Roger Whittaker

View Roger Whittaker's profile on LinkedIn

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

"The Art of Community" Review

Friday 19th March 2010

Here's my review (from the latest UKUUG Newsletter) of Jono Bacon's book.

The Art of Community by Jono Bacon
published by O'Reilly Media
ISBN: 978-0-596-15671-8
400 pages
£ 30.99

Jono Bacon is perhaps almost uniquely qualified to write this book. He came to Linux as a student, with no prior knowledge of Unix, initially as an end-user "clueless at the prompt" as an old Linux Journal column's title so nicely put it. (His description of his first steps with Linux rang a bell with me: wondering what to do next when seeing darkstar login: on the screen after installing Slackware for the first time.)

What inspired him were the possibilities he saw in the open source development model: he saw the power of the communities that were creating Linux, KDE and other projects and was convinced of their long-term viability.

That conviction led him to a life in Linux and Open Source software: as a freelance journalist, a LUG organiser, as a founder of the LUGRadio and LUGRadio Live, as inspirer of Jokosher, and to a full-time job at Open Advantage and now (since 2006) for Canonical as the Ubuntu Community Manager.

He has come a long way in the last ten years or so, but throughout that time his main focus has been on the communities that he has been a part of and how to help them to work as effectively as possible. Although the book draws heavily on his own experience, it is far more than (as I admit I feared it might be) a book of anecdotes or personal success stories: he has thought deeply about the issues involved and articulates his conclusions clearly and thoughtfully but in unpretentious, entertaining and readable language. He also writes frankly and honestly about some of the mistakes he has made in the past and what he has learned from them.

Although such communities can be self-organising and self-perpetuating, they can also self-destruct. Understanding the dynamics of communities is valuable for anyone who values the output of a community that they belong to, but particularly for anyone who aspires to be a leader or guide.

The main message of the book is that creating and sustaining a community that does something useful is both hard work and requires a lot of deep thought. The successes of Linux and many open source software projects as well as Wikipedia and other high profile online communities have created an atmosphere in which crowdsourcing has become a buzz-word and there have been failures as well as successes particularly among attempts to create living communities around products or projects that were previously managed internally by corporations. This fact in itself shows the need for an understanding of the art of community.

Jono notes some of the necessary conditions for success: open communications, fair appreciation and licensing of work, low barriers to entry and above all belief in the shared aims of the community. Among the pitfalls he mentions are undirected and inconclusive discussions about detail (including bikeshedding and resource fetishism -- look those terms up if you need to). He stresses the importance of choosing communications media that make a good fit with the types of community members they are aimed at. He discusses the best ways of dealing with and (better) avoiding whenever possible the inevitable conflicts that will arise, and distinguishing between the genuinely destructive or poisonous personalities and others whose modes of communication may be a mask for misunderstandings that can be overcome.

Every section of the book is illustrated by examples of what has and has not worked in practice. As the author points out early on, the knowledge that this book covers is soft science (maybe even at some level common sense), but we have all seen enough examples of failure in these areas to know that getting it right (particularly with online global communities of geeks) is not easy and requires both thought and experience. Jono has done that thinking and has that experience.

The book is published under a Creative Commons (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike) licence and the entire text can be downloaded in its entirety as a PDF from the book's web site. But if you are interested in the subject matter I would urge you to buy a paper copy of the book, both to encourage publishers to publish materials that are freely licensed and because this is a book you will want to idly pick up and dip into from time to time, something you are much less likely to do with a PDF file on your desktop.