The structure of KDE, or how anarchy sometimes works

KDE is a funny beast. In a lot of ways, it’s an anarchic society that actually works!

Engineers and designers work on KDE software and websites, but none of them are paid by KDE itself. Most are volunteers but some (myself included) are paid by 3rd-party companies. These people work on what they want or what they are sponsored by their company to work on, not what anyone in KDE tells them to work on.

KDE has a board of directors, but they are elected by KDE’s membership rather than stockholders (there is no stock lol), and they do not control KDE’s strategic direction as in a corporation. Rather, they mostly take care of financial and legal matters, sort out copyright claims, help to organize the yearly Akademy conference, and so on.

There is no formal “upper management” or even “middle management” layer. We have the “gardening team” whose members are in essence volunteer managers, but we mostly do things like triaging bugs, following up on stuck merge requests, performing QA on unreleased software, and so on. We support the people doing the work, rather than telling them what to do.


So how does anything get done around here?!

Well, just because KDE is an anarchy, does not mean that there is no organization and coordination! It’s just all done on a voluntary basis, with slightly unusual motivation techniques. Anarchy is not the absence of governance and decision-making, it’s just different from how it’s typically done.

In a corporation, managers motivate their employees by offering them them money, benefits, bonuses, promotions, and internal social perks. Bad work or bad behavior is punished by reprimands, demotion, or being fired.

But in KDE, most people are unpaid volunteers, so KDE has no financial leverage over them. Those who are paid are hired by 3rd-parties rather than KDE itself. Neither the carrot nor the stick will work!

Instead, motivation within KDE uses the currency of excitement. When a project is cool and its contributors publicly demonstrate its coolness and their enthusiasm for it, other people want to join in and help out! This turns out to be a very effective way to motivate free people to work on something: you make them feel like they want to be a part of something big and special, and you organize the discussion in a way that makes them feel like they can be included.

KDE’s design team (the VDG group) does a lot of this, constantly churning out astonishingly beautiful mockups and organizing discussions about important topics. People gravitate to the VDG’s proposals because they seem cool and there’s buzz and excitement surrounding it. The promo team works to generate that buzz and excitement. Other teams do similar things. You have to keep people excited and happy or else they will drift away.


This leads to an important point: you have to minimize negativity! For most people, conflict destroys energy and motivation. Internal arguments and politics need to be minimized and driven towards a consensus rather than simmering forever. Even if you have to bend a bit and give up some of what you want, that’s a better option than getting nothing because everyone is burned out by endless arguing. And new contributors in particular must be treated with kindness, given the benefit of the doubt, and made to feel welcome.

Similarly, if you’re a user who’s frustrated with the lack of progress on something you care about, insulting the developers or KDE itself in the bug report is the worst thing you could do: it will damage the motivation of the people in a position to do the work, reducing the chance that you will get what you want. Gently pinging people without negativity is the way to go–or even better, work on it yourself! Like all FOSS projects, KDE encourages self service. 🙂

In essence, KDE’s little anarchic digital utopia works because we all voluntarily agree to treat each other with respect and kindness and become stakeholders in the project, and this greases the wheels of all the work we do. Somehow, it all manages to work!

32 thoughts on “The structure of KDE, or how anarchy sometimes works

  1. Hi Nate!

    I very much enjoyed reading this. Out of curiosity: do you know about anarchism (the political tradition)? I am going to spread this to anarchist friends because it’s nice to see our arguments made “independently”, so to speak, like, you came to the same conclusions via practice and not by reading anarchist literature. So before I claimed this was arrived at independently I wondered if that was actually the case, haha!

    Anyway, thanks for all the work, both in KDE and this blog. I have been following silently for a few weeks and just thought it would be a nice moment to thank you for it. It’s a joy to read! I use KDE everyday and contribute minimally (bug reports when needed) but I have to say, this does help me get excited about the project!

