Meritocracy sounds idealistic in the abstract. But the trouble is, it is very rarely abstract. Merit has to be defined before it is recognized, and the FOSS community is no exception.
Founded around code, the FOSS community continues to place the most value on writing code, even though many large projects now involve testing, documentation writing, translation, art, and technical support as well. Although efforts to change this orientation exist in many projects, such as Fedora and Drupal, the bias remains -- in most projects, you are still more likely to learn the names of developers or hear them speak at conferences than anyone else.
To a certain extent, this bias is justified. After all, without the code, FOSS projects wouldn't exist. Yet the success of the project as a whole can be determined as much by other contributions as by the code itself.
Moreover, as Kirrily Robert, blogging as Skud, points out, even if some contributions are considered more important than others, that does not mean that they should be ignored altogether.
For instance, the best person to write documentation might be a project head, but having them add documentation to their duties is not the best use of their time. Instead, having a less knowledgeable person write documentation is probably a better use of everyone's time. In such a case, the documentation writer deserves credit both for providing documentation and for freeing the project head for other concerns. Yet such contributions frequently go unacknowledged in many FOSS projects.
Similarly, the idea that merit is noticed and rewarded is a comforting idea in modern industrial culture. I suspect, though, that it is especially comforting in FOSS circles, where many identify themselves as introverts, if not self-diagnosed cases of Asperger syndrome.
Yet is merit is always recognized in FOSS? Talking about some of the barriers to women's participation in FOSS, Noirin Shirley writes:
Generally, at best, a meritocracy turns very quickly into a merit-and-confidence/pushiness-ocracy. Good work doesnt win you influence, good work thats pushed in others faces, or at the very least, good work of which others are regularly reminded wins you influence. And thats where women fall down.
What Shirley is suggesting is that, the ability to make yourself visible on discussion lists and chat channels and at conferences, is at least as important as the quality and frequency of your contributions. Since women tend to be culturally conditioned not to push themselves forward, many are at a disadvantage in a FOSS project (and so, too, by extension, are diffident men). If they cannot learn at least a degree of self-promotion, then their ideas may be unheard, under-valued, or dismissed.
Conversely, by the same logic, some people in FOSS projects may become prominent less because of what they do than because they are outgoing or aggressive (I can think of some examples, but giving them would amount to a personal attack).
Just as demagogues may subvert democracy, so self-promotion may subvert meritocracy. If a project is not careful, it could easily find itself accepting contributions based less on quality than on contributors' visibility or ability to push themselves forward.
In The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. suggest that meritocracy in the United States is influenced by what they call "social gravity" -- factors such as class and education that can help or prevent people being recognized for their contributions.
I suggest that social gravity is also at work in the FOSS community -- not just because it is a product of modern industrial society, but because of factors unique to the community. Acknowledging this social gravity may not be pleasant, but doing so does not suggest that FOSS meritocracy is unworkable or applied hypocritically. Nor does it denigrate the work of FOSS's contributors.
Instead, recognizing that social gravity exists can be the first step towards making FOSS's meritocracy work better.
One suggestion that might help comes from Kirrily Robert. Noting that female musicians are more likely to be hired in blind auditions, when the gender of applicants is unknown, Robert suggests that blind submissions might remove the biases in the judging of contributions. She is talking specifically about increasing the contributions of women, but blind submissions might also assure that only merit was applied to all contributions.
Of course, this is only one suggestion. If you want FOSS to be completely meritocratic, then the community needs to ask itself some hard questions.
For instance, what other means might reduce the influence of self-promotion? To ensure that paid workers do not start from a more privileged position than volunteers? Can merit be redefined so that it no longer refers simply to code, but to the overall success of the project?
Addressing issues like these will not dilute the principle of merit. Instead, answering them can strengthen the main principle of FOSS, making sure that it is more evenly applied. And that, surely, is something that any supporter of FOSS should want to see.