It’s a well-established truth in marketing that brands aren’t about products or even experiences — they are about people. Create a community in which your user feels at home, where their questions are answered,their voices heard and their contributions appreciated, and half of your marketing work is done. It doesn’t matter how clever your social media feed is if you don’t have a core of humanity at the centre of your project.
The openSUSE conference in Nürnberg, with a theme of “collaboration across borders,” will highlight this pivotal aspect of Free and Open Source Software development. Although a distribution-sponsored conference, this event will involve an extended cross-section of the FOSS world, including other distributions, desktop projects and upstream developers.
It seems like stating the obvious, but there’s no ‘one size fits all’ with community. The obvious often gets overlooked, but Red Hat’s Max Spevack can spot the difference, noting that “an online community that is basically just a group of people sharing advice with each other has an entirely different set of dynamics than a community like Fedora that has specific goals, a schedule that results in tangible deliverables, and specific metrics by which success and failure are measured.”
In part it’s the very nature of online participation that drives this diversity. Unless you’re an old-school type still using Emacs for everything, the burgeoning choice of media has long since departed from the familiar territory of IRC and Telnet, through Wikis and web pages, and on to social media. Anyone can participate in the read-write web, no HTML required. There’s a barrage of blogs macro and micro, wikis for a dozen inter-related projects and personal pages galore. For the new user or contributor, it can be confusing and even intimidating – a ‘more is more’ approach that offers no clear direction.
“Less is More” is the antidote suggested by Hendrik Vogelsang, a founder and board-member of the openSUSE project, in his conference session on Crowdsourcing. Vogelsang says that while a media plan might seem to cover all the bases – personal comments on personal blogs, broader topics on news — in practice it isn’t always that simple, and when the lines are too rigid, “we struggle to deliver the interesting bits to our audience.”
As a developer, Vogelsang’s focus has of course been on the product, but he recognizes the need to reach the user. “It’s time to find the balance of making AND presenting things or we will not grow further … we have to look at what sources of material we have, and which audiences we try to serve. Then we need to make this fit for the audiences. It’s really just switching perspectives — from looking at our media from the angle of the people who contribute to our media, to the angle of the people who consume our media.”
QA Software Engineer Carsten Book, from The Mozilla Project, shares Hendrik Vogelsang’s concerns about media overload. “Getting involved in a project is sometimes difficult — things are on x wiki sites or IRC channels, and so its not so easy for someone new to get involved.” It’s an astute observation, as while coders tend to be comfortable with these modes of communication, non-technical users can find them daunting. One solution is a ‘one stop shop’ portal. “The Mozilla project has started a site called Get Involved with Mozilla. On the front page there is a ‘getting in touch’ field/form, and this connects your mail to people active in the project, to help you get started with a real living person.”
It’s easy to forget that behind every line of code is a real living person, too, so the principles of good community are vitally important at the “coalface” of software development. This is exemplified by the Quality Assurance process at Mozilla, which Book will explain in some detail. He hopes that the presentation will be informative to potential Mozilla contributors, while also offering a valuable working model demonstration to other community groups.
Good package management is also one of Debian’s fundamental work practices. “We have always kept the original source and the changes done to the package within Debian clearly separated,” explains Debian Developer Gerfried Fuchs. Patch tools have been continually evolving, with the latest iteration seeing major improvements in metadata organisation. “Not too long ago a new source package format got created that streamlines and eases the job for package maintainers: The 3.0 ‘quilt’ format almost enforces a patch series approach. This helps services to extract the patch sets and make them available for the general public like the original developers or other distributions.”
As part of the Distributions track at the openSUSE conference, Fuchs’ presentation on “Debian — The Project and its Resources” is “community” in practice, as making changes readily available is such a key aspect of the development process.
Also making life easier for developers is the openSUSE Build Service, a versatile development tool that facilitates packaging across all the major distributions and hardware platforms. Accessible through an easy-to-use Web interface, or downloadable to install as an appliance or on virtual machine, the OBS simplifies dependancy resolution and makes disk image creation a breeze. Community? Well yes and no. It has its own Packaging and OBS track, but the cross-distribution interoperability it fosters is certainly in keeping with the ‘border crossing’ theme of the conference.
The commitment of resources such as the OBS to benefit the broader world of Free and Open Source developers and users is inherent to many GNU/Linux projects. And while it suggests an adherence to the idealistic spirit of Free Software, there’s an element of pragmatism, too. There is strength in numbers, and when facing off against an opponent with a market share the size of Microsoft’s, or a fanatical fan-base like that of Apple’s, a united front isn’t an optional extra.
With a philosophy that could be interpreted as anarchistic, how do we create a unified sense of purpose? Addressing this question at the openSUSE conference is marketing wizard and KDE enthusiast Thomas Thym. He will be presenting insights drawn from four years of academic research on the principles of great open source communities. Thym hopes his session will help us to generate ideas to improve the strength of our communities — both within our projects and distributions and across FOSS as a whole.
The different approach needed in Free and Open Source Software communities will also get some attention from Nelson Marques in his talk on marketing. Traditional marketing practices have given it something of an image problem, so Marques suggests an alternative approach based around understanding and communicating with our users – and with each other.
An openSUSE initiative in community support is a multi-skilled team called openSUSE Boosters whose express purpose is to help contributors get the most out of their work. Lowering barriers to contribution by improving infrastructure, providing documentation and guidance to new users and giving talks and workshops about contributing. Klaas Freitag and Henne Vogelsang will discuss what Boosting is and how their work is instrumental in the success of openSUSE.
Pavol Prusnak from the openSUSE Boosters team has been working on a new social networking platform for the community. Connect aims to replace the current parts of the openSUSE infrastructure, like users database and membership handling, and to integrate social aspects within the project like user groups, events or karma. In his openSUSE conference presentation, Pavol will go through the current website and discuss plans for the future. Connect is an open project (like all openSUSE projects), and Pavol invites anyone interested in social networks to participate in the discussion and development.
Despite the ascendancy of social networking, face-to-face contact is still an important way to engage users. Linux User Groups (LUGs) are familiar to many Linux users, but tend to have a more technical bent, so Mozilla and OpenOffice.org have been jointly organizing a new spin on the LUG — the “Open-Source-Treffen.” These Open Source Meetings — so far held regularly in Munich with plans to expand the program — help open source projects interact with their end-users. Members of the community can get in touch with users to gather valuable feedback, and open source adopters can touch base with other supporters from their area. Florian Effenberger from OpenOffice.org, who co-founded the initiative with Carsten Book, will be at at the openSUSE conference. He’ll introduce the vision behind “Open-Source-Treffen” and talk about previous experiences, giving tips and hints on setting up such events.
Of course, valuable social contact isn’t neglected at the openSUSE conference. Seasoned conference goers know what a great opportunity these events are to create and re-establish professional networks, catch up with old friends and discover new ones. New conference-goers… well, you have to go to find out!
With the theme of “Collaboration Across Borders” in Free and Open Source software communities, administration and development, the openSUSE Conference, OSC2010 is happening in Nuremberg, Germany, from the 20th to 23rd of October. Users, contributors and friends of openSUSE are invited to attend and Admission is free.