A community needs something to do

Reading Amber Graner’s post about Tuesday’s meeting of the Community Council, I recognised a feeling that I also had when I stopped being an active member of the community in January this year. At that time I felt depleted of the enthusiasm for the community that once flew through my veins. What made my enthusiasm go away?

Apart from changes in my personal life, I was also affected by a sense of purposelessness. I had no idea what I was doing in the community anymore, so I just quit. I feel that this is a general problem in the community. A successful and happy community needs something to do. It needs a responsibility, something it can focus on. For the greatest part of the five years that I have been an active part of the Ubuntu community, I felt part of a group that was working together on creating the best distribution. There was a clear goal: making the best operating system of them all.

The difference with today is that the primacy of innovation, of change, appeared to be much more in the community back then. We were all excited about the upcoming changes and the direction we were heading towards, because we all knew what those changes and directions were. For people to be excited about something, they need to know what to expect.

Ubuntu has matured enormously. Canonical has acquired so many skilled people that I do not fear for the quality of Ubuntu. It is only going to be better. However, that maturation has come with a price: as Canonical moved more and more to an Apple-style secrecy surrounding its plans, the community has been robbed from the vital basking in the glory of the upcoming changes. Because of the way the plans are announced, the community also doesn’t always feel them to be theirs.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. I believe that Canonical’s approach will probably lead to better designs. However, the atmosphere in the community needs to be improved if we want to keep everyone motivated and give the people a sense of purpose. Currently, the responsibility of the community is quite uncertain. On the one hand, Canonical makes it appear in its communications that the community has more influence than it actually has. It says that all employees are community members, whereas many are in fact not. It decides many things on its own, but then says it involves the community. But Canonical seems to steer the Ubuntu project on its own.

I do not disagree with the way Ubuntu is run. However, I do believe that it is vital that the truth is not denied, like the political ‘leaders’ of Europe currently do when talking about Greece. Saying that Ubuntu is created by the community does not make that true. Stop it. Honesty will improve a lot, because it will reduce unrealistic expectations.

With the fallacy of the community running the project removed, the community does need something to replace that. To return to the beginning of my post, what I believe is causing the leadership lethargy that was mentioned in the Community Council, is uncertainty about the responsibility of the community. It should be made clear exactly what role the community plays in creating Ubuntu. What decisions can it make? What can it contribute? What is the reach of the authority of the Community Council over the project? Once that is clear, the roles of the different leaders can be defined within that responsibility. Then they know what their purpose is. Having a purpose, having influence motivates people.

Somewhat related: maybe it would be a good idea to make in every team somewhat responsible for community and contribution management. For example, if you as a community volunteer contribute code to the desktop, who will look after you? Who will make sure that your work doesn’t go to waste? Such a change would also take of stress from the shoulders of the community team, which should not be used for such wide purposes.

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  1. You know, its absolutely possible to build a community around _just_ product consumption where the community has no input in development or strategic planning in any obvious way. There are many real world examples of that.

    The Apple user community is a community. A strong one based entirely on the activity of product consumption. They aren't asked or invited to participate in the development process. They are asked to consume solidly built products and they oblige with sincere enthusiasm for the opportunity to _purchase_ things.

    Fan communities for tv shows or book authors or musical performers are also completely valid types of communities..based again primarily on the act of consumption and not on decision making nor any creative control.

    And in all of those real examples _communities_ have zero say in how the products/services/works are developed. In fact in all those cases those self organizing communities are seldom really been asked or invited to be part of that development or creation process. Product consumption and the advocacy that others also purchase and consume the product is more than enough of an activity to form a community around. A seat at the decision making table is not a requirement at all.


    1. True, but those communities do have a role, a responsibility: consumption and creating connections between various users. Without a defined goal, the community would be adrift.

      I would find it sad, though, if the Ubuntu community were to move to such a state. Not that I ever expect it to become like that.

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