open source thought leaders (aka ‘if you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have 5 rss feeds…)

Lauren Cooney, one of IBM’s open source folks, asks who the top five open source thought leaders are. Interesting question- here is my answer. Of course, I can’t limit it to just five. Oops. :)

Not all of these folks are bloggers; many choose more traditional routes to express their ideas, which is great/fine, just means you’ll have to put in more work to get their ideas. :) Feel free to tack on your own suggestions in comments- I’m out of the loop, so I’m sure I’ve missed people.

Note that my focus here is mostly not on who the top thinkers are, but rather the top thought leaders– i.e., influence counts for more than correctness. Thankfully, we’re mostly a sane bunch and so the people who get listened to are usually right :)

five who don’t say much, but who are listened to raptly when they do say things:

  • linus, mitchell baker, bdale garbee: lead the most successful open source projects, have a big impact in corporations, demonstrate good judgment and good taste, and voila- you’re huge. All spend more time doing than talking. (Also in this category, though probably a step below in terms of broad impact: Larry Wall, Nat/Miguel, Brian Behlendorf.)
  • eben moglen and richard stallman: love them or hate them, when they weigh in on a debate it usually has a huge impact.

six who say a lot and are listened to very broadly. Hard list to write, since ‘open source’ is so broad and fragmented- I tried to exclude folks whose impact is felt only in one community.

  • tim o’reilly: duh. :)
  • simon phipps and tim bray: big thinkers at an industry heavyweight. Don’t always agree with Simon (particularly think he tends to ignore Sun’s miscues while vigorously attacking the same mistakes when made by others) but he’s a very sharp thinker on open source issues most haven’t even thought about yet (governance, dealing with patents instead of wishing them away), and always worth listening to.
  • mark pilgrim: a blog I read said yesterday ‘if you are arguing with Mark Pilgrim, you are probably wrong.’ Sadly does not blog as much as he used to. (dhh may be the new Mark, though I disagree with dhh more often than I disagree with Mark.)
  • matt asay: he’s got his finger deeply on the pulse of what is going on in the open source business space, and is widely listened to there.
  • mark shuttleworth: only CEO of an open source company on my list- speaks often about open source and has a very big platform to say it from. Szulik or Tiemann could easily join mark here, but both seem to favor talking softly and carrying a big stick so I think of them as less ‘thought leaders’ and more ‘leaders by example.’

five conscious thinkers who should be listened to more:

  • redmonk, particularly stephen o’grady– smart people who are living and breathing transparent production principles, and as a result are quite influential and should be getting more so. (stephen gets called out because he is their open source guy; they are all sharp.)
  • karim lakhani: best academic thinker on the organizational mechanics of open source/peer production, bar none.
  • ethan zuckerman: lots of great thinking on how software (including open source) affects the non-first world.
  • tech liberation front: politics are in software and in software to stay, so politics is important. Whether or not you agree with their politics (very libertarian, just like many programmers) these are (IMHO) the sharpest collection of thinkers out there on the subject.
  • stormy peters: I always find stormy’s thinking on the industry to be very clear and very sharp. She should be higher-profile than she is.

four who are not strictly open source software people, but are software people and widely read and respected in the open source community:

  • joel spolsky: I think he comes across as a prick, but he’s a very, very smart prick, and even when I disagree with him (which is often) I learn something.
  • jon udell: now an MS employee; long a wise observer of industry trends. Likes to get his hands dirty in new tech trends.
  • kathy sierra: if you care about your users, no matter what field you are in, YOU MUST READ KATHY RELIGIOUSLY. YOU ARE FAILING TO DO YOUR JOB IF YOU DO NOT. Ahem. Possibly the only person (other than Lessig and Moglen) who I’d go out of my way to see speak at a conference.
  • paul graham: hacker, vc, great writer.

four who aren’t strictly software people, but are listened to anyway:

  • jimbo wales: the software/content lines are blurring, and jimbo is out there on the front lines of peer produced content.
  • lawrence lessig and yochai benkler: lawyers, and great, influential thinkers. If you are serious about thinking about open source, you’ve read Code; if you are very serious, you’ve started Wealth of Networks; if you are very, very serious, you’ve finished Wealth of Networks. :) (I’ve started.)
  • bruce schneier: rigorous thinking and great writing on a topic which should be near and dear to every programmer’s heart (security) means that when he speaks on software, he is listened to almost reverently. Fondness for transparency a big plus in the open source community.

six open source/tech law sources (most people won’t care about this list, but hey… this is my list :)

