The rising tide: Open sources steady transformation
First Monday

The rising tide: Open sources steady transformation by Matt Germonprez, Jonathan Lipps, and Sean Goggins

Open source projects are transforming. Today, work within open source projects has come to be influenced by a growing set of companies and individuals who receive financial remuneration for their engagement. As such, there is a central focus on commoditization and commercialization of open source products, which drives a trend towards a concealment of the various inner workings that produce these products. Within this shift, the product becomes a central aim of open source project engagement, and the means of production becomes incidental. In this paper, we explore the HCI research and design implications of the transformation of open source projects as part of commercial work and how we can come to better understand and protect the rising tide of open source projects.


1. Introduction
2. Open source projects and the ways we work
3. Promise and consequences of a rising tide
4. Social computing design for de-concealment
5. Improving the sociotechnical structures of a rising tide
6. Broadening the social visibility of a rising tide
7. Conclusions




Ubiquitous social computing information systems help people build their careers (LinkedIn), play (Pokemon Go and Words with Friends), find work (Upwork and Open Source Software) or microwork (MTurk and CrowdFlower), maintain friendships (Facebook), find people with similar interests (Meetup), date (Jdate and FarmersOnly), and collaborate to build knowledge or products (Wikipedia, GitHub, and Zooniverse). Grudin (2010) brought the term “social computing” into common use among researchers and industry stakeholders by tracing the evolution and confluence of early studies of office automation systems, or “computer supported cooperative work”, and emerging socially centered information systems. Socially centered system use was driven by a need to interact with others directly (e.g., Facebook and Pinterest) or through collaboration around artifacts (e.g., Wikipedia and Open Source Software) without the constraints of organizational boundaries.

The rising ubiquity and influence of social computing systems make them a significant site of curiosity and inquiry for researchers, the popular press, and the folks who use them. Open source software production, first summarized as the “bazaar” to commercial software’s “cathedral” by Raymond (1998), is arguably the earliest incarnation of social computing’s key attribute of coordination work occurring via messages and around artifacts, through technology, and unimpeded by organizational boundaries. As an early adopter of technology-centered coordination work, open source projects serve as a useful source of insight for modeling lifecycles yet to emerge on more recently conceived social computing platforms noted by Grudin (2010). Today, open source is experiencing a sea change that will reshape the sociotechnical boundaries it integrates. The reshaping wrought by this metaphorical sea, brings a compelling need to understand and design information systems around which people’s relationship with work are constructed.

Early open source projects [1] focused on efficient collaboration practices through which loosely configured teams emerged. “Today, everybody uses open source code, including Fortune 500 companies, government, major software companies, and startups. Sharing, rather than building proprietary code, turned out to be cheaper, easier, and more efficient” [2]. The social dimensions of open source projects emerged almost incidentally until distributed version control systems (git) made the boundary between artifacts and people more fluid (e.g., GitHub), which Dabbish, et al. (2012) described as “social coding”.

In parallel with social coding, financial incentives introduced the potential for an increasing number of individuals to make a living from open source project work. On projects like Kubernetes and FreeBSD, a growing number of contributors are committing source code on behalf of their employers for corporately strategic reasons. While this trend is not entirely new (e.g., corporate contributions to gcc in the 90s), the combination of more socially organized platforms for open source software production, and a growing corporate need for open source software are combining into a set of market mechanisms that make it possible for individuals to be paid contributors, making a reliable living interacting with others through these platforms. As social computing platform changes interact with financial interests, new twists on traditional models are emerging, destined to reshape work [3]. We focus here on what the HCI community will see as the sociotechnical gaps (Ackerman, 2000) between corporate engagement in open source, which include long histories of consuming commercial software, and open source projects with established practices for producing software without a sharp distinction between consumer and producer.

Considering the reshaping of work, we can begin to see how technological change shifts the world we live in, at times, more quickly than we are able to adapt our understanding of the world. To understand shifts in work derived from technology, we need to see what is before us but might also remain concealed by a sociotechnical gap (Borgmann, 1984; Ackerman, 2000), or what Heidegger (2004) refers to as empowerment through “unhiding”, a process through which truth is revealed to us by naming and describing the layers of existence within which people experience the world. The nature of the rapidly changing social computing layers in open source, therefore, provide an opportunity for HCI research and design to have positive effects on the experience of human labor and social planning in the largest sense (Simon, 1969).

