The Art of Community

Today, I'm still trying to recover from my week at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON). If you've never had the good fortune of attending OSCON, then I highly recommend trying to attend one in the future. It is the coolest collection of geeks, information, projects, and speakers under one roof. There is now even a free track that allows access to some sessions, OSCamp, the exhibition hall, and of course, one of the most important aspects of the convention, the hallway track. While there, however, there is a distinct feeling of being swept away in a whirlwind of interaction and information. At least for me, it takes a few days upon my return to gain enough perspective on the event.

Now that I've had a few moments to reflect on my recent experience, one of the highlights was my last session "The Art of Community". With a virtual, who's who of open source community leaders, the session offered guidance on how to create a successful community in the form of 5 minute lightning talks. I think that all companies, all groups, all online destinations can draw gems from this session, so I'd like to review some of the highlights.

First off, what the heck is a lightning talk? To answer just that question, Danese Cooper, Open Source Diva from Intel Coporation started off the talks with her response. To find out more information about giving lightning talks, I suggest you try this article. I really like Danese's perspective on this. I believe that part of the art of community is eloquence. The art of communicating clearly and succinctly. She proposes, and I concur, that teaching Lightning Talks to students and junior members of our organizations will improve their ability to communicate clearly. I'd go so far as to propose, that everyone needs to learn these skills, but I digress. Expanding on this concept a little more, lightning talks are almost a perfect way to convey a lot of information in a short amount of time. Since most people lose interest or their ability to concentrate after about 5 minutes, these talks are a welcome change; It certainly beats the all too common "slide after unrelenting slilde" format. Some additional benefits are:

  • It pushes speakers to get to the point (which is what you want to hear anyway)
  • It eliminates the unnecessary digressions, inflations of importance, and puffery (which is what you don't want to hear)
  • And if you do them, they are great practice for the conference schmooze, the elevator pitch, or just plain all-around speaking skills

Continuing on, the rest of this session included lightning talks by Dawn Foster, Mitchell Baker, Josh Bancroft, Zaheda Bhorat, Karl Fogel, Zak Greant, and Geir Magnusson. In what follows, I'll provide a bit of some of the talks, and try to pull everything together at the end.

Karl Fogel
Karl is the author of O'Reilly's "Producing Open Source Software -
How to Run a Successful Free Software Project"
. The book is available at his website in PDF format, if you are interested in reading what he has to say. His basic point was that tools can help keep communities together. This was reinforced by another of the lightning talks given by Josh Bancroft from Intel. A self-professed geek, Josh demonstrated the power of a wiki to provide a single location for people to share their passion. Intel used this approach, to form many small, but meaningful communities on the inside of Intel.

Zak Greant
Zak is currently director of Free Software and Open Source for eZ systems. I met Zak three years ago at my first OSCON, and he has always been friendly and supportive of newbies. With many years in building and sustaining communities, his comments really resonate. From his perspective, there are real unique challenges to communities. A few of those challenges are the tribalism inherent in communities, how to mitigate conflict, how to obtain consensus, and how to build bridges between people. For an organization to successfully build a community it must:

  1. have a principle centered focus, and make sure to publish those ideals;
  2. have executive commitment;
  3. ensure that the company is engaged in the community;
  4. make sure that you make people matter to each other

.
Mitchel Baker
Mitchel is Chief Lizard Wrangler for Mozilla Corporation, and as the leader for Mozilla, she definitely has some experience with communities. She spoke about a recent trend she picked up on from recent corporate inquiries. The general question is "How does Mozilla do it?" Her answer and talk focused on the power of delegation. Specifically, how delegation can give people a feeling of ownership, empowerment, and freedom. In general, she believes that most organizations fail because they do not relinquish control when they delegate. She strongly believes that they should practice the art of "extreme delegation". They should: eliminate micro-management; create room for people to create their own space, and their own ideas; and allow them to take control of the task. She believes that only then will people become emotionally and personally invested in making their mark.

Dawn Foster
Dawn is from Intel, and she was giving her first lightning talk. Her concluding talk focused on Web 2.0 communities with the sub-theme of the blurring of Web2.0 and Free and Open Source Software. In summary she believes that Web2.0 is about less technically experienced people participating, collaborating, and facilitating discussion. In what she sees as an evolution of online communities, where the focus is no longer about the technical aspect but more about discussion; not only consuming content, but also producing content as well. Obviously, blogs are one of the instrumental tools in Web2.0 and creating communities; comments on those blogs are particularly important because they allow the content to improve over time. She summarizes everything by borrowing an infamous phrase from Eric Raymond's Cathedral and the Bazaar, "given enough eyeballs, all content becomes better".

To summarize all of these lightning talks is difficult. There were so many great observations and suggestions made. In one way, I see that they are all sharing from their experience that communities are worth the effort, worth the frustration, and worth accepting the challenge. Perhaps Geir Magnusson, a member of the Apache Software's Geronimo and Harmony project summed it up best. Creating a successful community is creating a culture for that community, and helping it become self-managed. Then getting out of the way and letting the community lead itself. Here's to more organizations starting, building, and then sitting back to enjoy the ride communities offer.

Kevin Shockey - Mon, 2006-07-31 16:06.

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Great Summary

I was so wrapped up in orchestrating the lightning talks that I didn't have time to take any of my own notes! Thanks!

Dawn Foster (not verified) - Fri, 2006-08-04 17:50.