  • aforementioned: moglen, lessig, benkler
  • mark webbink, mike dillon: GCs at serious open source powers. Between the two of them may well determine the long-term fate of GPL v3, because their respective engineers write so much code.
  • wendy seltzer: Promotes MythTV. While teaching at law school. What more could you want. :)
  • legal staff at EFF: sadly, none of their lawyers blogs (that I know of) but collectively are on the front lines of, and set the agenda for, tech law development. [Ed.: a commenter points out that Jason Schultz blogs. Awesome.]
  • pam jones, groklaw: more open source developers get their legal news and opinions from pam than any other source, so she is influential no matter what you think of her.
  • andy updegrove: andy is The Man for open standards, which means he is The Man in the next big thing for open source.

six who would hate to be called thought leaders but are damn smart and doing very interesting things and should be famous:

  • chris blizzard: OLPC might be the most influential thing open source ever does; Chris is square in the middle of that.
  • havoc pennington: ran away from the well-earned spotlight to work on mugshot, which if successful could put tens of millions in regular touch with open source and put the spotlight back on him whether he likes it or not.
  • jeff and pia waugh: wish they lived in this hemisphere so I could see them in person more often.
  • aaron swartz: very smart. Now apparently fairly wealthy. Renaissance man. Younger than you.
  • david weinberger: co-author of the cluetrain manifesto; thinker on the internet and interwingliness; claims not to know a thing about software and hence might know more about software than the rest of this list put together.

[FWIW, Lauren’s list was sort of java-centric, so I’ve never heard of many of the people on her list; I think several of them I have heard of would not consider themselves ‘open source’ people. But I’m sure they are interesting. My one serious quibble with her list is Marc Fleury- I don’t know anyone who likes or respects Marc Fleury. Hard to be a thought leader when huge sections of the industry have flipped the bozo bit on you. Despite that quibble, I’m very glad Lauren did it and made me write all this down!]

35 thoughts on “open source thought leaders (aka ‘if you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have 5 rss feeds…)”

  1. Um, a whole bunch of your html is messed up there, several sections are repeated. Maybe you should hand-code your posts :)

    [ed.: yeah, combination of wordpress’s crappy editor and doing my final edit on an n800. I think everything is fixed now; if not, let me know.]

  2. It’s so broken, it needs commenting on again.

    [Ed.: Gar. I *think* it is all good now. Please be specific if you see anything broken now.]

  3. Hmm.
    Who would be the target audience for that feeds?
    Would FOSS still be FOSS if people got so much top down influence?
    Isn’t absence of (non hacker) opinion leaders one of the most significant FOSS characteristics?
    Can an ordinary hacker afford not to follow any of these?

    /not entirely serious

  4. Hrm. An ordinary hacker can completely ignore all of these and still do their thing; lack of coercive leaders is one of the most significant FOSS characteristics (see Karim’s thesis ;). But any group of humans who can be said to be doing similar things is going to have opinion leaders- people who have strong opinions, express them, and are listened to and often agreed with. In FOSS, we may be less responsive to our opinion leaders than in most groups of humans, but we are still responsive, so anyone who wants to guess where FOSS is going over the long term is probably someone who wants to follow those feeds.

  5. […]
    > so anyone who wants to guess where FOSS is going over the long term
    > is probably someone who wants to follow those feeds.

    That leads me to another question.
    Do you think that FOSS these days is directed by “thinkers”? Or are those people just having a sense for what hackers and commercial investors are up to?

  6. thanks luis. we better get that planet redmonk feed/with an OSS category sorted out…

    this would actually make a nice game of tag wouldn’t it. you could name your five most important thinkers in open source, and then tag five people to name theirs. feel free to do that and tag me.

    that way i can include mark shuttleworth. to care that much about truly open and that much about useability is a rare combination indeed.

  7. First, I think the distinction you’re making between thinkers, hackers, and commercial investors is a bogus one- every investor I’ve listed above is also a serious thinker, and one is a better hacker than most of us could ever hope to be. And every hacker I’ve listed above (except maybe blizzard and jeff?) are very consciously thinkers- public intellectuals (within our limited public.) So the three groups overlap a lot, at least in this list and I think in general.

    That said, I think we’re primarily a movement of coders- FOSS without code is nothing, so if hackers want to go somewhere, we go there, and if hackers don’t want to go there, we go there (at best) in fits and starts, aka commercial code drops.

    Because of the way the movement was started (by a hacker-philosopher) many of our best coders are also deep thinkers, and because of the way most engineers are paid, many of our best coders are inevitably concerned with commercial motivations. But the hackers still lead the horse by writing code, no matter what.

  8. Thanks for elaborating, Luis. Sometimes I have that feeling that the blogisation and planetisation of the oss world shifts some of the focus from those who code to those who write a lot. It’s just so much easier for the “enthusiast” community to follow that, instead of MLs — hence my questions who you think controls the steering wheel.

