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!]