OSCON: Building Belonging (in communities)

I dove right in to OSCON by attending Jono Bacon’s “Building Belonging” community talk. Jono, who is the community manager for Ubuntu, started out his presentation by asking what communities can do to build and improve the sense of belonging that people have in their community. After talking a little about what belonging means, he threw out the first concrete concept that builds belonging: Stories.

Jono suggests that “Stories are vessels of best practice.” Whenever a community shares a story, it usually has a message attached to it–an anecdote that usually comes to some concrete point. Stories give community members a sense of purpose and belonging; he encourages people to tell stories in their communities.

He went on to talk about how open source communities are meritocracies. People in our communities rise to higher levels because of the work they do. In Ubuntu a volunteer can walk in off the street and, given enough hard work, they can rise to the highest level of the community, based on the work they do for the community. Communities are also economies–gift economies that work on patches, rather than money.

Jono tangented for a minute to remind us the we should review patches as if they were gifts–aim to avoid judging these gifts too harshly by calling them crap. Imagine waking up at Christmas and giving a gift to a friend who calls it crap and tosses it into the trash can. We don’t do this in real life, so we should avoid doing this in our open source communities. Jono returned from his tangent by pointing out that one builds social capital in a community by giving gifts, like patches. In my personal opinion, there are many forms of means of building social capital, not just patches. Telling stories and passing along the traditions and habits of a community are also great examples of gifts that build social capital.

Next Jono talked about “Quality of Aliveness” as a factor in building belonging in a community. He gave the example of seeing a 5 year old kid use Ubuntu and how he felt the hairs on his neck stand up. These visceral experiences give us a feeling of accomplishment and that our efforts in communities are worth our time. These experiences provide a strong sense of belonging to a community.

Jono’s next point illustrated that teams present vessels of belonging. For instance when you first build a team everyone is lost and no one feels at ease. But once you get to know your “local neighborhood” a little, you begin to feel comfortable. The key for building strong teams is to foster environments where people can feel like they belong and they know what to do. Provide advocacy, podcasts, translations, support, and put on local events–these all help contributors succeed and motivate them to stay involved.

Then Jono rhetorically asked how social capital in teams grows. The Ubuntu team utilizes karma in the launchpad web application, a hall of fame, highlighting people on blogs and in summits. Each of these elevate contributors a little to highlight their contributions. Teams need to build some infrastructure since most people need others to celebrate their contributions. Most valuable contributors don’t toot their own horns about their work–social capital grows most when teams have means to highlight the efforts of their contributors.

Social capital forms freely, says Jono. Its best not to push people into management jobs, but to let the community organize itself. For instance, social captial builds naturally through conversations in the halls of conferences like OSCON and during project meetings/summits. Sharing stories and introducing yourself to others helps build your personal social capital.

Strive to keep a positive attitude at all times, even when dealing with problems and criticism. Never start with “This sucks! You suck too!” Adopt an “I’m going to kick ass!” attitude–and people are much more likely to kick ass. People who have a glass-half-empty attitude (as opposed to half-full) can drag an entire community down. The team’s attitude carries a lot of weight–a project with a “kick ass” attitude can win a ton of mind-share over projects that have negative attitudes.

Jono closed out his presentation with an anecdote from the Ubuntu bug tracker: Bug #1 “Microsoft has a dominant market share” Sadly, this bug keeps constantly being deferred to the next release of Ubuntu. Ha!

Finally, he summarized by saying: “Please don’t be a Sheep!” Thanks for the many community insights, Jono!

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