Community Leadership Summit Report

Posted on July 19, 2009

Held in San Jose, prior to OSCON, the Community Leadership Summit, a 2 day unconferance kicked off today. Sadly I’m unable to return tomorrow.

The summit was more productive than I expected. It was a sizable audience, with 135 people registered and about that in attendance. With 8 sessions going each time slot it evened out nicely, with enough people participating in each discussion, but not so many as to discourage participation. It was an interesting mix of both technical communities (Firefox, Ubuntu, OpenSolaris, MySQL, Drupal, etc) and social communities (OpenStreetMap, WikiAnswers, O’Reilly, etc.)

What amazed me was just how similar the problems faced by both technical and social communities are. Sure, there are differences in the details, but when you step back and look at the big picture they are very alike. How do you encourage participation? How do you deal with abusive individuals? How do you grow the community without disenfranchising “old timers”?

I couldn’t help but feel like, at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to figure out how to herd cats. None of the discussions that arose were actually new problems, rather they are age old problems in a new context. If you go to almost any church you’d hear the same list or problems, just on a different scale. I’m sure the same could be said for any reasonably organized collection of individuals.

One thing that is different, however, is the unseen community. The community managers present were all, I’m glad to report, very aware of the fact that for every 1 person making themselves known there are 9 others that are watching entirely silent. This is evident when you compare the number of downloads a project gets per day versus the number of forum or email list messages per day. So there is this large body of users who you want to reach out to and are watching, to some degree, which you wish to somehow get feedback from or pull closer or at the very least not irritate. It seem that the greatest concern about abusive individuals was not so much against the participating community but rather this unseen community, who are only further dissuaded from participating.

Simon Phipps lead a useful discussion which highlighted the 4 layers of community. He divided community into: “code developers”, “extenders”, “Deployer-developers”, and “users”. This is actually an idea he pitched some time ago, but in events like this can be a helpful reminder to avoid the temptation to lump everyone into a single one-size-fits-all definition of “community”. That said, the conference attendees seemed predominantly focused on the “users” aspect of the community and so the idea didn’t resonate as much as I’m sure he’d have liked.

I found it also interesting that the focus was on community management and not so much on community evangelism. That is, people wanted to steward the growing communities they already have. This is very different from events such as this I’ve attended in the past, where the focus was very much on attracting a community in the first place. That is, I think, a good sign.

One of the most interesting sessions was with regard to communities and cultures. We discussed the differences in demographic between MySpace and Facebook, why a social networking site is popular in one country but not another, and how language and culture effect community. The latter discussion was illuminating….

In the context of community, the world is not defined by countries and continents, but rather by languages and cultures. Several examples have shown that while technology can go some ways to reduce the impact of language barriers the more complex issues of culture remain. It is therefore necessary, although unfortunate, to allow communities to form around these languages independent of each other. The question then becomes, how do you create a community for a language group you do not know. And the answer is, I realize in a new way, universities. There you will find young people who are more likely to know english, savvy with technology, and eager to get involved with something especially involving a leadership role. So if you, say, want to start a community in Mongolia, how do you do it? Seek out the universities and put your effort there.

So, in all, I think the event was a great success and I’m glad I participated. The format was perfect for bouncing ideas around and getting feedback from other experienced managers. Catching up with old friends didn’t hurt either. A big thanks to Jono Bacon for organizing and pulling off a great event.