The essence of openness

A couple of nights ago I listened to one of Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah‘s appearances on Chris Lydon’s Open Source show. Here’s how Chris Lydon defines what he does:

We designed the show to invert the traditional relationship between broadcast and the web: we aren’t a public radio show with a web community, we’re a web community that produces a daily hour of radio.

Recently I’ve run into similarly expansive uses of the term open source. Here’s Brian Jones reflecting on his experience at a Harvard workshop entitled “Cross-Boundary Governance through Agreements and Standards”:

I had previously thought about open source more in terms of the licensing model chosen. Well obviously the folks from the defense department weren’t thinking they wanted to put all the content under the GPL, but instead they wanted a system where people could easily share information within their targeted community.

And here’s Dare Obasanjo reacting to Dave Winer’s proposal to create an open source implementation of this month’s cyber-craze, Twitter:

One of the primary benefits to customers of using Open Source software is that it denies vendor lock-in because the source code is available and freely redistributable. This is a strong benefit when the source code is physically distributed to the user either as desktop software or as server software that the user installs.


Things are different in the “Web 2.0” world of social software for two reasons. The obvious one being that the software isn’t physically distributed to the users but the less obvious reason is that social software depends on network effects.

For years now, I’ve been tracing an arc from open source software to open services to open data. What’s the common thread? Collaboration. People working together in shared information spaces, using shared technical and social protocols, to achieve shared goals.

If you asked me to define the essence of openness, I couldn’t say it any better than that.

8 Comments

  1. Tom Paine rolls over in his grave, the better to throw us an eye-lock, and calls out, “What took ya?!”

    Know what? I have little more than scorn for my cohort … the once-were hippies I was on the bus with in ’68. But there kidz? The generation that’s working their way to the wrong end of 30? Woa … we must done something right somewhere. Effective, eye on the ball, a pragmatic sorta optimism … where did that come from? I wasn’t sure we deserved anything at all good, and yet …

  2. Hi John — in my post about an open source Twitter, I didn’t propose that anyone do anything, I was trying to find out if other people were thinking about this, and what they thought.

    To me, these days, the only way I’d undertake such a project is as open source. I suppose it’s predictable for Dare to think it was about denying a vendor something, but I wasn’t thinking about any such thing, and went to great pains, in the first paragraph, to say how much I appreciated what the people at Obvious had developed (which, imho, was anything but obvious).

    Open source is a way to ask people to contribute freely without worrying that they are unjustly enriching anyone else. It helps people relax about it. It also makes the project non-commercial, amateur, not professional, purely a labor of love.

  3. “in my post about an open source Twitter, I didn’t propose that anyone do anything”

    Actually, what jumps out at me from that post on second reading is:

    “If you play it out, the Twitter command line could evolve to be something much like the Unix command line, with an important difference, it’s world-wide in scope.”

    Reminds me of Jon Aquino’s YubNub.org which…tap, tap…still exists!

    http://www.yubnub.org

    http://yubnub.org/documentation/describe_installation (the search box plugin)

    http://yubnub.org/parser/parse?command=wp+dave_winer

    http://yubnub.org/parser/parse?command=shoutcast+bluegrass

    http://yubnub.org/parser/parse?command=weather+03431

    http://yubnub.blogspot.com/

    I love this idea. When it first appeared I worried that it was too geeky for broad appeal, and it probably still is. Something needs to take the concept mainstream. I wonder if Twitter, or something like it, will. That’d be excellent.

  4. Collaboration exists at the boundary between self and other, between tribes (what’s a family but a small tribe?), and depends on both the boundary and the crossing to work. In my view, if we talk about erasing boundaries, we risk erasing selfhood and thus one element of true collaboration. Instead, we should talk about boundaries and crossings in the same breath, think them in the same thought. Maybe something like the idea of “semi-permeable” is what I’m trying to get at here.

    Milton is all over this idea in “Paradise Lost.”

  5. Collaboration: “People working together in shared information spaces, using shared technical and social protocols, to achieve shared goals.”

    I’m definitely going to quote you on this. It provides purpose to interoperabilty too. I like that.

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