Casting an academic eye on Linux

Researchers at the University of Michigan want to know how the open-source community "gets things done."

Published October 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It can't be very much longer before free-software hackers start regretting how high their media profile has become in these open-source software crazed days. How are they supposed to get any work done? If they aren't fielding calls from clueless journalists or giving yet another keynote address at yet another industry convention, they're being overwhelmed by the flood of e-mail from newbies desperate to join this movement that they've been reading about in their favorite Web zine or trade press publication.

That's the price of success. But lately, it's not just the bright glare of media attention that free-software hackers must squint through. The geeks behind GNU and Apache and Linux are receiving a steadily growing barrage of scrutiny from curious academics as well. The latest instance of such attention is a survey from researchers at the University of Michigan's School of Information.

The survey's intent, says Nathaniel Borenstein, founder of the School of Information's LUIGUI project -- or the "Linux/UNIX Independent Group for Usability Information" -- is to study "communication patterns within the Linux community" in the hopes of better understanding the open-source software development process. The survey seeks information on such topics as developer motivation, career background and programming habits.

The application of classic quantitative data-gathering tactics to a phenomenon as anarchic as the open-source movement is a worthy task, if a bit cognitively disjunctive. Open-source hackers are accustomed to hearing the likes of evangelist Eric Raymond declaiming authoritatively upon the whys and wherefores of open source, but there's a paucity of hard data to work from.

One hopes, however, that the survey's designers have built in some safeguards to prevent tampering. Open-source hackers, organizing at hubs like Slashdot, are notorious for rushing en masse at new Web surveys and submitting their answers multiple times in brazen attempts to skew the data one way or another. Of course, such behavior usually takes place when the survey or poll is matching Linux up against, say, Windows NT. There's no enemy to rail against in this survey -- just academic curiosity to quench.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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