Open source projects are built on a bricolage of social computing technologies, often designed to stand independently from any one particular company or organization. As financial interest from companies increases, so too, do demands for new types of work systems. However, more contributors and contributing organizations are adding more software and information components to this bricolage, which is beginning to accumulate as a kind of sediment in a shipping channel that must be dredged. The metaphorical sediment can cause friction when it accumulates more rapidly than the tides of open source can rise, and this friction is especially difficult to remove when the processes by which the sediment is deposited are concealed (Borgmann, 1984).

But this does not preclude us from exploring the implications for work within this bricolage of social computing systems. We argue that HCI research and design can make two core contributions to the HCI community including a) an explication of the required nuance, flexibility, and tolerance for ambiguity required for social computing systems to enable emerging phenomena in open source (Ackerman, 2000); and, b) construction of new interaction design principles and theories to reduce friction and sustain visibility of core aspects of source projects, and ultimately inform other forms of highly distributed work (Simon, 1969).

In doing so, we raise questions that are not currently being asked regarding open source projects, the reshaping of work, and the implications for HCI research and design. As open source participants are part of something larger than themselves through contributing ideas, code, or comments, there is a positive impact that they can point to and say, “I helped with that”, building professional and emotional connections with others through their work. Yet, the software artifacts, social connections, and sense of meaning become something new as participants engage in open source projects and use open source technologies as instruments applied to solve financially-motivated problems. Specifically, open source projects are becoming increasingly embedded in contemporary corporate supply chains and modern life, not to mention our strategies for innovation, forms of interpretation, and actions for participation. Working to understand how open source projects and participants interact using new norms in these new contexts, places social computing and HCI research and design in a vital role that will help to define the future of work.



2. Open source projects and the ways we work

Open source project technologies continually evolve and are inevitably implemented in the varying ways organizations work. In this, work includes social processes to which technologies are used to achieve certain goals and subordinate other goals across any number of different organizational contexts [4]. Bringing open source projects and organizational work closer together we “shed light on the force and the consequences of ... technology by first delineating the pattern of technology more sharply and by showing then how the pattern has informed [an] understanding of the world and the world itself” [5].

Open source projects reflect complex endeavors that shape the way in which we take up the world (Reckwitz, 2002). For example, the software package data exchange (SPDX) is a Linux Foundation open source project that specifies data formats and software aimed at the explication of the pedigree and authenticity of open source software. The SPDX data specification is a ‘bill of materials’ that expresses which open source licenses are embedded in an open source software so individuals and organizations can understand and maintain the obligations associated with that software. While SPDX may be considered a specification documenting open source software licenses, it is also part of large-scale open compliance standards initiative at the Linux Foundation, advanced across financially-incentivized corporate, organizational, and communal arrangements, transforming the ways we work with open source projects (Gandhi, et al., 2018). Similar cases can be made for how Docker ( containers change how we work with software deployment; how the R-project ( statistics modules change the way we work with statistical analysis; and how Hyperledger ( information management changes the way we work with blockchain applications.

Open source projects can “speak back” to the people who are engaged such that work meets the opportunities and limitations of open source projects, continually altering the rationality within which work occurs (Simon, 1969) — challenging our understanding of software design, team engagement, and asset management. Hence, a question like ‘what problem does Linux solve?’ has a prima facie soundness that belies an impossible answer. Linux does not provide a single solution against a single problem. Instead Linux is a force in its own right and not simply a device to be used as a means to an end. Instead, Linux carries constraints and opportunities on varied activities across a wide ranging number of domains (Simon, 1969).

Any open source project, whether introducing open compliance standards like SPDX or modernizing software deployment like Docker, will be constrained and shaped by some combination of open source communal and organizational actions. Such actions are not incidental to the technology developed within an open source project; they are essential. At present, only limited attention is paid to HCI research and design in these cases, and we suspect both errors and growing concerns, like project risk, diversity & inclusion, or community health, are influenced by difficulties people experience when handling the social and technical dynamics of these interactions.

