Ubuntu has many recognisable traits, but one of the best is its reputation for working with its community.

Since Mark Shuttleworth forged the original team in 2004, the Ubuntu community has exploded in size, spawning a diverse range of teams across the globe.

Underlining this sense of community was Mark's eagerness to embrace transparency, putting in place open governance and tools, a code of conduct and an invitation for volunteers to join the ranks of the project.

Recently, however, there was some controversy surrounding this community ethos. It kicked off when Canonical, Ubuntu's primary sponsor, announced a refreshed brand for the project. A new lick of paint was applied to the logo, wallpaper and more, and new colour schemes, textures, photographic treatments and other artistic flourishes were shared with the wider community.

As part of the brand development, key members of the community were flown to London to work with the design team, and senior community governance boards were told about the brand before it was publicly announced.

Ubuntu: meritocracy not democracy

The announcement that I drafted included two screenshots showing the new light and a dark themes. Although seemingly innocuous to the casual observer, within the screenshots was a detail that got a few people a little worked up: the window close/maximise/minimise buttons had moved from the right to the left.

Community controversy

A bug was filed regarding the change, and everyone and their dog weighed in to share their opinions. Some offered genuinely thoughtful usability critiques, but many spewed forth disjointed, rambling opinions.

The debate raged on before Mark threw his two cents into the well: "We all make Ubuntu, but we do not all make all of it. In other words, we delegate well. We have a kernel team, and they make kernel decisions. You don't get to make kernel decisions unless you're in that kernel team. You can file bugs and comment and engage, but you don't get to second-guess their decisions. … We have processes to help make sure we're doing a good job of delegation, but being an open community is not the same as saying everybody has a say in everything."

At the heart of Shuttleworth's response was a clarification that decisions at Ubuntu are not made by consensus but by recognised and informed decisionmakers. He concluded his post in response to a previous comment, affirming this position of Ubuntu:

"This is not a democracy. Good feedback, good data, are welcome. But we are not voting on design decisions." Within seconds of his comment on the bug being posted, Linux and open source newswires were ablaze with stories that Ubuntu was not a democracy, with some mis-reporting that there had been a fundamental change in how we build Ubuntu. My inbox filled up.

When the story broke, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Mark three years ago at an Ubuntu Developer Summit in California. It was my first UDS and I was still learning the ropes. At the time, I was putting together a community-led governance board for the Ubuntu Forums.

We'd codified the expectations of the council, fleshed out term lengths, decided on governance infrastructure and identified what the council would focus on. All we needed to do was decide who was going to serve on the council.

As we discussed different approaches, I recommended that we could hold a vote, to which Mark responded: "No, this is not a democracy." At first, my reaction was pretty much the same rabbit-caught-in-headlights response that some people experienced recently. Democracy felt like a culturally familiar, comfortable and fair approach to community, so the idea it was not our culture came as a bit of a bolt out of the blue. Mark continued to explain the position:

"In Ubuntu, decisions are not driven by a popularity contest, but instead by informed decision-makers with firm experience of the problem and making solutions." After he'd clarified what Ubuntu was not, he followed up with what it was: "Ubuntu is a meritocracy."

Merit-based change

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a meritocracy doesn't assume that everyone has a right to a vote, but instead that leadership and direction is driven by those who've developed a reputation based on merit and good work.

In a meritocracy, you don't climb the community hierarchy by driving a nicer car, having finer clothes or other such material attributes. Progress is made through great work that's identified and respected, and grounded in experience and informed judgment.

Meritocratic communities are at the heart of how people share and collaborate in an idealised manner. As kids, we're warned of the temptation of bending the rules, or using status or a materialistic veneer as a fast-track to getting on in the world. From our earliest memories we're taught that good deeds are rewarded with good deeds.

Communities such as Ubuntu work in this very manner. Fundamentally, communities are economies, but instead of growing financial capital, we develop our reserves of social capital. We build this by giving gifts to the community (such as patches, documentation, bug reports or other contributions), and when others see our gifts and respect our work, we grow in their minds as good citizens; citizens who have experience and who we typically trust to lead.

These attributes are by no means specific to Ubuntu; the majority of open source communities are also meritocratic and leaders are identified through good work, recognised contributions and trust generated by the community.

I'm hugely proud of the incredible work the global Ubuntu community has achieved in the last six years, and meritocracy has helped bring viability, respect and acknowledgement to their work.

We still have work to do and problems to solve, but opportunity is lighting the path forward and I, for one, am ready to roll.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 132

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