements, its various outcomes, and the connections and tensions between these activities and the others. This will enable to tackle the main research question: understanding how the Drupal community self-organises, by studying the organisational processes of some of these contribution activities with the aid of AT as lenses to frame its conceptualisation.