Questions about open source projects and the ways we work, not to mention the nature of distributed work as a whole, are growing in importance as the change in social construction is accelerating. Open source projects now include for-profit organizations, service vendors, and organizations aimed at stabilizing, regularizing, and bounding the rationality of open source project work. Corporate motivations to out innovate the competition, protect copyrighted assets, and drive strategy are meshing, sometimes awkwardly, with a volunteer-driven ethos. As open source projects come to include these new combinations, natural tensions emerge within individual open source projects, altering the shape of their social computing work, raising important HCI-related questions:

  • Might new contributor profiles redefine open source project work as merely a resource-gathering activity?
  • Will open source projects, as a force in their own right and connected with human practices, diminish into instrumentality, with a split into the means and ends of open source “production”?
  • Will the “inner workings” of open source projects’ communities, codebases, or infrastructures become concealed behind a normalized veneer of standardized and easy-to-understand work protocols?
  • Does this concealment come at a cost, like the vulnerabilities that emerged from Heartbleed (Eghbal, 2017), Shellshock, and Meltdown/Spectre?
  • Is open source project work becoming a new category of work that has yet to be understood?
  • Does all this signal an evolution or a coming crisis in how open source projects are able to encourage skillful, diverse, inclusive, and global work?



3. Promise and consequences of a rising tide

We know that a rising tide can lift all ships within an open source project. Since Web servers are a commodity technology, for example, high-quality open source Web servers, like the Apache HTTP Server Project, enable every organization to serve Web applications at incredible scale. In the lifting that open source projects provide, all community members can gain from engagement, despite the fact that not all members necessarily benefit in the same way (Borgmann, 1984). And while an open source technology itself is a configuration of boats that will rise with this tide, some captains and passengers may experience tensions as their navigational channels and favorite fishing spots are altered with the presence of new members and practices.

Open source project “commitment to neutrality can come at a price, when many resources available to software developers today (such as venture capital or corporate donations) are based on expectations of influence or financial return” [6]. The promise of benefiting from open source project work has drawn new players, and, along with them, the pressure to transition open source projects from constituting a social to a commercial good. The promise of a rising tide attracts “the private corporations that dominate the economy” and as such transformed “[social goods] into commodities and [drew] them into the realm of commercial production” [7]. The promise of positive returns from a rising tide and technology commoditization enables open source projects to be assembled as part of larger commercial innovation streams. As such, open source project work is evident in an institutional form, at times conflating the community and the commodity, concealing the structures of an open source project, removing the relationships that make work within open source projects so powerful. In this work (typically involving employees of corporations), the often gnarled, idiosyncratic, and even political nature of an open source project is background noise; what corporations paradigmatically want is financially free, working software that helps them accomplish goals faster and better.

Organizations “must decide how to allocate its factory machinery to produce the most profitable combination of widgets” [8] and open source projects are now an available factory machine to many organizations. A promise that open source projects can serve a new market arises from a need for commoditization and commercialization, which drives a trend in open source project work towards a concealment of the various inner workings of the social engines that produce open source software. Within this shift, marketing a ‘product’ becomes the central aim, and the software’s means of production becomes incidental to corporate interests. Splitting the community project from the usable product is an inflection point for this new form of open source project work, and emblematic of the intrusion of the “device paradigm” (Borgmann, 1984) where products “must be as safe and easy to use as possible ... presented to us as pure surface” (Lipps, 2015), leading inevitably to the concealment of inner workings (e.g., community norms) for the sake of the immediate availability of a technical good.

This concealment inherent in recent open source project work underlies many high-profile software failures. For example, the Apache Struts open source project is at the center of the 2017 Equifax data breach. A security vulnerability (and resultant patch) in Apache Struts software went unheeded by Equifax, in all likelihood because of ambiguity about “what Struts is” in the minds of those deploying it within Equifax. This type of ambiguity arises from an indifference about how products originate. Equifax leveraged Struts as a commodity product for their Java applications, maintaining a separation between the Struts developer community and the use of the Struts technology, a consumer-producer relationship that once defined open source projects.

From U.S. House testimony, Equifax seemed unaware of their use of an unpatched Struts version after notification from the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) (Olenick, 2017). Why didn’t Equifax heed the warning? Was it a failure in not being informed of the problem by their software and legal vendors? Were Equifax software engineers not engaged with the Struts project sufficiently to know the relationship to their own systems? Was Struts not even considered an open source project but a commodity component in a more complex technology stack; merely a technical means to a technical ends? Whatever specific concealment is at the root of the Equifax breach, Struts exists in an ecosystem that makes its social processes visible, yet that ecosystem is often ignored in favor of means-ends solutions to local goals.

