Contextualising knowledge–making in Linux user groups

Yuwei Lin


A common critique on free/libre open source software (FLOSS) is that FLOSS–oriented products, often mutated from or based on parallel works, are not really innovative. FLOSS’ development process and subsequent products (e.g. software packages, maintaining services, or the formation of user groups, etc.) definitely denote a kind of innovation driving our world towards a knowledge–based society. This perspective challenges the conventional notion of innovation in technological and economic arenas from a glocalised perspective. I argue that software development is not solely a matter of technical engineering or economic progress. Rather, it also involves cultural, social and political factors.

Through interaction and negotiation, FLOSS innovation is embedded in the translation of problems and knowledge–sharing between user and designer, and between lay and expert. Narratives of Linux users groups (LUGs) show that the influence of local knowledge and tacit skills is very much in evidence in the FLOSS innovation system. Practices in LUGs denote the codification of local knowledge and its translation into more formalised and sophisticated expertise. This raises fundamental questions about whether institutional involvement should continue along its techno–economic route of relying entirely on specialists (programmers) to reach developmental decisions, or whether the process should be made more democratic by allowing a broader range of social interests to have some input into software development.

In this paper, I demonstrate the values of local tinkering, soft skills and tacit knowledge in FLOSS innovation. I investigate how locally defined software problems and locally crafted solutions towards the problems are codified and translated into expert knowledge within FLOSS innovation through intense hands–on practices and ongoing debate. The process of translating local knowledge into formal expertise is analysed in light of data collected from the York Linux User Group (YLUG). While FLOSS is gaining unprecedented recognition at an accelerating pace, and more institutional resources are made available, noticeably from national agencies and industry, it is crucial to get a genuine picture of FLOSS development, on which this paper will shed some light.

Full Text:



A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.