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Building an open community: a new opportunity for scholarly projects

Julien Dorra

Texte intégral

"However, the magnitude of our dream is too large for just us, and we need you"1

Introduction - Why build open communities today?

1In the past decade, we have seen the rise of incredibly successful projects built by a new form of collective effort: the open community. Open Communities are different to traditional, locally anchored communities. But they are also different to multinational organizations. They are more akin to consciously directed ecosystems – ecosystems with a mission.

2The most famous examples of successful open communities are Linux, Wikipedia, Drupal, and more recently OpenStreetMap.

3My experience with open communities started in 2008 when I joined the French Drupal community. Drupal is an open source web-based content management system (CMS).

4During the 2 years in which I participated in the Drupal France community, it grew from a dozen contributors to many more, allowing the community to organize a 900-person event in September 2009. The Drupal community is historically very horizontal, with no single company or individual being the main driver of the Drupal product.

5We should note that this absence of centralized control is not a given for every open source product: Wordpress is another successful open source CMS, but its design and roadmap is controlled by the company that built it, Automattic. In that sense the Drupal ecosystem of individuals and organizations is closer to the Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap ecosystems than to the Wordpress ecosystem – even though the Wordpress and Drupal CMS are similar, competing products.

6In 2011 I was part of a small group of seven that started Museomix2, an event where people with a diverse set of skills and talents gather in a museum, and test new ways of experiencing museums in 3 days using a wide range of tools and technologies. For the third Museomix edition in November 2013, more than 800 individuals participated in 6 simultaneous Museomix events in 3 countries. A total of 47 prototypes, new museum experiences made real, were built in just 3 days – all thanks to the decentralized, global effort of hundreds of people.

7Launching and growing Museomix at such a fast pace would not have been possible 10 years ago, when most non-tech people were not connected to each other via the Internet. It would not have been possible before the large scale adoption of mainstream social networks. In retrospect, we realize that many projects did not take off because it was incredibly difficult to reach the right people.

8The rise of public personal communication –individuals publicly communicating– makes it easier to reach out to potential contributors, and for potential contributors to find a community that suits their own purposes. As a consequence, new open communities that go beyond the historical mission of producing open source software are starting to appear.

9Open communities make entirely new endeavours possible, as demonstrated by OpenStreetMap, Wikipedia or Museomix. They also make these endeavours sustainable: Linux is 23 years old and Wikipedia is 13. OpenStreetMap is 10 years old and as of early 2014 is still entirely volunteer-based. These projects are not as old as some century-old corporations or charities. But they are a continuous reminder that communities based only on desire and agency can last as long or longer than a closed project.

10Building active local communities was, and still is, incredibly difficult. It involves going door to door, and engaging people one by one.

11Starting an open community can be considered easier, because it is based on the realization that the community already exists in latent form. When I talk about this latent form of community with someone, I describe it like this: “There are people all over the world who want to build this project with you, but they just do not know it yet. Reach out to them.”

12At its most basic, building an open community is using the Internet and events to turn a latent community into a real community. It is not without effort, and many failures. One of the classic pitfalls is trying to manage the community when it first needs to be built.

A new framework for growing a project

  • 3  Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, New York: Random Hous (...)
  • 4  Christophe Jibard, Action collective et intervention communautaire Des habitants, bénévoles et mem (...)

13Community building is a not new technique. Saul Alinsky has dedicated his life to building local communities that empower people, and his 1971 book Rules for Radicals3 is the basis of contemporary community organizing techniques. Alinsky’s techniques are based on conflict, but there is also a less conflictual form of community organizing, where the goal is oriented toward social reconciliation more than civic rights, as exemplified by the work of Christophe Jibard in Paris.4

14As community building started to combine with the Internet and the web, it transformed into a way to launch and grow a new type of project: knowledge-oriented, technological, creative projects. Most of these are extremely useful in supporting research: maps, encyclopedias, content management systems.

15The key to open community building is creating an ecosystem rather than an organization. It means fostering a balanced environment where both individuals and organizations work together toward a common goal. It also means that agents of the ecosystem may have diverging interests.

16What does open exactly mean here? It essentially means two things: first, the community is built with anyone who wants to be a part of it. Second, everyone, even outsiders, shares ownership of the community; or better said: no one owns the ecosystem.

The Open community compared to other ways to build a project

17For a better understanding, we can contrast open communities with the most common methods used to start and frame the organizational aspect of a new project.

18When starting a project, a creator tends to choose one of three ways to build it: the artist’s way; the entrepreneur’s way; the activist’s way.

19In the artist’s way, the project creator acts mostly alone, maybe with some help from friends, a skilled craftsman, a computer programmer or other assistants. When acting in this way, you generally use your own resources and try to recoup some of that personal investment later. The artist builds the project, tries to give it exposure and mostly leaves it alone after that.

20In the entrepreneur’s way, the project creator starts with select partners, growing a single organization around the project – either a for profit organization, or a non-profit organization. The entrepreneur recruits people to help the project grow. The project is the organization – and the organization is the project.