    Cheers,

    Like

    1. Indeed, I spent many years as an anarcho-capitalist in fact. Eventually I became disillusioned with how easy it seemed for some anarchists to become seduced by fascism in the real world, and I returned to the messy and theoretically unsatisfying but ultimately more applicable and morally broad world of liberalism. But I’m still interested in the concept of digital anarchy. I didn’t set out to become a member of an anarchist community when I joined KDE, but it seems to have happened anyway lol!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying our software!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That happens with ancaps because their philosophy is flawed.
        Look into “Nationalist Anarchist” for something similar. It was actually just a ethno-fascist ideology that was attempting to capitalize on the ‘street cred’ of the anarchist movement. It failed pretty quickly.
        I would not be surprised to find that the newer version of ‘anarcho-capitalism’ is just the most recent in a string of attempts to attempt and hijack. Notice that Proud Boys are fond of the black and yellow..

        (note – To look at more mature form of anarcho-capitalism look for ‘mutualism’ circa proudhon and others. Its not exactly ancap .. but specifically holds loft the idea of private property. Theres also a small but less problematic group that likes calling themselves ‘agorists’ that certainly has a market perspective)

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        1. Makes sense to me.

          Regardless, I feel like I’ve outgrown the phase of my life where I was looking for a perfect ideology that explained everything or underpinned a perfect society. I went through quite a few on all axes of the Political Compass chart, and eventually ended up pretty much where I started: boring old statist liberalism. It’s messy and corrupt and flawed and not at all ideologically satisfying, but it actually exists in the real world and works. The world itself is messy like that. You can never achieve perfection, but with a bit of compromise and flexibility, you can actually make real improvements instead of wasting your time in debates over theory.

          On that note, I think I’m done with politics for now. 🙂

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          1. > Regardless, I feel like I’ve outgrown the phase of my life where I was looking for a perfect ideology that explained everything or underpinned a perfect society

            THIS. If we can just get more people to understand this.

            Liked by 2 people

      2. Hey Nate! I am sorry to hear that you experienced ancaps being seduced by fascism! Wow!
        That has not been my experience. People are fallible though. : /
        I am an ‘Ancap’ although much prefer to approach things from the perspective of Voluntaryism or Agorism.
        To live in the present statist society it is necessary to acknowledge it, so adopting a ‘statist liberalism’ can be more practical – but I do not feel this rules out trying to bring about voluntary interaction (Anarchism) where possible.
        I have been thinking I should be donating more to KDE devs.
        Have you read ‘The Market For Liberty’, ‘The Most Dangerous Superstition’. or Konkin’s treatise New Libertarian Manifesto?
        If not, may I buy a copy of one of these for you?
        You have helped me in the past and I would love to reciprocate if you are interested? : )
        In any case, thanks for all your good work!

        Like

        1. I’ve read “The Market for Liberty” and a whole bunch of other stuff from the von Mises institute. It’s all quite beautiful and elegant in theory, but it’s just not applicable to most of how we live our daily lives IMO. In general I think most people generally agree that more voluntary interactions, cooperation, and mutualism are desirable. However that has to be filtered through a messy world that very much does not operate along those principles. They may help to guide where we want to go, but in general they are of little use to where we already are IMO.

          I’ve become more convinced of this since I became a father. How shall we consider children from an AnCap perspective? Where is the line at which they become rational actors? Which coercive parenting methods are appropriate, if any? When should we consider their decisions to be their own and not the product of an underdeveloped intellectual or emotional consciousness? It becomes painfully obvious that all this stuff was written by people who never had children, never had to deal with the mentally ill or elderly relatives, had no compassion for dumb or gullible people who are easily manipulated into making bad decisions, and never really considered the case of pollution and natural resources from anything more than a rudimentary perspective.

          It’s all interesting stuff, but I think it desperately needs updating. It’s pretty obvious that the modern understanding of cognitive development and decision-making failure modes have not been adequately integrated into the philosophy, to say nothing of environmentalism, which was barely a thing in the way we understand it a century ago when this stuff was being worked on.

