Thoughts on "ecosystems"

Posted on Sun 16 December 2012 in blog • 2 min read

Over the past couple of years, it seems that the term ecosystem is being broadly applied to what we previously called a community. I don’t like that, and here’s why.

The origin of the term ecosystem, when applied to the environment in which a software project is being developed, used and promoted, is unknown, at least to the best of my knowledge. Some say that it was Brian Aker who first spoke of “the MySQL ecosystem”, and it seemed rather fitting at the time. Presently though, it seems there’s ecosystems everywhere: the Linux ecosystem, the OpenStack ecosystem, the Python ecosystem, you name it.

And it annoys me.

It annoys me not in the way marketing drone babbling annoys me, like when someone waxes lyrical about synergies or paradigm shifts — that’s the kind of fluff you automatically filter out and disregard, a bit like page numbers in the slide decks of presenters stuck in the 20th century. But the ecosystem thing is frequently used also by developers and users, the actual movers and shakers, in the way we would previously use community.

Now let’s look for a moment at how a community works. A community is governed by rules and morals. Those can be explicit, as written-down laws, covenants or contracts. Much more commonly though, they are implicit: everybody understands them, everybody is expected to abide by them, and if you break them, you’re being shunned — but there’s no requirement to write these rules down.

When we think about communities, most will naturally associate this with a large group of people, like a clan or tribe, maybe a few hundred or even a few thousand individuals. Puny, right? We need something grander, something that alludes to hundreds or thousands of species with maybe millions of individuals playing a part. Let’s pick a term: ecosystem. Yay! Problem solved. Waaaay bigger than a community. So much more awe-inspiring.

But guess what: an ecosystem is fundamentally amoral. In an ecosystem, there is no right or wrong — other than survival being right, and if it happens to be at everyone else’s expense, that doesn’t make it wrong. From the inside perspective of an ecosystem, if an invasive species intrudes and steamrolls the entire habitat, so be it: it just changed the ecosystem. Nature shrugs. Nature also shrugs at parasites, disease, deception, camouflage, poison, and gangs of predators collaborating with swift and deadly force to mercilessly kill a defenseless herbivore.

Now you’re welcome to call me out on my naïveté, and point out that it is precisely those things that happen in business every day. I am acutely aware of that. I believe, however, we ought to consider them evils, and some may consider them necessary evils at times. They shouldn’t the foundations on which we build our communities.

Words matter. I think we should use them wisely.

This article originally appeared on my blog on the website (now defunct).