Open source projects operate using an assemblage of social computing systems, including source control, bug trackers, mailing lists, and IRC channels, within which the Struts vulnerabilities and patches were visible. It may very well have been an implicit organizational choice, by Equifax and other consumers of Struts, to treat the software as a commodity akin to commercial word processing software, concealing important factors driving software failures from a communally produced product. For HCI research and design, an opportunity resides in the signals that could, for example, draw more attention to urgent technology and security risks for commodity consumers of open source software through social computing designs that reduce friction and increase the visibility of consumer-producer roles in these ecosystems.



4. Social computing design for de-concealment

De-concealment is the recognition that something is concealed and there may be a decision to expose — or Heidegger’s “unhiding” — that thing. Heidegger (2004) observes that these kinds of logics are a central component of existence. Borgmann’s (1984) contemporary characterization of concealment as emerging from a technology consumer’s indifference to how a product is socially produced is explicated at a philosophical level by Heidegger (2004) and at a social computing level by Ackerman’s (2000) sociotechnical design gaps. De-concealment to close sociotechnical design gaps does not happen all at once like pulling back the curtain in a game show. By updating Heidegger’s (2004) metaphors to the present questions, as HCI researchers, we can point at the relationship between Apache Struts and Equifax. Then, we can examine the interrelation between Equifax and open source software writ large. Knowing that, we can then explicate the interrelation between open source software broadly and corporations like Equifax who consume it. From this sequence of inquiry, the essence of how this new world operates is de-concealed from the unity of these layered, reflexive interrelations. The tendency of HCI research and design is to understand and support what is desired socially, or in this case, needed to support emerging forms of work associated with open source software projects. By de-concealing and closing gaps, HCI research and design can explicate what is needed, as a first order problem, as well as the tensions regarding what is necessary and feasible within open source project work.

A key challenge to overcome stems from the concealment of the design of a means-ends device, both socially and technologically, that emerges as open source commoditization hides important work, processes, and decisions inside projects. Open source projects are ambiguous to commodity consumers of their products. As social and technical work becomes mere technical work, an open source project developer and an open source project user (once one and the same) become separated by a sociotechnical gap that mirrors the divide between corporate software developers (the ones producing proprietary accounting or word processing software), and the users of corporate products. Before, open source project work — the means — and the working open source software — the ends — were intertwined; now, the means-ends distinction can be seen quite clearly. Such means-ends distinctions open questions about how present and future social computing technologies used to produce and consume open source software will affect the values and the nature of work that makes it attractive for contributors to participate, again raising critical social computing and HCI-related questions:

  • Does commodity consumption get in the way of open source freedom?
  • Is it true that what was once egalitarian is now becoming predominantly corporate, with the attendant political hierarchy?
  • Is what was once free, now labor? Is what was once creativity, now machinery? Is the machinery even sustainable without freedom? How and to what extent do social computing field studies help illuminate our understanding of phenomena like these in the world?
  • How and to what extent can HCI research and design, focused on making the machinery more visible, help to enable sustained, egalitarian open source project work that makes meaningful engagement between individuals and organizations more transparent and actionable?

As the means (production) and the ends (consumption) of open source projects are separated, projects can fragment — dividing open source projects into discrete components available for corporate consumption. These fragments are the commodities, assembled and tailored downstream into new forms and integrated into corporate innovation streams — at times, masking the creative work inherent within open source projects and making the social work an irrelevant implementation detail. These fragments call into question the force of open source projects as we create collections of commodities that we only notice when critical signals from production are missed in consumption, causing widespread failures (e.g., OpenSSL).

HCI research generally, and social computing research specifically, can help open source projects close sociotechnical gaps using participatory design methods which, by their nature, force the general “unhiding” that Heidegger speaks of, and the specific de-concealment Borgmann (1984) observes across technology supply chains. This is particularly critical for work within open source projects that are core to our commercial infrastructure. Next, we illustrate contexts that entail open source project work where HCI researchers can find traction in the de-concealment of open source work and the subsequent closing of sociotechnical gaps.



