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The power of community

Published on Friday, 23 February 2007
It's been a while between drinks. Joomla!, once the upstart fork or spoon from Mambo, is now the expected package to release and develop for..  Mambo, once pride of place, is spoken of in derogatory tones, due in part to the interference of certain players now no longer involved in the code-base and certain views from the Core as evidenced on the last Joomla! Day in Australia. Mambo is now the underdog in the showdown between these content management systems..

Yet that is what has happened here. The underdog, Joomla!, has turned into an institution all of its own making. And with institutionalisation comes politics, egos and auto de fes. Yet it was not always this way. Sure, Mambo has it's own fair share of controversies, such as the use of Emir Sakic's commercial SEF component used to advertise Mambo on the demo site for Mambo, but it still had some sense of rationality. The first signs of failure to accommodate comparative and divergent opinion probably came with a similar issue in Joomla! in regards to SEF. Ken McDonald (kenmcd on the Official J! forums) had taken over the development of Xaneon Extensions, an open source SEF solution, during the tumultuous transition from Mambo to Joomla! as part of the community. Questions were asked as to why such an extension as OpenSEF, the rebadged and redesigned Xaneon, couldn't form part of the core.

And so the initial war over SEF was fought, battle by battle, code by code, until Ken seemingly was blacklisted from the community. It wasn't the only run in, either. Certain topics almost evoked a religious fanaticism from within the established team, to the point where evangelism for the product mattered more than understanding the needs of the end users and meeting them.

So what can be learned from this experience ? Well, for starters, not everything always is open as it seems within the open source community. The people you expect to hold open standards and open source in high regard sometimes do make mistakes. Sometimes they won't even recognise that they have made mistakes.

This may be related to the fact Joomla! was founded as the underdog in response to corporate oligarchy and outside control. As this is the intent that Joomla! formed under, it also affected how it saw itself and it treated the community around it. Basically, they made themselves portray Joomla! as the perpetual victim of bad press, as was seen initially in the fork, and that ideal has persisted over the last 2 years. Unfortunately, a flow on effect from this sense of direction and vision is that there is no meaningful appeal process when the corporatised Working Groups commit errors against the community. This mentality which perpetuates these errors without appeal is now enshrined in the Development Group Guidelines, and without an appeal process, there is no guarantee of transparency to guard against conflict of interest on the part of the Teams. As there is next to no transparency regarding any appeal process, it also means the Core Leaders can, and probably have, run roughshod over people in regards to failures they have committed, and preferred to just silence dissent instead of reasonably and rationally mediating out solutions. If they continue to restrict mediation on topics, this will end up harming them in the long run (the forums may turn out like the current Adobe forums and the lack of freedom to post about issues).

Remember,  Joomla! has got a lot of traction, both in terms of advertising and in terms of  political weight, out of portraying itself (and the various leaders who control it) as the underdog, when rationally considering the evidence, they should no longer consider themselves as such. This change in attitude should also be seen in how they polish the silverware, the various Open Source Awards they have won, as a project and as a team. Most Open Source software solutions do not take on established products like Mozilla's Firefox and win. In this respect, it would be high time that Joomla! rethink its focus and motivation. If they keep playing the underdog card, it will no longer help them, and instead actively harm them.  In changing how they percieve themselves, it should help the entire product, as well as its developers mature.

Secondly, the apparent power  over the community of the main Teams, especially Core and Development, mean community issues cannot be discussed. Whilst it has been acknowledged that the Teams have been focussed on coding more than anything else, it also means design, community and potential legal pitfalls have been placed by the wayside. With unbridled power over a community comes the politics that go with protecting one's personal investment in creating that forum for the community to meet. There seems no established exit strategy in place, as expected with middle to senior management of major firms, whereby the senior players can step down or be voted out when mismanagement of people below them occurs. And all of these things affect the sociological make up of a community like Joomla!.

So what are the solutions and effective outcomes (KPIs) for Joomla! as it stands now ?

As an established product with a long development history and a swag of awards over numerous years, it must be acknowledged that Joomla! is in the upper echelons of the Open Source world in terms of credibility and reach. There is no shame in acknowledging some manner of dominance within the market. Dominance, however, does pose a serious potential for corruption and mismanagement to occur.

The path Joomla! should travel through the various Teams is understanding that the reach Joomla! has does come with significant responsibilities and accountabilities. Those responsibilities involve transparency, due diligence and equal opportunity. Transparency of  code, transparency of processes and transparencies of biases across the project. Due diligence regarding the management, upkeep and operational status of the code, and the Team Leaders. And equal opportunity so that more than 3 people within the Joomla! Core team at any one time have some voice and direction as to how the Joomla! project matures both as a community and as a codebase.  The accountabilities they hold are to the wider Joomla! community, in the 90,000 plus forum members on the Official Joomla! Community Forums, to the various user groups and thinktanks around the world seeking to apply Joomla! locally and contextually and to the wider web community to deliver on the promises they've made about the product. In all these accountabilites, there has to be a principle of "Do no harm" otherwise it will foster political focus groups every time the Core mistreats a user or developer in some way or another.

The good thing is that most of these solutions do not require policies and documentation, however the challenge is whether or not the power of the Joomla! community to rethink it's goals, aims and identity is indeed possible, especially with an established dominant leadership team.
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