          Ah well, I broke my promise to drop the politics. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, Anarchocapitalism is not a blueprint for a Utopia. It simply makes point that we should give peace a chance and even where it is messy or confusing that is still preferable to authoritarian control.
            “of little use where we already are” – perhaps, but society is not static, there is a future, and an argument to be made that society has become increasingly peaceful, at least in market societies, and that furthermore, tech is decentralising our lives, disintermediating coercive systems of control. Theory can help pave the way.
            It is interesting to note also, that it only take a passionate 10% of a population to set the prevailing culture.
            In the negative, we saw this with the Bolsheviks in Russia. They were a small group but profoundly changed (for the worse) the whole country – albeit with much violence.

            In the liberty realm there appears to be a huge movement for ‘peaceful parenting’ -from parents. (Former?) Ancap Molyneux has written and spoken extensively on this, as has mother Dayna Martin in many books. You can add to the list educators like Brett Veinotte and others.
            I do not think there is a black and white guideline for when people become ‘rational actors’. As in all things life is a serious of negotiations.

            There are many great arguments for the environment being better handled by private individuals and communities, from the tragedy of the commons argument to books on the matter from Rothbard, Walter Block and Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation by
            Terry AndersonDonald Leal.
            The amount of damage done to the environment by government alone [see: war, gov management failure, and failure of law] is a large case for free market solutions.

            re: promise to drop the politics – Anarchocapitalism IS the dropping of politics! ; )

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          2. > tech is decentralising our lives, disintermediating coercive systems of control

            Ha ha ha. Ha. Good joke. Very funny.

            I mean, technology can certainly do that, put only if people stop giving away freedom and privacy… Not using spyware as the main OS would be a good start (see https://www.privacytools.io/operating-systems/#win10)…

            People have to be educated about technological freedom, but unfortunately nobody seems to care enough to do that… Ideological people keep bickering about their pet social theories, all while our ability to dissent and resist is slowly but surely being taken away from us…

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  2. Hi I’m not a software developer or coder or anything like that. However, I work within a small group on various projects. Occasionally we have some members who moan perhaps a bit too much not realising how much influence they have on the team’s morale. We had just such an incidence during a virtual team meeting yesterday. Your last three paragraphs (under the line) are superb and arrived with good timing. I’ve taken the liberty and forwarded this on to the whole team. I will of course give you credit!

    Many thanks

    Barrie

    ________________________________

    Like

  3. Thank you for a wonderful piece of writing Nate!
    Yes, KDE and Linux in many ways is Anarchy – which is to say, voluntary association and spontaneous order/uncoerced order!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the writeup. I guess it is important to note that the way some or even most people perceive the project is different, so it might be worth bringing that more to the peoples’ attention.

    Regarding the somewhat anarchic structure of the project I want to say that in my experience inevitably there will be some evolving structures whether they are official or not. There will be people with more decision power (like maintainers). The goals of those people are different and I noticed that sometimes there is a tendency to refuse suggestions or even merge request if they are not coherent with the specific goals. This might lead to a less coherent KDE experience and user frustration. I read some bug report (you might know which one I am talking about) where the maintainer (don’t know if he was paid for this job by anyone) refused a suggestion with code ready to merge and also did not really address factual argumentation from the view of most participants. There were insults to his person to which he replied that this will make it even more unlikely he will allow the changes to get included. I tell this to show that there can be people in problematic positions of power also in a somewhat anarchic setup.

    Another thing is of course the long outstanding bugs. To me it seems kind of sad that while there are paid devs, there are still those bugs (no offense intended). I know there is not enough capacity to deal with all bugs, but hopefully there will be more attention to those bugs.

    Summing up, I sometimes wish KDE would be structured like a company, hoping this would lead to a better quality in some aspects. However, the problems listed above will likely also exist there and this might not fix much. GitLab for example also has long outstanding bugs and complaining users.