  9. Rob: it was always that way to a certain extent. If anything, mailing lists have always given an edge to those who write quickly, often, and obstinately over those who prefer to discuss things in a more reasoned manner. Blogs and planets shift that balance a bit- writing still counts, but you get the time for slightly more reasoned and planned responses than you do on a mailing list, which I think on the whole is a good thing. (Whether the censoring/elitism effects of planets is a good thing is another discussion, but to a certain extent I think the elite was there before planets anyway- planets just made them easier to find/listen to.)

    James: working on it.

  10. Luis, i was not referring to elite vs. proletariat but signal vs. noise. Blogging certainly creates a huge amount of noise. Planets only help so much. My concern is that blogging noise, planets and low quality “tech sites” may be misleading the uninitiated.

  11. None of those concerns are new, or blog-specific. Mailing lists had huge noise problems, which I think are better now because many abstract ideas get batted around in blogs before going to lists. Mailing lists were even worse- I can choose not to read someone’s blog, but if they email a list I’m on, I’m going to get it (and 1,000 responses) whether I like it or not.

    (C’mon. No one has any other suggestions? :)

  12. […] When Luis responded to Lauren Cooney, and very kindly named RedMonk’s Stephen O’Grady as a thought leader (who should be listened to more) in open source he gave me an idea which might be fun. Borrowing the technique from the recent 5 Things game, I am going to name my five open source thought leaders, and then nominate five people to name theirs. In no particular order: […]

  13. Thanks for the link!

    We should chat about “Code” sometime. IMHO, “Free Culture,” whereas “Code” was somewhat underwhelming. But maybe just because I agreed with more of the former.

  14. Good catch – since my background is with WebLogic and Apache Beehive and Geronimo, my post is definitely more Java-centric. And yes, I really did have to think about including Fleury on this list – I honestly see him as a community leader rather than technical leader, but one who did open commercial vendors’ eyes to open source early on.

    I think I’d add a few more folks to my list too, after seeing your list. Good choices here. I hate the “tag” game (and Hani will rip us apart if we play that) but I definitely want to see what folks have to say on this. Interesting topic. /LC

  15. tim: I think in large part Code is underwhelming now because since it was written we’ve integrated a lot of the assumptions (particularly ‘code is law’) into the way we think; that was not typically the case for lawyers or legislators pre-Code. I also highlighted it and not Free Culture because Code is also more relevant to open source developers, in that it stresses the importance of software infrastructure and the relevance of government to software development, as opposed to the focus on culture in Free Culture. (Benkler integrates both code and culture.)

  16. […] IBM’s Laura Cooney asked who the top thought leaders in open source might be, Luis jumped off from there (and very kindly included RedMonk and yours truly in his list – thank you sir), and James not only turned it into a game of tag, but tagged me in the process. So now I’m supposed to tag my five open source thought leaders. Wow. Need to think about that one. I may a.) cheat by disqualifying anyone previously named, and b.) being a little liberal with my numbers. […]

  17. […] Luis Villa’s Blog » open source thought leaders (aka ‘if you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have 5 rss feeds…) hugely flattering to be on Luis’ list – particularly considering the other folks on here; at the risk of playing the mutual admiration society card let me just say that i expect Luis to be one of the best legal minds in the open source space shortly (tags: Villa RedMonk thoughtleaders list) […]

  18. […]I know that the original question was “Who are the top 5 OSS thought leaders”, and that’s been covered by several folks already. I’m going to ask a similar, but different question.

    Who are the top 5 entities that have brought OSS into everyday (enterprise & commercial) use? This is less a list of Thought Leaders than it is a list of Action Leaders.[…] More here

  19. Top 5 OSS Action Leaders…

    I know that the original question was “Who are the top 5 OSS thought leaders”, and that’s been covered by several folks already. I’m going to ask a similar, but different question.
    Who are the top 5 entities that have brought OSS in…

  20. [ed.: I don’t think this was spam, but it has the whiff of trolling, and I can’t for the life of me see how it was related, so I’ve deleted it.]

  21. […] open source thought leaders (aka ‘if you were stranded on a desert island, and could only have… Surprised to appear on Luis’ list of Open Source thought leaders, considering that we’ve not been doing very much in the way of thought leadership while riding the juggernaut. Gonna hafta earn it now. (tags: blogs linux opensource luisvilla) […]

  22. […] Guide.) I also highly recommend Rework and Designing From Both Sides of the Screen. Blog-wise, you might find this list interesting, though not necessarily pertinent to this […]

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