Challenge: Open protocols vs. Permissionless innovation

I bumped into a very interesting and astute observation in this toot by Olivier Forget:

In theory open protocols allow “permissionless innovation”.

But here on #Mastodon, built on open protocol #ActivityPub, you do need permission to innovate – from the community.

I find this fascinating. It shows that the theory is just a theory and in reality there are other layers at play.

Similar dynamic happens with FOSS licenses. Lots of talk about copyleft versus liberal as if that’s all that needs to be talked about. But other layers exist: legal (trademarks) and community (again).

Where it comes to interoperability this observation aligns with major challenges for the Fediverse, and in particular to the one highlighting the importance of the technology / ecosystem substrate.

The “other layers at play” are focus of Social Coding focus on co-creation at ecosystem level:

  • Good: You must collaboration and seek consensus from ecosystem participants to innovate.
  • Bad: If there’s no healthy substrate to the ecosystem, then your innovation efforts are likely to fail.

In general I feel that the “permission from the community” and the democratic process it requires is a good thing, highly desirable for healthy and diverse ecosystems. Yet the big challenge is to get at that stage in grassroots movements.

This observation also implies that once a corporate takeover on the open standards level occurs - who observe the lack of substrate as hampering their business efforts - you should seek their permission.

Note that on an individual project level there’s a need for permission by the maintainers. In Mastodon’s case you need consent of the BDFL to get your innovation merged, or fork the project.

PS. Olivier is involved with an interesting Small Technology project: