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Memes and Mythmaking

What I saw around me was a community which had evolved the most effective software-development method ever and didn't know it! That is, an effective practice had evolved as a set of customs, transmitted by imitation and example, without the theory or language to explain why the practice worked.

In retrospect, lacking that theory and that language hampered us in two ways. First, we couldn't think systematically about how to improve our own methods. Second, we couldn't explain or sell the method to anyone else.

At the time, I was only thinking about the first effect. My only intention in writing the paper was to give the hacker culture an appropriate language to use internally, to explain itself to itself. So I wrote down what I had seen, framed as a narrative and with appropriately vivid metaphors to describe the logic that could be deduced behind the customs.

There was no really fundamental discovery in CatB. I did not invent any of the methods it describes. What is novel in that paper is not the facts but those metaphors and the narrative -- a simple, powerful story that encouraged the reader to see the facts in a new way. I was attempting a bit of memetic engineering on the hacker culture's generative myths.

I first gave the full paper at Linux Kongress, in May 1997 in Bavaria. The fact that it was received with rapt attention and thunderous applause by an audience in which there were very few native speakers of English seemed to confirm that I was onto something. But, as it turned out, the sheer chance that I was seated next to Tim O'Reilly at the Thursday night banquet set in motion a more important train of consequences.

As a long-time admirer of O'Reilly's institutional style, I had been looking forward to meeting Tim for some years. We had a wide-ranging conversation (much of it exploring our common interest in classic science fiction) which led to an invitation for me to give CatB at Tim's Perl Conference later in the year.

Once again, the paper was well-received -- with cheers and a standing ovation, in fact. I knew from my email that since Bavaria, word about CatB had spread over the Internet like a fire in dry grass. Many in the audience had already read it, and my speech was less a revelation of novelty for them than an opportunity to celebrate the new language and the consciousness that went with it. That standing ovation was not so much for my work as for the hacker culture itself -- and rightly so.

Though I didn't know it, my experiment in memetic engineering was about to light a bigger fire. Some of the people for whom my speech was genuinely novel were from Netscape Communications, Inc. And Netscape was in trouble.

Netscape, a pioneering Internet-technology company and Wall Street highflier, had been targeted for destruction by Microsoft. Microsoft rightly feared that the open Web standards embodied by Netscape's browser might lead to an erosion of the Redmond giant's lucrative monopoly on the PC desktop. All the weight of Microsoft's billions, and shady tactics that would later trigger an antitrust lawsuit, were deployed to crush the Netscape browser.

For Netscape, the issue was less browser-related income (never more than a small fraction of their revenues) than maintaining a safe space for their much more valuable server business. If Microsoft's Internet Explorer achieved market dominance, Microsoft would be able to bend the Web's protocols away from open standards and into proprietary channels that only Microsoft's servers would be able to service.

Within Netscape there was intense debate about how to counter the threat. One of the options proposed early on was to throw the Netscape browser source open -- but it was a hard case to argue without strong reasons to believe that doing so would prevent Internet Explorer dominance.

I didn't know it at the time, but CatB became a major factor in making that case. Through the winter of 1997, as I was working on the material for my next paper, the stage was being set for Netscape to break the rules of the commercial game and offer my tribe an unprecedented opportunity.

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Next: The Road to Mountain Up: The Revenge of the Previous: Beyond Brooks's Law

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Last updated: 1999-08-06