Today I explained "open source" to my Chinese teacher in halting Mandarin - I was pleasantly surprised to find that I know enough words after 3 weeks to be able to get the concepts across at a (very) rudimentary level. It reignited this ill formed draft that's been turning in my head for a while; I'm not sure how to put it into the right words and finally figured just blurting it out might help.

Here's the premise: open source isn't really open.

I'm not really talking about legal or physical access here, although of course that's a barrier as well. [1] I'm talking more about moving from being a user to being a contributor. Hypothetically, there shouldn't be that many barriers. Hacker culture values self-taught learners, so lack of formal education is no big deal; anyone can jump in and help, you can shield yourself from stereotypes to some extent by not telling folks that you're in high school, or homeless, or a terrible stutterer. [2]

Nope. The biggest problem is that the folks who can "teach themselves hacking" were the ones who were thinking like a hacker in the first place. I hypothesize that open source hackers, to some extent, are raised and not born. Yes, they eventually make themselves - but it's awfully hard to make people who realize they have the ability to recreate and reteach themselves and share things with the world.

Many people don't follow or understand the open source development culture. "Just do it," "Start something," "Hack now fix later," "Ask forgiveness, not permission" - they're not necessarily optimal or natural ways of thinking, but it's assumed without question that contributors to the project do think that way. [3]

Culturally, some people - in particular, those who aren't western males - may actually be raised to behave in the exact opposite manner; the appearance of consensus, proper identification of leadership, attempting things indirectly to save face over being bluntly efficient and potentially contradicting something in public, or watching out closely for one's own group instead of broadly for all.

How do you get involved with and contributing to something that may go against some of the basic social norms you're surrounded with? How many people are willing to live with two (or more) lives - one as a contributor in the open source community, another as... whatever - if those two lives don't intersect, acknowledge, and value each other?

I have no answers. I don't even have much in the way of a well-formed question. But I wanted to get an artifact out there so there's at least a concrete mass of words to tumble about and argue with. Thoughts?

[1] Not everyone is equally free to download, modify, and share "open" resources because not everyone has access to a computer, the 'net, the knowledge of how to use these, and the time and opportunities to do so in a socially acceptable manner. ("Why are you playing with your mom's computer? It's not for kids. If you break it, she can't work. You should be watching your baby brother.")

[2] Many people consider the attributes that stereotype them to be integral to their identity and don't want to hide that they're female, Latino, etc. but will get short shrift in some way if they do, so this is really a case of some groups having "less freedom" than others - but that's an entire series of posts all to itself, and others have written about it with much more eloquence.

[3] You have no idea how hard it was for me to wrap my head around "ask forgiveness, not permission." It was like having a mental concept with no direct equivalent in my native language. I went through high school and half of college trying to convince myself that it was possible to think something like that.