Open development and the art of community

The first chapter of Jono Bacon’s long awaited ‘The Art of Community’, to be published by O’Reilly later this year, is available for preview. So far the reviewers’ comments have been enthusiastic. I’m not surprised. I have followed Jono’s blog posts for some time and enjoyed most of them. His vast experience as a Community Manager at Ubuntu, combined with an alert and imaginative writing style, makes him one of the most insightful authors writing about the social aspects of open source collaboration.

The first chapter introduces the main themes of the book – collaboration, belonging, trust, social capital, communication – and this is done in an engaging combination of theoretical vignettes and personal accounts drawing on the author’s early experiments with open source. There are a couple of extremely well made points in this chapter, but in particular the importance of fostering a sense of belonging in the process of building an online community grabbed my attention.

Writes Jono:

In the same way that we judge a strong financial economy by prosperity, wealth, and a quality standard of living, belonging is the reward of a strong social economy. An economy is a set of shared concepts and processes that grow and change in an effort to generate a form of capital. In a financial economy, participants put goods and services on the market to generate financial capital. The processes and techniques they use include measuring sales, strategic marketing, enabling ease of access, and so forth. A social economy is the same thing—but we are the product, and the capital is respect and trust. The processes and techniques here are different—open communications mediums, easy access to tools, etc. — but the basic principles are the same.

Building social capital by welcoming new members and helping them develop a sense of being part of the community is a crucial aspect of making it sustainable. This was the subject of an OSS Watch Community and Open Source Development Workshop last year, and Ross alluded to it in an earlier post on software sustainability:

Now that OSS Watch have started to show that closed communities are not required, the next step is to encourage people to develop their software in such a way as to ensure non-community members are empowered to participate. It is these third party contributions that spread the cost of development across multiple financial pots and thus reduces centralized risk. We recognize that policy is all very well but it is practice that matters. The adoption of open development practice requires a significant cultural change, but this is a change that our research shows is desired by enough practitioners to make it viable.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Jono’s book. I’m particularly keen to see if he has anything to say about matching personal and institutional drivers in making the cultural change associated with adopting open source effective.

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