Notes On Art Of Community, Chapter 1

Free recall quick notes on The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation. Written by Jono Bacon. Community manager for Ubuntu, the Linux distro. Reading part of book club at Status.


Bacon starts off by noticing how bizarre it is that people who have never met in real life and don’t get any financial rewards spend so much of their time on a open source project or community. Gives example of a guy called Ben in England who participated in his forum every day for four years, initially consuming information and later producing it. Becoming integral part of the community. This wasn’t a random socially inept person, he had a normal job, wife and kids, went to church and what not, and in person seemed like a normal social human being. So why did he spend so much time on this open source community? Belonging. At least that’s Bacon’s thesis. A strong sense of belonging.

Bacon talks about how open source communities have a shared ethos of collaboration-driven progress. Not too dissimilar to markets, except the competition is for ideas and code, and the capital is social capital. Goodwill, reputation, respect, etc. Code as currency - contributor’s parting with their chunk of code in exchange for a better functioning piece of software.

A lot of what Bacon is writing is aimed at community managers. But obviously it is relevant for every participant in a community.

When he started with Linux it was very rough around the edges. But people had a shared belief in it and there was a sense of opportunity. A belief in that they had the tools necessary and that the goal was a worthwhile one. This shared sense of goal is what created a sense of belonging.

The importance of stories and tales in the community. Shared experiences.

Failure modes for community managers. Ego. Control freaks. Respect turning into entitlement. Theory over action.

Example of a meetup where there was a train strike. A sense of hopelessness and rage as the whole conference was about to go off the rails. Immidiately the community sprung to action, bottom-up, with alternative planning. Informing speakers, coordinates ride-share programs etc. This part of shared belief in that the community as a whole can make things happen and that it is worthwhile to do so. Agency; opposite of haplessness.


Thoughts:

This is just the inital chapter, but it would be nice to see more rigor in what he sees as success and failure for open source communities. Right now it strikes me more as a loose selection of, no doubt important and relevant, anecdotes. But how is what he is talking about true in other communities? And what happens when these principles are not adhered to? Without thinking too hard I can come up with some communities that have had a different take on things, and not everyting he writes strikes me as aha, this is indeed the key to a successful community.

I agree that it the aspect of belonging is an important one though. Especially if there are multiple layers of involvement. Does this happen naturally or is this something that has to be actively fostered? It is certainly a strength in open source communities compared with closed companies. The sense of goodwill and amoeba-like community that surrounded many open source communities like Linux, Emacs, Clojure, etc.

The sense of belief and agency that exists also strikes me as strong. You can fix things by getting your hands dirty and writing code, or tutorials or whatever. This is not always the case though, a lot of communities also feel hopeless in the face of complexity and the fact that everything is broken. At least it is clear that this is the case, and it’s more a matter of fixing things and not making them worse. Generally, a strong - market-induced, in a way - preference for action over theory.