5. Improving the sociotechnical structures of a rising tide

Concealment is a byproduct of standardization and clear expectations regarding what a device is expected to do. The intent of the concealment is to enable work to occur on a larger scale by reducing complexity, idiosyncrasy, and cognitive load. The assembly line in manufacturing, shipyards in the industrialization of shipbuilding, and design-by-contract in software engineering are examples where needs to accelerate and standardize work led to concealment as the norm (Meyer, 1992; Jézéquel and Meyer, 1997). Just as automobile manufacturers, mariners, and contracted software developers adapted to these new realities and structures of work, so too must open source projects members.

To craft new forces of open source projects and the ways we work, institutions have emerged to structure commoditization and maintain community connections. Institutions are crafting new forms of work to attract and retain social and technical relationships among members and products. In some cases now, commodity production is explicitly nurturing, instead of overlooking, the social activities that define the power of open source projects. Open source projects designed to enable and strengthen these sociotechnical interactions is essential for closing sociotechnical gaps, de-concealment, and retaining the social value of open source efforts.

Deliberately designing for both commoditization and social engagement and signaling between consumers and producers will mitigate risks wrought by concealment, and strengthen an understanding and ultimately an embracing of some of the core motivations underlying the open source movement by corporate stakeholders. For example, The Linux Foundation’s CHAOSS project ( and Core Infrastructure Initiative (; are just such efforts, evaluating the health and sustainability of open source projects (Germonprez, et al., 2018) and providing necessary social and technical investment to support projects in need (Wheeler, 2016).

The Linux Foundation, as host to these efforts, is an example of emergent institutional support that closes the sociotechnical gap between producers and consumers of open source. As the largest institution dedicated to the advancement of professional open source software, the Linux Foundation is an organizational exemplar of how systematic de-concealment might be operationalized. Its members represent a who’s-who of technology firms interacting with open source projects for reasons of advancing corporate and customer innovation ( The Linux Foundation represents a unique confluence of social and technological circumstances and interests. Structuring the commoditization of core Linux infrastructure (like the Linux kernel) was not an abstraction, rather it was the deliberate intention of the Linux Foundation and technology companies to house core pieces of social and technical infrastructure and better regulate the promise of the rising tide for those with an interest (Kelty, 2013). As the rising tide of large open source projects invariably creates thousands of smaller projects, institutions like the Linux Foundation present structures for de-concealment across the sea of open source projects.

A public intimidated by the evolution of open source projects and the changing ways we work might increase their involvement and realize potential utility if (1) social and technical structures focused on bridging the gap in the consumer-producer relationships; and, (2) the visibility of and between the social participants in open source projects was improved. While institutions like the Linux Foundation provide exemplary social and technical structures (point 1), it is difficult for any one organization to fully address the need for significant evolution in open source work, specifically the nature of a rising tide on the social identities and relationships present in distributed project work (point 2).



6. Broadening the social visibility of a rising tide

At the heart of this open source evolution are powerful and positive actions that include communities protecting the rising tide — embedded in the institutions, companies, and people that are advancing the new forms of open source project work. Open source communities are about personal experiences, the thrill of building something worthwhile and satisfying with people of all backgrounds from all around the globe, and the sense that it is better to share efforts than to hold them secret. It is true that open source community members have concerns about being overrun by the instrumental force of commoditization, but community members appear simultaneously driven to protect an open source ethos amidst the ongoing reformation in the open source project work they have a stake in.

Such efforts to focus on the inner experience of contributing to open source, and everything that comes with it (personal growth and challenges), protects open source projects as they existed prior to commoditization. These efforts point to a reality from experience rather than corporate practice, and is corroborated by the patterns of open source community members, who work without strategy, generate experience for the benefit of all, and provide support as a way to build a better community. Focusing on this kind of effort provides a check and balance against the existential threat of commoditization, working against the placement of open source technologies into opaque and communally-barren structures. In essence, these efforts insist on the ”focal“ aspects of open source contribution and on the mode of discourse appropriate to them, reflecting Borgmann’s (1984) exhortation to the cultivation of focal practices and discourse. These efforts within open source projects provide, in a sense, an inoculation against the potential ill effects of commoditization; community members monitor the relationship between commodities and freedom, methods and engagement, and remuneration and volunteerism.