    Like

    1. Yes, there is definitely some structure and some people have more decision-making authority than others. No question about that. Anarchy isn’t the same thing as chaos or the absence of decision-making; it just means that the decision-making process is decentralized and fluid, and people can come and go as they please. IMO this works a lot better in the digital realm than it does in the physical realm, but that’s a discussion for another time. 🙂

      I’m sorry you had a bad experience in a bug report. I take this kid of thing very seriously as poor interactions with devs in bug reports can turn a person off of a project forever. Would you mind staring the URL of the bugzilla ticket? I can investigate and see if we can make something positive happen.

      As for the longstanding bugs, I hear you. This has been a focus of mine since I became involved with KDE in 2017 and we have stomped an enormous number of them already. Yes, there are more (there are always more lol) but we continue to make good progress IMO. Are there any bugs in particular you’d like to call my attention to?

      Like

      1. I am not really into anarchy, when I have time, I might read a bit more into it. In the end regarding decision-making or people in position of power the problem I perceive is that you often have to invest a lot of time in such positions. People who don’t like the decision on the other hand most likely don’t want to take over the whole job, but only want other/better specific decisions.

        Also one feeling I have about rather less structured software projects is that in general the problems occur more on the interfaces between different packages or projects where there can arise areas where it would be helpful to have people interacting. However this is also probably a result of lacking manpower, so there cannot be someone who is responsible, competent and with time for every part of the project.

        > you had a bad experience in a bug report

        Don’t worry, this was regarding an old report I stumbled upon recently and which did not went pretty well. It was interesting to read the comments and the momentum involved, though. I dug it up now, see https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=321190. However, while digging, I also read some other stuff going on at that time and have understanding for both sides. Reading that bug report I just got the impression that the maintainer was pushing this report down even more since he got some hatred reaction. This seems to have happened more often as I read just now in a comment from a discussion you had with him some years ago. It feels a bit frustrating when no factual argumentation is going on and instead only the stupid or insulting comments are picked for reaction and seem to be used as excuses not to pursue the issue. However, that was just my impression and might not be the intention, plus there are of course other factors involved like constraint time. I guess the best is to leave this specific topic rest, as it is complex, lays in the past and the maintainer stepped back a few years ago.

        Regarding longstanding bugs, there aren’t really many on my radar currently. I actually just had a short look through the open bugzilla bugs I am currently subscribed to. https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=76380 is already on my and your radar now. When I tried to find the bug report for this problem, I actually stumbled upon some other older reports that might be a nice addition, although it is not something I really need: https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=243883 and https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=309264 there are probably similar kind of suggestions or bugs for almost every part of KDE unfortunately. I know you are doing pretty good to keep up with them (thanks alot!). In the end it is all about men power.
        One bug I care more about and over which I stumble from day to day (still it did not come to my mind without reading through the bugzilla list) is https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=368063. Maybe that is just some default value that can be changed to remember the Num-Lock state or it is some bad config. It unfortunately is not working as expected for me out of the box on Manjaro.

        Like

        1. Bugzilla tickets like https://bugs.kde.org/show_bug.cgi?id=321190 drive me crazy. Sometimes maintainers make bad decisions. We’re all flawed and I think we ought to have humility about it and be willing to reverse ourselves if needed. When I see a ticket like that where people have started to shout at one another, it feels like a cosmic wrong that must be righted. That’s why I put a bunch of effort into getting the change in question reverted. I don’t even use that feature, but it’s the principle of it: you can’t piss off your users for no defensible reason, or you’ll slowly lose all your users and your contributors will burn out and peel away because the negativity makes it no longer a fun project. It’s not a hill worth dying on.

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  5. Nate, thanks for your details about kde.org. I admit not to be informed about all details of the organisation of new development and bug fixing.

    But I decidedly upheld my complaint that the KDE board of directors does not take the optimal steps for the best of the KDE software. I do know that kde.org holds more than half a million € in cash and that the directors of the board happily travel around the world.

