I recently posted a comment in response to a posting over on neosmart about the nature of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is government by those with ability. That is, the people who contribute things which are useful to the community rise to the positions of power in the community. Within software development, this means that the people who add useful features get to be the ones who decide, the next time around, what is useful and what is not.

Matt claims that WordPress is a meritocracy. I disagree. WordPress has one attribute that eliminates it from that category – Matt is in charge. Please don’t take this as an attack on Matt. It’s not. It’s a question of definitions. The fact that there is one person who has the final say makes WordPress not a meritocracy. Even if Matt always bends to the will of the people, he still has the final say.

And so, when he cites as evidence times that things have gone into the code with which he personally disagreed, this doesn’t make it a meritocracy, because he had the final say on it.

I’ve been involved in Apache for some time, on the HTTPd server project. Over the course of the last 8 or 9 years, I’ve watched the team of “core developers” change a number of times. The folks that were making the decisions when I started are, for the most part, no longer there. In a bloodless coup, the government of the HTTPd project has changed a number of times, with the core vision staying very similar through that process. People who contribute useful functionality are raised to the Project Management Committee (PMC) where they get to decide the direction of the project, as well as which new people will be given commit access to continue the project into the future.

I think that this is largely about trust. If someone appears to get the vision, then, in a meritocracy, you trust that person to carry that vision, and you give then the reins. They get to make the next generation of improvements, and they get to decide who they, in turn, trust to be the generation after that.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the community structure that WordPress has chosen. Many Open Source projects operate in that manner. It’s just not how I would personally choose to participate in a project. I find it frustrating as a user to see ideas submitted, debated on a mailing list, and then killed because one of the project leaders decides it’s a bad idea. I find it frustrating as a developer to have the same small group of leaders sit court over patches. I find it frightening, as a community member, to see such a low bus factor.

Of course, time will tell whether we at Habari are really any different. I would be the first to admit that my contributions thus far have been rather puny. I get the vision, but I haven’t done much to make it happen. As such, my voice on the mailing lists doesn’t carry much weight. I keep meaning to participate more, but life gets in the way, and I just run out of time at the end of each day. The good thing is that I know that there are intelligent and talented people carrying the project forward much faster than I could on my own, or if I had to be personally involved in every decision merely because I’m one of the Founding Fathers of Habari. I do continue to hope that I’ll have some time to hack out some of the ideas I have for it. But here I am still using WordPress – a fine product, which does most of what I need it to do, most of the time.

I’ll post something else, real soon, about Habari, and the reasons we started doing it. I am reasonably sure that Chris, Skippy, and Owen will probably beat me to it.

The talk about whether Habari will crush WordPress are really beside the point. The real issues are whether we’ll produce a compelling product, and whether we’ll have fun doing it. I don’t consider “beating” WordPress to be a serious consideration, any more than Apache considers “beating” IIS to be a serious consideration. The consideration is to produce the best product we can, scratch our personal itches, be responsive to users, and have a lot of fun. Relative marketshare is, of course, one of many measures of those things, but it is by no means the most important measure.

I will say, however, that anyone who’s been involved in technology for more than 12 minutes and thinks that any one product or company has the lock on a particular sector of the market, for all time, just hasn’t been paying attention. Remarks like those made here about there being no space for a new software product in a particular space are delusional. There’s always space for a new product to unseat a previous leader, and in software it’s easier than anywhere else, because manufacture costs are so low. Suggesting otherwise suggests that things will always be as they are now, which is fatalistic and depressing.