Can There Be Strategy in Distributed Movements? Linux and #OWS

An an ongoing research puzzle for me has been how distributed movements, open source|wikipedia, mobilize collective action and get individual incentives and actions aligned.   Is the apparent lack of “strategy” a virtue or a vice?  For example, Linus Torvalds, founder of Linux, has  argued that “brownian motion” drives Linux development:

<From: Linus Torvalds
Subject: Re: Coding style – a non-issue
Date: Fri, 30 Nov 2001 16:50:34 -0800 (PST)

On Fri, 30 Nov 2001, Rik van Riel wrote:
> I’m very interested too, though I’ll have to agree with Larry
> that Linux really isn’t going anywhere in particular and seems
> to be making progress through sheer luck.

Hey, that’s not a bug, that’s a FEATURE!

You know what the most complex piece of engineering known to man in the
whole solar system is?

Guess what – it’s not Linux, it’s not Solaris, and it’s not your car.

It’s you. And me.

And think about how you and me actually came about – not through any
complex design.

Right. “sheer luck”.

Well, sheer luck, AND:
– free availability and _crosspollination_ through sharing of “source
code”, although biologists call it DNA.
– a rather unforgiving user environment, that happily replaces bad
versions of us with better working versions and thus culls the herd
(biologists often call this “survival of the fittest”)
– massive undirected parallel development (“trial and error”)

I’m deadly serious: we humans have _never_ been able to replicate
something more complicated than what we ourselves are, yet natural
selection did it without even thinking.

<….later in thread…>

A strong vision and a sure hand sound like good things on paper. It’s just
that I have never _ever_ met a technical person (including me) whom I
would trust to know what is really the right thing to do in the long run.

Too strong a strong vision can kill you – you’ll walk right over the edge,
firm in the knowledge of the path in front of you.

I’d much rather have “brownian motion”, where a lot of microscopic
directed improvements end up pushing the system slowly in a direction that
none of the individual developers really had the vision to see on their

And I’m a firm believer that in order for this to work _well_, you have to
have a development group that is fairly strange and random.

To get back to the original claim – where Larry idolizes the Sun
engineering team for their singlemindedness and strict control – and the
claim that Linux seems ot get better “by luck”: I really believe this is

The problem with “singlemindedness and strict control” (or “design”) is
that it sure gets you from point A to point B in a much straighter line,
and with less expenditure of energy, but how the HELL are you going to
consistently know where you actually want to end up? It’s not like we know
that B is our final destination.

In fact, most developers don’t know even what the right _intermediate_
destinations are, much less the final one. And having somebody who shows
you the “one true path” may be very nice for getting a project done, but I
have this strong belief that while the “one true path” sometimes ends up
being the right one (and with an intelligent leader it may _mostly_ be the
right one), every once in a while it’s definitely the wrong thing to do.

And if you only walk in single file, and in the same direction, you only
need to make one mistake to die.

In contrast, if you walk in all directions at once, and kind of feel your
way around, you may not get to the point you _thought_ you wanted, but you
never make really bad mistakes, because you always ended up having to
satisfy a lot of _different_ opinions. You get a more balanced system.

So the question for me has been if this is just an accidental feature of a distributed movement or can we actually drive collective action this way?
The recent emergence of #OWS provides an interesting case study unfolding in real time. Fast Company has a nice entry about how the movement came about:

And not posting clear demands, while essentially a failing, has unintended virtue. Anyone who is at all frustrated with the economy–perhaps even 99% of Americans–can feel that this protest is their own.

So is this the way to develop strategy?

6 Comments on “Can There Be Strategy in Distributed Movements? Linux and #OWS”

  1. Karim,

    Please note this article contrasting the one Wikipedia with the many (seven or more) failed would-be Wikipedias. Is it possible that Wikipedia did in fact have an effective strategy? [The accidental or no strategy being: build around a familiar product, focus on content and not on technology, offer low transaction cost to participation,…]

    I would like to therefore add the following related questions to the conversation: Will a distributed movement with a strategy [and purpose and objectives] be more effective and efficient and more likely to succeed than a one without?


    • Karim says:


      Thanks for your comment. Indeed I have been following’s Mako’s work on this for a while. The question I have is if this was “the strategy” – or something they just stumbled upon? So will #OWS find a strategy and some key organizing questions – or will it be just a protest movements encapsulating 99%?

  2. Erich Kofmel says:

    The difficulty with his argument is that it builds upon a common misunderstanding. In evolutionary terms, “survival of the fittest” does not mean survival of the best, but rather of those that are best adapted, i.e. the most mediocre. The best, the outstanding are just as unfit for survival as the weak, the vulnerable. Both are perceived by the crowd as a threat to the survival of the group. Crowed-sourced strategy will equally tend toward the smallest common denominator rather than break new paths. It’s strategy without vision, i.e. no strategy at all.

  3. Hi Karim,

    Excellent question – but not sure it is the right one. Personally, I would rather argue that the use of collective/distributed/open innovation strategy is part of a larger strategy, i.e., strateGIC, rather than a strateGY or having a strategy in itself. I am very Clausewitzian on this one, in the sense that you cannot possibly reliably predict all actions that have to be taken in executing collective/distributed/open innovation for success – i.e., strategy here cannot be a specific plan listing individual action items, but is about setting goals and taking measures according to given initial boundary conditions, and then trying to make the most of it given that you cannot predict how the thing evolves. To put it in one sentence: (innovation or corporate) strategy should define the structure of your collective/distributed/open innovation efforts, and interaction with the real world will change these efforts within the limits of your larger strategy and its goals.

    All the best

  4. stevepostrel says:

    Cue Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a book that analyzed these issues in some depth in the early stages of the open-source movement.

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