"It's all about building on-ramps," says Paul W. Frields, the Fedora Project Leader. As a community, we tend to be oriented towards getting people involved in the open source process, rather than towards getting everyone to switch from whatever they're using now."
It's an orientation that Frields sees as central to the GNU/Linux distribution's rapid growth over the last five years, as well as the focus in the new Fedora 12 release.
"A lot of people jump to the conclusion that, because there's some polish [in Fedora 12] that we're trying to appeal to the Joe Average kind of user," Frields says. "But the more correct way of saying it is that we want a distribution that works really well for our community members. We're building a community of contributors, as opposed to a community of consumers."
Frields explains, "If you look at any group, there's going to be 80-90% who will just take what they're given. They'll use it, but it's very rare that you get any feedback or participation from those folks. That's just how the consumer mind set works. What we're always trying to do is encourage people, to give them a smooth on-ramp to move from that kind of mind set to the mind set that free and open source software permits of getting involved.
"That getting involved can be as simple as helping someone else with an installation. Or it might be filing a bug when you find a problem with a particular piece of software. By providing those smooth on-ramps, we're always trying to encourage people to become part of the open source process. We're trying to get people to move up from being consumers, people who just take what they're given and trying to turn some percentage of them into participants or contributors."
With this attitude, Frields says, the Fedora community is not especially interested in "getting everyone to switch from whatever they're using now." Instead, the goal is to create a distribution that encourages community contributions and makes getting involved easier.
Asked whether this goal might limit Fedora's growth, Frields disagrees strongly. "When you succeed at building something well for a target audience," he suggests, "Generally those outside that audience are also going to enjoy it more. Your primary focus can't be to try to appeal to everyone, because, in trying to appeal to everyone, you're not going to do a great job of appealing to anyone fully.
"If you look at any of the well-designed gadgets, cars, or homes -- anything that benefits from better polish and integration -- what you'll find is that when those things are built with someone in mind --that is, to appeal to a certain group -- they tend to be very appealing to others as well. People sense that better sense of design, and, and a side effect, more people will give it a try."
According to Frields, this philosophy is responsible for Fedora's steady growth over the last few years. He claims that the number or those who have signed the project's Contributor License Agreement has roughly doubled in the last year to just over 16,000. He also claims similar growth rates for Fedora Ambassadors, the community's grassroots evangelists, Fedora Artwork, and Fedora Docs, which produces the distribution's documentation.
"Team leaders take as a very serious goal that they always have new ways to grow contributions," he says. "And people always have a way to engage and get a sense of ownership of a little part of the project. It gives people that bonding, that satisfaction that what they're doing is important. It not only gives people new skills, but also new ways of collaborating."
The key to this growth, Frields says, is "an accepting community -- making sure that the community is a friendly place, a place where people can come and feel energized, where they can feel positive and can feel secure that what they're doing is going to be accepted by their peers -- accepted, of course, after critical review. It's an open forum where opinions can be bandied about easily, but, at the same time as we do that, it's always important for us to maintain a very civil discourse."
One concrete step that Fedora has taken to maintain that civility is organize a group of monitors that will intervene on a mailing list when the discussion veers from ways and means towards personal attacks. The monitors will try first to get the discussion back on course, but, if that proves impossible, they will suspend discussion for a while in the hopes that it can be resumed later.