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Remaking the Peer-to-Peer Meme
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Free Software vs. Open Source

In order to illustrate the idea to the attendees at the peer-to-peer summit, I drew meme maps of free software versus open-source. I presented these images at the summit as a way of kick-starting the discussion. Let's look at those here as well, since it's a lot easier to demonstrate the concept than it is to explain it in the abstract.

I built the free software map by picking key messages from the Free Software Foundation Web site. I also added a few things (the red bubbles in the lower right quadrant of the picture) to show common misconceptions that were typically applied to free software. (Please note that this diagram should not be taken as a complete representation of the beliefs of the Free Software Foundation. While I took the positioning as it appears on their Web site, no one from the FSF has reviewed this slide, and they might well highlight very different points if given the chance to do so.)

Free Software Meme Map

Free Software Meme Map (Click to enlarge)

There are a couple of things to note about the diagram. The greenish bubbles at the top represent the outward face of the movement -- the canonical projects or activities. In the case of the Free Software Foundation, these are programs like gcc, the GNU C Compiler, GNU emacs, GhostScript (a free replacement for PostScript) and the GNU Public License or GPL.

The box in the center lists strategic positioning, the key perceived user benefit, and the core competencies. The strategic goal is right up front on the Free Software Foundation Web site: to build a complete free replacement for the UNIX operating system. The user benefit is sold as one of standing up for what's right, even if there would be practical benefits in compromise. There is little sense of what the core competencies of the free software movement might be, other than that they have right on their side, and the goodwill of talented programmers.

In the Beam models, the beige bubbles in the lower half of the picture represent internal activities of the business. For my purposes, I used them to represent guiding principles and key messages. I used red bubbles to represent undesirable messages that others might be creating and applying to you.

As you can see, the primary messages of the Free Software movement, thought provoking and well articulated as they are, don't address the negative public perceptions that are spread by opponents of the movement.

Open Source Meme Map

Open Source Meme Map (Click to enlarge)

Now take a look at the diagram I drew for open-source. The content of this diagram was taken partly from the Open Source Initiative Web site, but also from the discussions at the open-source summit I organized in April 1998, and from my own thinking and speaking about open source in the years since. Take the time to read the diagram carefully; it should be fairly self-explanatory. It demonstrates what a well-formed strategic meme map ought to look like.

As you can see by comparing the two diagrams, they put a completely different spin on what formerly might have been considered the "same space." We did more than just change the name that we used to describe a collection of projects from "free software" to "open source." In addition:

  • We changed the canonical list of projects that we wanted to hold up as exemplars of the movement. (Even though Bind or Sendmail or Apache or Perl, for instance, are "free software" by the Free Software Foundation's definition, they aren't central to the free software "meme map" in the way that we made them for open source; even today, they are not touted on the Free Software Foundation Web site.) What's more, I've included a tag line that explains why each project is significant. For example, Bind isn't just another free software program, it's the heart of the domain-name system, and the single-most mission critical program on the Internet. Apache is the dominant Web server on the market; Sendmail routes most Internet e-mail, and Linux is more reliable than Windows. The Free Software Foundation's GNU tools are still in the picture, but they are no longer at its heart.

  • The strategic positioning is much clearer. Open source is not about creating a free replacement for UNIX. It's about making better software through source sharing and network-enabled collaboration. The user positioning (the benefit to the user) was best articulated by Bob Young of Red Hat, who insisted that what Red Hat Linux offers its customers control over their destiny.

  • The list of core competencies is much more focused and actionable. The most successful open-source communities do, in fact, understand something about distributed software development in the age of the Internet, organizing developer communities, using free distribution to gain market share, commoditizing markets to undercut dominant players and creating powerful brands for their software. Any aspiring open-source player needs to be good at all of these things.

  • We've replaced the negative messages used against free software with directly competing messages that counter them. Where free software was mischaracterized as unreliable, we set out very explicitly to demonstrate that everyone counts on open-source programs and that the peer review process improves reliability and support.

  • We've identified a set of guiding principles that can be used by open-source projects and companies to see whether they're hitting the key points. (For example, Mozilla's initial lack of modular code, weak documentation and long release cycles hampered its quick uptake as an open-source project. These are some of the guidelines that projects need to follow in order to be successful.)
  • We made connections between open source and related concepts that help to place it in context. For example, the concept of open interaction with customers from The ClueTrain Manifesto, and the idea of "disruptive technologies" from Clayton Christenson's book The Innovator's Dilemma link open source to trends in business management.

While some further discussion of the open-source meme map might be worthwhile in another context, I present it here mainly to clarify the use of meme maps in creating a single unifying vision of a set of related technologies.

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