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A Community of Community Leaders

The weekend before this year's O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) in San Jose, many OSCON attendees assembled for another event, the 2009 Community Leadership Summit (CLS). CLS was the brainchild of Ubuntu's Jono Bacon and many participants were from the open source community, but the event dealt with growing and maintaining online communities of all sorts, and attracted visitors from proprietary software companies and other communities altogether.

Bacon's introductory talk on Saturday explained the goal of the weekend in three principles: that it be vendor-neutral, that it be open to all, and that it be "our event"--namely, that the content be whatever the attendees chose for it to be. About 200 total participants attended either Saturday or Sunday session; since the event was free exact numbers are not available. On both days, the entire group started out in a plenary session to plan the remainder of the day's events. In the "unconference" style popularized by events such as BarCamp, the program was wide open: participants could host a session on any subject that they wished--they simply announced the topic at the microphone and put an event card on the shared calendar board in an unclaimed time and room.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the CLS Web site's wiki was open to proposed talks, so many attendees had already posted their ideas online. Nevertheless, there were more proposals that arose only after the group got together--particularly for the Sunday sessions. Of the one hundred possible slots on the calendar (ten meeting rooms and five times each day), more than 70 were filled, with attendance ranging from a handful to several dozen in each session. Over the course of the weekend, each session was encouraged to select one or more participants to take notes, and then post them to the CLS wiki. Not all of the sessions' notes are available online yet, but more are sure to come in, providing an ad-hoc "proceedings" document for those who could not attend in person.

Saturday

Saturday's sessions included multiple sessions about interfacing between volunteer communities and businesses, internal and external--from communicating with management and engineering to fostering community input (code or otherwise) to working around thorny legal issues such as patents and trademarks. Several sessions dealt with marketing issues, traditionally a problematic area for Linux and free software projects that lack dedicated marketing teams.

Other discussions centered around issues of internal community behavior, and how to keep it functioning smoothly. Russ Nelson of the OpenStreetMap project led a session entitled "Handling Griefers: how do you deal with uncooperative community members?," and Dave Neary of GNOME led a session on "Promoting good behavior in meetings" that dealt with how to manage domineering personalities that can drown out other voices. In the same vein, several sessions dealt with finding harmony between specific subcommunities, such as gender issues, diverse cultural backgrounds, and integrating non-technical people into technical communities.

Finally, several talks dealt with the nuts-and-bolts of being a community manager, a job that--in its current description--has only recently become widespread. The day-to-day challenges of community management include staying in touch with large groups of geographically disperse people, managing communication and issues from a variety of channels (e.g., email, list email, IRC, blogs, phone calls, etc.), and playing middleman between volunteers and corporate interests on tricky subjects. Saturday ended with a second plenary session devoted to dissecting and debugging the processes of the first day, in order to better plan for Sunday.

Sunday

Sunday's meeting started off with an hour of five-minute lightning talks, rigorously time-enforced via LightningTimer.net. Most were explanatory, with the presenter providing updates on his or her project--perhaps to a degree in response to the interest expressed in Saturday afternoon's plenary that the event provide more time for the attendees to get to know one another. Such talks covered projects like OpenStreetMap, Fedora, FutureTalk TV, R, and MySQL.

Several of Sunday's main sessions were continuations or crystallizations of popular topics explored on Saturday, demonstrating that the conference was indeed honing in on the subjects that community leaders found most important. Tools and metrics for managing online communities were examined in several sessions, as was improving diversity and managing conflict.

The Sunday schedule also included several talks on running in-person events, from local user group meetings to unconferences, to more community leadership summits. But as with Saturday, there were many individual sessions that attracted large groups of participants to discuss single issues--only one session each dealt with reaching out to the educational community, agile development, Quality Assurance in open source projects, and bridging the gap between free software and free culture communities, but they were clearly important topics.

At the end of the day, the entire group met again to discuss the future of the event. Response was nearly unanimous that the CLS had proven valuable, and that the effort to be inclusive of community leaders from outside the free software world had strengthened the weekend. Opinion was a bit more divided on the format; although most were happy with the unconference system, a few suggested that a small number of pre-planned "normal" sessions on highly-popular topics might add interest.

If there was any shortcoming to the event, several attendees said, it was only that there were so many simultaneous sessions that it was frequently hard to choose between them.

Next Time

Bacon said without hesitation that CLS would return next year, and become an annual event. The only question is whether it would remain tethered to a larger (and open source-specific) event like OSCON. When asked for a show of hands, between a third and half of the attendees indicated that they had decided to attend CLS because they were already planning to be in the area for OSCON the same week. On the other hand, several said that the high cost of attending a large, commercial event like OSCON kept some people away, and might lessen the chances of their attendance in the future.

The success of the inaugural CLS tells the Linux community two things. First, managing and building effective communities is a task unto itself, one that--thanks to open source's unique structure--is critical to the success of the project. Community health is not an afterthought, or a side channel, or a "necessary evil." Just as getting together to hack on code strengthens the technical work, getting together to work on community strengthens the human work. Second, although Linux and open source are disruptive technologies and game changers, the communities that create them have a lot to learn and to share with other online communities. Not everyone at CLS was working on open source software, or even software in general--but the challenges and the solutions applied equally to all.

 

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