    But I am not aware of any decisions regarding an ever more urging program to fix long standing ugly bugs in important applications like Gwenview. There can be not the slightest doubt that the board of directors is entitled to take such steps!

    Like

    1. The board of directors does not determine the technical direction of KDE’s software though, as I mentioned. This is deliberate, and the money is spent on development sprints and conference hosting, not paying developers. Whether this state of affairs is desirable is up for debate, and I personally would like to see the board use that money for paying developers. But that’s another matter. I’m not sure I like the way you phrased “the directors of the board happily travel around the world”. You make it sound like they’re wasting money taking junkets to foreign casinos or something. All that travel is to have face-to-face meetings which are hugely important, and most of the money goes to paying other KDE people for travel expenses, not themselves.

      Your point that Gwenview could use some love is well taken, but the way for this to happen is for someone (maybe you?) to either start working on it, drum up excitement to encourage others to do so, or raise money to hire developers to do it. That how it works.

      Like

        1. That’s a good question, and I don’t know all of the answer. I do know that the money doesn’t get earmarked specifically for KMail. So I guess it’s just for metrics purposes, to see which components people are donating from. But I don’t know if that information is used in any way.

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    1. Censored? Closing a bug report isn’t censorship.

      I’m not super satisfied with the telemetry situation myself, but I think that’s because the data we collect for the people who opt in isn’t actually very useful for anything. So all of this controversy is concerning something that doesn’t really help us much anyway IMO. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, this Reddit thread (https://www.reddit.com/r/kde/comments/f7ojg9/kde_plasma_kuserfeedback_collecting_telemetry/) was censored, so I was afraid that maybe the bug report will be removed…

        Anyway, if telemetry isn’t useful for you anyway, I you should probably remove it ASAP, and issue a public apology. Yes, I know that your telemetry system is 100% ethical and you have nothing to apologize for, but I think you should do it anyway, to hopefully bring back some super-privacy-conscious people whom you’ve alienated. They’re overreacting, sure, but it’s difficult not to in this day and age…

        Like

        1. Well, you can call it censored or you can call it enforce the Reddit content guidelines. I don’t know the original post, but maybe it was just violating those guidelines. Let’s all try to keep factual on such topics, else this might cause bad rumors that simply are unbacked by any fact.

          Apologizing for things there is nothing to apologize for is also bad imho, as it implies that there in fact has been something to apologize for, which could start more not fact backed rumors or used as “proof” for the non fact based rumors that have been out there before. I think trust is earned in different ways.

          Like

          1. Luckily, the Wayback Machine captured the post: https://bit.ly/33xZguw

            I don’t see anything in it that would warrant deletion… Just someone getting overly suspicious over a notification timer. Who can blame them though, especially after sutff like:

            – Google abandoning its “don’t be evil” motto.
            – Mozilla slowly turning into a user-hostile ad company.
            – More and more telemetry and intrusive ads in Windows.
            – Privacy tools like selling out (e.g. Waterfox and PrivateInternetAccess).

            Quote from the post: “We’ll just be the frogs being brought up to a slow boil. We know this tune, have seen this show many times before. There’s always a plan. The time for naivety on this has passed, years ago.”

            That’s what my proposed apology is for, to hopefully assure some of those super-distrustful people that such a thing will never happen to KDE. And even though this magnitude distrustfulness may seem excessive to you, it’s exactly what humankind needs, and should be encouraged rather than condemned.

            Look around. We’re plunging into a cyberpunk dystopia. We must defend privacy to keep whistleblowing, dissent, and resistance possible, or else we’ll lose everything.

            Like

  6. I switched to KDE because of how feature-rich KDE’s applications are and after that I even more liked it afterwards because of all this egalitarian community stuff like elected board, democratic vote on goals and so on. Oh, and I really liked that KDE supported global climate strike.

    Liked by 1 person

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