The strength and value of existing open source communities set within a rising tide of commoditization compels members to consider not only the relationship between how products are produced and consumed, but also, who open source contributors are and where they come from. For example, open source project work faces the same challenges as other parts of the technology sector when it comes to limited diversity and inclusion — including those around mental or physical ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status or class. Because of the nature of open source software’s historical “zeitgeist”, it is one potential context where community programs designed to systematically increase discourse and diversity can gain momentum (Irwin, 2018, 2017a, 2017b). Partly, this is because organizations like Mozilla and GitHub, two major ports on the open source ocean, provide influence through such efforts (Irwin, 2017a).

The obstacles to community development in open source project work include evidence that open source culture is susceptible to invasion by “difficult people”, and that the very ideas of openness and freedom are sometimes used to dismiss or rationalize a gender gap as a matter of choice (Reagle, 2012). These concerns in open source project work extend from general challenges of retaining discourse and diversity in computer science and technology professions (Misa, 2011). Engendering a sense of community in open source projects support dimensions where work to engage social interaction in the interest of de-concealment can provide a lever for closing the sociotechnical gaps in open source projects specifically.

Community reforms technology, not the other way around. Community can reform the practice and discourse (Borgmann, 1984) of open source projects in light of commoditization, and must remain the driving concern for open source projects. If we center open source project work around technology, we risk overbuilding commodities and the structures that support them at the expense of the diverse communal discourse that open source projects nurture. If open source project work becomes deeply entrenched as simply means to ends, this work can overly prescribe practices and patterns to be taken up by organizations and institutions (Borgmann, 1984), tipping the balance away from open source as a force in its own right. As such, we must be careful not to squelch the rising tide of open source by only concentrating on the development of structures in name of corporate innovation.



7. Conclusions

The balance between the promise of a rising tide and commoditization is young, complex, and evolving. If open source projects are fully commoditized they risk undermining community-motivated contributor’s who may be less drawn to work on software products obscured in a blur of corporate innovation. Likewise, when open source projects are fully social the discussion turns into noise, which is easily ignored and passed over by community members. In response, open source projects need to develop a sweet spot where the rising tide is built unobtrusively, but noticeably (Goetz, 2011) into the sociotechnical structures of each project.

Exploring and closing the sociotechnical gap through de-concealment forces HCI researchers and designers to think beyond device paradigms. We can only understand the culture of open source projects in an overly systematic way if the promise of open source projects as a rising tide is subsumed in the name of safety, stability, reliability, and ubiquity — features which constitute the “availability” of a device (Borgmann, 1984). Any effort to alter the landscape of technology in general, or open source in particular, will need to address the known obstacles and build from the results. Open source projects are a place to explore the closing of significant sociotechnical gaps amidst the changing nature of work (Ackerman, 2000) — wrought by a corporate-communal paradox that we do not fully know. Efforts can reveal a) the discourse embodied in the wicked problem of limited open source project diversity; b) the mechanisms likely to be effective in advancing the health and sustainability of open source projects; and, c) the measurement of these effects without inadvertently making them worse. Designing and advancing social computing systems and research that help cross sociotechnical chasms works towards de-concealment by maintaining focus on the, sometimes messy, social workings of open source project work. Yet, such efforts can improve understanding of the sociotechnical gap by providing “HCI mechanisms to straightforwardly mechanize the naturally occurring, everyday social activity of handling [open source’s rising tide] in its entirety” [9].

7.1. Future contributions of HCI and social computing research

HCI research and design have important contributions to make in this evolving era, exploring the production of products and the division of labor in open source projects instilled with commodity consumption support structures. Commodity work in open source projects takes place in the social systems — mailing lists, IRC channels, pull requests, and bug reports — that all support the focal practice of community building. Research and design that makes the social practices of construction visible and accessible to people engaged in open source project work reduces the frictions that emerge as changes are negotiated, and mitigates the risks associated with missed signals between consumers and producers, even as the lines between them become altered in the rising tide. The important work for research and design lies, we suggest, in the development and evaluation of new designs which reduce frictions, create clearer signals, and embrace the shared needs of corporations and communities amidst open source’s steady transformation.