21The activist’s way starts with a small group of like-minded peers, growing a group to support a cause or a social need. The activist’s main job is to convince people that the project is important. Admission to and exclusion from the group are subject to rules, but also to the strict adoption of the group’s message. There can be no ambiguity around the message (in contrast to the artist’s way, where ambiguity is often found.)

22The artist’s way; the entrepreneur’s way; the activist’s way. These three ways of managing a project work well for a wide range of endeavours.

23Interestingly, these traditional ways share a common premise: for the project to succeed, it is necessary to manage the scarcity of resources, probably for the entire life of the project. At any point in time there is a fixed budget and a fixed team. How could it be any other way? Thus certain goals might seem totally unattainable.

24The open community introduces a new premise: the need to manage a surplus of resources. There will be too many people, doing too many things, in too many places. Some of this surplus work will have to be cancelled, deleted or gone back over. An example of this is the edits in Wikipedia: as much energy and time is spent deleting edits or reverting to previous versions as creating new ones.

25This counter-intuitive premise changes the way resource scarcity is addressed. Successful open community builders are always thinking about how to actively create surplus by bringing in more people to the community.

Four principles for building your community

26Many artistic, entrepreneurial, or activist projects fail. Like them, open communities can and do fail. It is still early in the life of open communities as a new social and ideological construct, and studies on how they start, succeed and fail exist but they are not comprehensive. However, there is enough history to draw lessons from the successes, giving new communities a better chance of starting up effectively.

27Empirically, we can distinguish four principles: the open invitation; onboarding contributors; focusing the community; building a commons.

An open invitation to build together

28For people to join your community they have to be invited publicly and openly.

29You should publish a short, simple call. How would you invite people to join your project in a casual, but serious conversation? That’s probably how you should write your manifesto.

30Putting an open invitation out to join and build together is the first, necessary step to turn your project into an open community.

31A good way to start would be to lay down the why, what and how of your community effort.

32Why: The frustration, the issue you want to clarify. The current state of affairs, and what’s lacking. You should be precise about the issue you want to solve, so that people that share your vision can self-identify with the issue. For OpenStreetMap it was the frustration of not being able to access public mapping data.

33The why generally embeds both selfish and altruistic reasons. OpenStreetMap contributors are happy to build a better map of their own town, but also to share it with the world.

  • 5  OpenStreetMaps Mapping Parties

34What: The events, the focal points. You want to focus people on the project, and you need to give the community a way to assemble. For OpenStreetMap it was Mapping Parties.5

35The what provides a deadline for engagement. Active communities set up multiple production events during the year, as a way of focusing the community on deadlines and milestones.

36How: The way people are going contribute. For OpenStreetMap, you can help by adding and correcting geographical data and you are encouraged to do so.

37The how gives a clear picture of what people can do, what you invite them to produce together.

  • 6  Birth of Linux

38An invitation to join and contribute can take many forms. An open platform is an invitation, as in Wikipedia’s case. Or the source code published can be an invitation, for example with Linux or Drupal. Depending on your project, you can accompany your call by something tangible, something you have already accomplished: source code, pictures, data, a common platform. Sometimes the most humble call starts a great, long lasting project, which is the case of Linus Torvald’s first public emails about Linux: “I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu)”.6

39Whatever your project is producing, explicitly inviting people to contribute is the first step to making them care.

Users, Contributors

40To understand community building, we need to understand the distinction between users and contributors and how they relate to our community.

41People who contribute to the common goals of a community are contributors. They may contribute independently of any affiliation, or be part of various organizations that support their active contributions. Those that use the products built by the contributors are users. A healthy community will grow in number both in term of users and contributors, but users alone cannot sustain a community. Your community needs to grow in terms of contributors.

Paradoxical growth

42A community is always growing and shrinking at the same time. Most people will leave the community at some point. And do not expect members of the community to tell you in advance: they will leave without notice, sometimes without even themselves realizing they are leaving the community for good.

43We call this sudden change the baby effect – or more grimly, the bus effect. Things happen, lives change, and people’s priorities change too.

44Your goal is to continuously add new members to the community so it grows faster than it shrinks. Of course you also want to create an environment where active members stay long enough and do not suffer from community fatigue. To create such an environment, you should give everyone a view of what everyone else is doing, using tools such as forums and mailing lists, and always empower each member to act autonomously instead of deciding for them how they have to do things for the community.

Turn users into contributors

  • 7  Markus Krötzsch, "Out of the Lab, into the Wild: Growing Open Source Communities around Academic P (...)

45“The plural of 'user' is not 'community'. The former may grow in numbers, the latter does not grow by itself”7

46To convert users of your project into contributors you have to treat each user as a potential contributor. That means leaving the door open to even the smallest of contributions. If a distant user of your community product is willing to go and talk about it in their own organization, encourage them to do so, and treat that action in every way as a con distant to the goals of owoals ;,ities ay atk/arane dontri,/spasers oeople that share youaskst pehe are leaving the community for good.

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