Canonical Voices

Posts tagged with 'economics-of-community'

Michael Hall

Recognition is like money, it only really has value when it’s being passed between one person and another. Otherwise it’s just potential value, sitting idle.  Communication gives life to recognition, turning it’s potential value into real value.

As I covered in my previous post, Who do you contribute to?, recognition doesn’t have a constant value.  In that article I illustrated how the value of recognition differs depending on who it’s coming from, but that’s not the whole story.  The value of recognition also differs depending on the medium of communication.

communication_triangleOver at the Community Leadership Knowledge Base I started documenting different forms of communication that a community might choose, and how each medium has a balance of three basic properties: Speed, Thoughtfulness and Discoverability. Let’s call this the communication triangle. Each of these also plays a part in the value of recognition.

Speed

Again, much like money, recognition is something that is circulated.  It’s usefulness is not simply created by the sender and consumed by the receiver, but rather passed from one person to another, and then another.  The faster you can communicate recognition around your community, the more utility you can get out of even a small amount of it. Fast communications, like IRC, phone calls or in-person meetups let you give and receive a higher volume of recognition than slower forms, like email or blog posts. But speed is only one part, and faster isn’t necessarily better.

Thoughtfulness

Where speed emphasizes quantity, thoughtfulness is a measure of the quality of communication, and that directly affects the value of recognition given. Thoughtful communications require consideration upon both receiving and replying. Messages are typically longer, more detailed, and better presented than those that emphasize speed. As a result, they are also usually a good bit slower too, both in the time it takes for a reply to be made, and also the speed at which a full conversation happens. An IRC meeting can be done in an hour, where an email exchange can last for weeks, even if both end up with the same word-count at the end.

Discoverability

The third point on our communication triangle, discoverability, is a measure of how likely it is that somebody not immediately involved in a conversation can find out about it. Because recognition is a social good, most of it’s value comes from other people knowing who has given it to whom. Discoverability acts as a multiplier (or divisor, if done poorly) to the original value of recognition.

There are two factors to the discoverability of communication. The first, accessibility, is about how hard it is to find the conversation. Blog posts, or social media posts, are usually very easy to discover, while IRC chats and email exchanges are not. The second factor, longevity, is about how far into the future that conversation can still be discovered. A social media post disappears (or at least becomes far less accessible) after a while, but an IRC log or mailing list archive can stick around for years. Unlike the three properties of communication, however, these factors to discoverability do not require a trade off, you can have something that is both very accessible and has high longevity.

Finding Balance

Most communities will have more than one method of communication, and a healthy one will have a combination of them that compliment each other. This is important because sometimes one will offer a more productive use of your recognition than another. Some contributors will respond better to lots of immediate recognition, rather than a single eloquent one. Others will respond better to formal recognition than informal.  In both cases, be mindful of the multiplier effect that discoverability gives you, and take full advantage of opportunities where that plays a larger than usual role, such as during an official meeting or when writing an article that will have higher than normal readership.

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Michael Hall

When you contribute something as a member of a community, who are you actually giving it to? The simple answer of course is “the community” or “the project”, but those aren’t very specific.  On the one hand you have a nebulous group of people, most of which you probably don’t even know about, and on the other you’ve got some cold, lifeless code repository or collection of web pages. When you contribute, who is that you really care about, who do you really want to see and use what you’ve made?

In my last post I talked about the importance of recognition, how it’s what contributors get in exchange for their contribution, and how human recognition is the kind that matters most. But which humans do our contributors want to be recognized by? Are you one of them and, if so, are you giving it effectively?

Owners

The owner of a project has a distinct privilege in a community, they are ultimately the source of all recognition in that community.  Early contributions made to a project get recognized directly by the founder. Later contributions may only get recognized by one of those first contributors, but the value of their recognition comes from the recognition they received as the first contributors.  As the project grows, more generations of contributors come in, with recognition coming from the previous generations, though the relative value of it diminishes as you get further from the owner.

Leaders

After the project owner, the next most important source of recognition is a project’s leaders. Leaders are people who gain authority and responsibility in a project, they can affect the direction of a project through decisions in addition to direct contributions. Many of those early contributors naturally become leaders in the project but many will not, and many others who come later will rise to this position as well. In both cases, it’s their ability to affect the direction of a project that gives their recognition added value, not their distance from the owner. Before a community can grown beyond a very small size it must produce leaders, either through a formal or informal process, otherwise the availability of recognition will suffer.

Legends

Leadership isn’t for everybody, and many of the early contributors who don’t become one still remain with the project, and end of making very significant contributions to it and the community over time.  Whenever you make contributions, and get recognition for them, you start to build up a reputation for yourself.  The more and better contributions you make, the more your reputation grows.  Some people have accumulated such a large reputation that even though they are not leaders, their recognition is still sought after more than most. Not all communities will have one of these contributors, and they are more likely in communities where heads-down work is valued more than very public work.

Mentors

When any of us gets started with a community for the first time, we usually end of finding one or two people who help us learn the ropes.  These people help us find the resources we need, teach us what those resources don’t, and are instrumental in helping us make the leap from user to contributor. Very often these people aren’t the project owners or leaders.  Very often they have very little reputation themselves in the overall project. But because they take the time to help the new contributor, and because theirs is very likely to be the first, the recognition they give is disproportionately more valuable to that contributor than it otherwise would be.

Every member of a community can provide recognition, and every one should, but if you find yourself in one of the roles above it is even more important for you to be doing so. These roles are responsible both for setting the example, and keeping a proper flow, or recognition in a community. And without that flow or recognition, you will find that your flow of contributions will also dry up.

