Ubuntu's Jono Bacon: Managing an Open Source Community: Page 2

Posted December 15, 2009

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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I tend to agree with him. Yet, at the same time, I cannot help but notice that members of communities like Debian and the Linux kernel sometimes seem to thrive on a level of abuse that would soon mortally offend me. In fact, the level of invective among kernel developers seems one way that Linus Torvalds' position as absolute dictator is made acceptable, because Torvalds himself is not immune to insults. Somehow, the high level of conflict works.

Responding to this point, Bacon raises the idea that the kernel community interacts this way "because that community is primarily populated by incredibly hardcore developers, who in my experience are generally pretty direct people." By contrast, he suggests that "a community like Open Street Map, which has got a lot more end users, is going to be less direct." So, too, is Creative Commons, whose participants include artists and musicians "who are generally of a less fiery nature." He seems to have a point, but without it, the view of community in The Art of Community can seem too one-sided.

Still another problem with the subjectivity of The Art of Community is that the emphasis is on leading communities, with little discussion of participating as an ordinary member.

"The Art of Community is really written for community managers," Bacon admits. "I wanted to write a book that I could show to other community managers. One thing I'd like to see in subsequent editions is The Art of Community becoming a handbook on how you become a great community member."

For instance, Bacon would like to include more information on the unwritten responsibilities of belonging to an online community. "For example, if you take on an action for something, if you're not going to be able to do it because you're busy, there's an unwritten responsibility that you should let the rest of the community know. Then they can reassign it. If you're a leader, it's stepping down if you haven't got time." Such details would go a long way towards presenting a more detailed picture of the communities that Bacon discusses.

The Issues Today

Another improvement would be a move away from generalities in favor of a discussion of current issues in distributed communities. Talking about his present challenges, Bacon mentions the difficulty of planning in a volunteer community, in which people can come and go, and are under no constraints that might encourage them to complete their work.

Under these circumstances, he says, the twice yearly Ubuntu Development Summits (UDS) used to be better at making plans than following through with them. "UDS would turn into these big idea factories, like the Willie Wonka Chocolate Factory in terms of wondrous ideas and plans about what we could do, but we wouldn't tie that down to specific strategies." Now, he says, he has encourage the idea of detailed road maps in the community, and using Gantt charts and other project management techniques to help realize the plans made at the summit.

"I've got a ton of things I want to write about in the second edition on that specific topic," he says.

Bacon talks, too, of the relative merits of online interaction and face to face meetings, an issue that many projects are dealing with today. Mostly, distributed communities interact online, mainly because traveling can be expensive and difficult. However, he also believes that in person meetings are essential for creating a sense of community.

"People get to reignite those social bonds," he says. "They not only work together, but they also get to play together. Spending time in a bar getting a drink, playing cards with someone, going out, or going ice skating, is so important to helping the community to socially knit together.

"The other thing is, you can get through a lot more content when you're talking and into typing. Talking is way more important than typing, because of the way that we communicate using body language. It's tempting to think that we don't really need that with all the wonderful tools we have on line, but we lose a huge advantage when we don't have that."

At the same time, Bacon prefers summits -- planning sessions -- over conferences, where communication tends to be one way and more formal, as well as bar camps and “unconferences,” where concrete plans tend to be overlooked.

He also raises the problem that meeting in person places tremendous pressure on people, causing some to become aggressive and others to withdraw. "It can bring all this extra pressure on them that they don't have in online communication."

The trouble, of course, with mentioning such current issues is that they may not be so current a few years later, at the end of a book's life cycle. However, even if the particular issues become obsolete, mentioning them would still give readers a stronger sense of the sorts of issues that distributed communities face.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, free download

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