From the corporate perspective, open source projects were once something wild and to be tamed. Now, because of the influx of corporate members, we see open source projects instead as something to be preserved. Similar to early pioneers advancing across the American West, corporations can view open source projects as a vast, rich resource, and an endlessly available territory. But with the development of the modern American cities, wilderness, like an open source project, becomes something to preserve through the experience-driven discourse and diversity that have yielded our wild yet accessible American parks, sanctuaries, and wildlife refuges. HCI research and design can help maintain this connection between our technological instrumentality and communal rationality, attending to the relationship between the two, and hopefully doing a better job respecting the discourse and diversity of open source native peoples, and coming to include a fuller complement of the population.

7.2. Corporate open source field studies as cartography

Open source projects were once the islands in a sea of corporate innovation, and during this time, interaction with open source projects was about being a part of a community and working together to make a positive impact. Before commoditization, open source was a landscape for contributors to explore, develop, and make sense of people and technology. Open source community members now carry highly varied epistemologies about these things and about how we come to shape our knowledge of the world. In the study of technology and its effects, it remains important to reflect on how these varied epistemologies within open source project work are, in fact, latent in the words we choose and the actions we take, driving very different trajectories of what open source can be (Goggins and Petakovic, 2014). In a very real sense, in-depth field studies on the boundaries of open source projects and corporate engagement lead to essential maps that others can use to navigate the rising tide.

Now that corporations have come to embrace open source projects, as evident in such organizations as the TODO Group (, the impact of this shift is being felt, and we must protect the waters associated with this rising tide. As members and investigators of open source projects, we must recognize and work to maintain a balanced state, both in terms of the quantity and quality of what it means to be open, communal, inclusive, and technological. Corporate engagement with open source projects is here to stay; we must recognize that open source project work has a different character than what went under that moniker in previous eras, and we must ask how we can preserve what those previous eras found so essential about open source project work, even in the present paradigm.

The changing nature of work derived from a growing concealment in open source projects, and the rising tide of open source community members, now swim in the same waters as the tech industry’s limited diversity. How the HCI research and design communities frame programs to bridge the sociotechnical gap in open source projects could play a significant role in how individuals and organizations interact with these projects in the future. We could, for example, restrict this work to what is appropriate to the social situation, including mechanisms that help open source projects function effectively for individual projects and the ecosystem in which they live. Knowing these complex relationships, driven by a new wave of commoditization, should be combined with an assessment of the values inherent in the social situations of open source projects. We should seek to advance practices that bridge between the past and the present so that the bridges built through social computing and HCI research of open source projects are in locations that our cartographer’s map shows they are most useful and therefore most likely to improve the flow of both people, commerce, and discovery. End of article


About the authors

Matt Germonprez is Mutual of Omaha Associate Professor in Information Systems in the College of Information Science & Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
E-mail: mgermonprez [at] unomaha [dot] edu

Jonathan Lipps is Founding Principal of Cloud Grey, LP.
E-mail: jlipps [at] cloudgrey [dot] io

Sean Goggins is Associate Professor in Computer Science in the College of Engineering at the University of Missouri.
E-mail: GogginsS [at] missouri [dot] edu



Work supported under a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.



1. We use the term ‘open source software’ versus ‘free software’ as the two terms carry different philosophical roots. For an overview of the distinction see Lakhani and Von Hippel (2004).

2. Eghbal, 2017, pp. 8–9.

3.Open source projects are not the only social computing phenomena being reshaped by financial interests. For example, parents can make a living through blogging networks like Mom 2.0 and Disney Moms — talking about children and discussing products used in their care. Open source projects are pervasive and embody adjacent, albeit distinct, types of interactions from social media and open collaboration platforms examined extensively in prior HCI research and design.

4. Simon, 1969, p. 165.

5. Borgmann, 1984, p. 39.

6. Eghbal, 2017, pp. 64–65.

7. Borgmann, 1984, p. 132.

8. Simon, 1969, p. 33.

9. Ackerman, 2000, p. 185.



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Editorial history

Received 21 June 2018; revised 31 May 2019; accepted 23 July 2019.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The rising tide: Open source’s steady transformation
by Matt Germonprez, Jonathan Lipps, and Sean Goggins.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 8 - 5 August 2019

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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