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Michael Hall

It seems a fairly common, straight forward question.  You’ve probably been asked it before. We all have reasons why we hack, why we code, why we write or draw. If you ask somebody this question, you’ll hear things like “scratching an itch” or “making something beautiful” or “learning something new”.  These are all excellent reasons for creating or improving something.  But contributing isn’t just about creating, it’s about giving that creation away. Usually giving it away for free, with no or very few strings attached.  When I ask “Why do you contribute to open source”, I’m asking why you give it away.

takemyworkThis question is harder to answer, and the answers are often far more complex than the ones given for why people simply create something. What makes it worthwhile to spend your time, effort, and often money working on something, and then turn around and give it away? People often have different intentions or goals in mind when the contribute, from benevolent giving to a community they care about to personal pride in knowing that something they did is being used in something important or by somebody important. But when you strip away the details of the situation, these all hinge on one thing: Recognition.

If you read books or articles about community, one consistent theme you will find in almost all of them is the importance of recognizing  the contributions that people make. In fact, if you look at a wide variety of successful communities, you would find that one common thing they all offer in exchange for contribution is recognition. It is the fuel that communities run on.  It’s what connects the contributor to their goal, both selfish and selfless. In fact, with open source, the only way a contribution can actually stolen is by now allowing that recognition to happen.  Even the most permissive licenses require attribution, something that tells everybody who made it.

Now let’s flip that question around:  Why do people contribute to your project? If their contribution hinges on recognition, are you prepared to give it?  I don’t mean your intent, I’ll assume that you want to recognize contributions, I mean do you have the processes and people in place to give it?

We’ve gotten very good about building tools to make contribution easier, faster, and more efficient, often by removing the human bottlenecks from the process.  But human recognition is still what matters most.  Silently merging someone’s patch or branch, even if their name is in the commit log, isn’t the same as thanking them for it yourself or posting about their contribution on social media. Letting them know you appreciate their work is important, letting other people know you appreciate it is even more important.

If you the owner or a leader in a project with a community, you need to be aware of how recognition is flowing out just as much as how contributions are flowing in. Too often communities are successful almost by accident, because the people in them are good at making sure contributions are recognized and that people know it simply because that’s their nature. But it’s just as possible for communities to fail because the personalities involved didn’t have this natural tendency, not because of any lack of appreciation for the contributions, just a quirk of their personality. It doesn’t have to be this way, if we are aware of the importance of recognition in a community we can be deliberate in our approaches to making sure it flows freely in exchange for contributions.

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Michael Hall

Technically a fork is any instance of a codebase being copied and developed independently of its parent.  But when we use the word it usually encompasses far more than that. Usually when we talk about a fork we mean splitting the community around a project, just as much as splitting the code itself. Communities are not like code, however, they don’t always split in consistent or predictable ways. Nor are all forks the same, and both the reasons behind a fork, and the way it is done, will have an effect on whether and how the community around it will split.

There are, by my observation, three different kinds of forks that can be distinguished by their intent and method.  These can be neatly labeled as Convergent, Divergent and Emergent forks.

Convergent Forks

Most often when we talk about forks in open source, we’re talking about convergent forks. A convergent fork is one that shares the same goals as its parent, seeks to recruit the same developers, and wants to be used by the same users. Convergent forks tend to happen when a significant portion of the parent project’s developers are dissatisfied with the management or processes around the project, but otherwise happy with the direction of its development. The ultimate goal of a convergent fork is to take the place of the parent project.

Because they aim to take the place of the parent project, convergent forks must split the community in order to be successful. The community they need already exists, both the developers and the users, around the parent project, so that is their natural source when starting their own community.

Divergent Forks

Less common that convergent forks, but still well known by everybody in open source, are the divergent forks.  These forks are made by developers who are not happy with the direction of a project’s development, even if they are generally satisfied with its management.  The purpose of a divergent fork is to create something different from the parent, with different goals and most often different communities as well. Because they are creating a different product, they will usually be targeting a different group of users, one that was not well served by the parent project.  They will, however, quite often target many of the same developers as the parent project, because most of the technology and many of the features will remain the same, as a result of their shared code history.

Divergent forks will usually split a community, but to a much smaller extent than a convergent fork, because they do not aim to replace the parent for the entire community. Instead they often focus more on recruiting those users who were not served well, or not served at all, by the existing project, and will grown a new community largely from sources other than the parent community.

Emergent Forks

Emergent forks are not technically forks in the code sense, but rather new projects with new code, but which share the same goals and targets the same users as an existing project.  Most of us know these as NIH, or “Not Invented Here”, projects. They come into being on their own, instead of splitting from an existing source, but with the intention of replacing an existing project for all or part of an existing user community. Emergent forks are not the result of dissatisfaction with either the management or direction of an existing project, but most often a dissatisfaction with the technology being used, or fundamental design decisions that can’t be easily undone with the existing code.

Because they share the same goals as an existing project, these forks will usually result in a split of the user community around an existing project, unless they differ enough in features that they can targets users not already being served by those projects. However, because they do not share much code or technology with the existing project, they most often grow their own community of developers, rather than splitting them from the existing project as well.

All of these kinds of forks are common enough that we in the open source community can easily name several examples of them. But they are all quite different in important ways. Some, while forks in the literal sense, can almost be considered new projects in a community sense.  Others are not forks of code at all, yet result in splitting an existing community none the less. Many of these forks will fail to gain traction, in fact most of them will, but some will succeed and surpass those that came before them. All of them play a role in keeping the wider open source economy flourishing, even though we may not like them when they affect a community we’ve been involved in building.

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