It’s a funny ‘ol word. Until recent years, the word community would typically conjure up quaint old images of local street parties, book clubs, town hall meetings and other Hallmark Channel-inspired visuals. For many of us, these images were fueled by childhood tales from the old folk recounting the “good ‘ol days” in which no one had to lock their doors, the grass looked greener, and life was simpler.
Well, the Internet changed all of that. This once oldy-worldy whimsical premise of community was first thrown into a new era with the popularization of the Internet back in the mid-to-late 90s. Back then people used this new technology to form communities around shared consumption. Newsgroups, bulletin board systems and the first iteration of the web gave us a taste of how much fun it could be to meet other people with similar interests and tastes. Up sprang countless tech, movie, music and trivia sites, most concocted in a shonky version of Microsoft Frontpage, but giving many people their first taste of meeting like minds on the other side of the world.
Since then the net has become truly collaborative. With the birth of patch and diff, two tools for software development, the challenge of developers divided by oceans was conquered by like minds working together on the Net. Early successes such as the GNU project and Linux proved that genuine collaboration could indeed work. This inspired another generation of collaboration around content, activism and more with sites such as Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap and others springing up around us.
So there we were, disparate groups of people coming together to create things, and it all just seemed to work. Amusingly, much of this success was entirely accidental. In many of these communities, effective methods of working together was nothing more than the output of oodles of trial and error. These lessons were not just the technical nuts and bolts of how you create things together, but also the very human social constructs around trust, reputation building, ensuring people get on well with each other, conflict resolution, rewarding great work, and other topics. Most involved in this new world did not have experience in growing successful teams and managing volunteers, and while there were a few turkeys, there has been thousands of astonishing success stories.
Back in 1996 I discovered this new world and my evolution in community started following a similar path. As a computer and heavy-metal dork, my existence was dominated by discovering the Internet, exploring what it had to offer, and hoping my favorite thrash metal bands had discovered this wonderful global network, too.
As a long-haired gangly youth living in England in the mid-to-late ’90s, my first experience of the potential for online communities was yours truly trying to find the kind of content that didn’t exist in conventional mediums. Back then British TV and radio was crammed to the gills with nauseating saccharin-sweetened teeny-pop, of which I had less-than-zero interest. These traditional mediums couldn’t help me find photos of Overkill and Exodus playing live. I couldn’t read about Onslaught and Nevermore on tour. Consequently, if you were anyone who didn’t like nauseating saccharin-sweetened teeny-pop, you were on your own, hunting through obscure imported magazines and fanzines to find the information you needed.
Despite the childish few of you who are about to snigger at the next sentence, on the Internet the long-tail was celebrated. I found a fascinating community of people who had similar interests, and as such I consumed. I hunted out information, downloaded content, and had a thirst for finding more and more every day.
Welcome to the future
Before long I realized I could publish things online. I created a website and my first contribution was transcribing music into guitar tablature and putting it online. I also discovered my love of writing, and started writing guitar lessons. They were not very sexy, plain text all the way, and written by AxeManiac (I was young and (more) stupid), but people would read them and leave a message in my guestbook that they liked them. This gave me a phenomenal sense of value and validation around my contributions; the very essence of what drives many to contribute in communities all over the world to this day.
My transition into community was bolstered when I discovered open source and Linux, and I realized that the mechanics of collaboration went much deeper into code and the construction of technology and experiences. While I found the technology overwhelming (I wasn’t that much of a geek), what really fascinated me was the community aspect. People really get together to make software that everyone shares and uses? People contribute a few hours and they get the net result of many people contributing a few hours? It all seems to work well and not descend into chaos? This sounds incredible.
Of course, back then I had no idea of the nuances of why this was revolutionary, it just felt right to me. I gritted my teeth, put in the hours learning the secret incantations of how to get the software working, and had a blast at every step of the way.
Disseminating best practices
Spin forward 10 years and from those first baby steps I have made a career out of community. I now work as the Ubuntu Community Manager. I work to grow a productive, fun, and approachable Ubuntu community in which everyone can feel like they can put their brick in the wall around the common goal of building a ubiquitous free software experience that helps people live their lives better.
When I started work as a full-time community manager, I based my career on all the accidental lessons I had learned in these previous years. These lessons included technical etiquette — such as using plain text in emails, avoiding top-posting, and always using cross-references in mailing list posts — to understanding the subtle social norms of different communities, such as how you run meetings, how you coordinate work, handling conflict between different community members, and managing expectations effectively. There was no playbook for these different topics, and there was no Yoda to show me the ropes. Members of our communities learned by doing. My dad would often preach from his Northern English pulpit about the “University of Hard Knocks,” life experiences learned through good and bad decisions, and many of these communities certainly applied this experience-led approach.
Unfortunately the University of Hard Knocks can be a bit overwhelming for some. I would see many examples of people who would join communities and behave outside of the unwritten social norms. Some villagers would get angry and have a short fuse with those who took too long to understand and adapt to the culture of a community. Sometimes these new members would be accused of being trolls and deliberately disruptive. While some were, I was of the view that many just didn’t quite understand the culture and that it is not quite as straight forward as many of us would assume.
A good example of this was a guy who joined a group I formed once and at first he was a hugely disruptive participant. After some support and guidance he started to learn and within a few years went he on to lead that group and be hugely successful in that community.
No one has a monopoly on community
As my work would take me to different communities, I would try to soak up best practices and spot patterns in approaches and techniques that would generate positive outcomes. I also noticed that while there is no single recipe for success, many of the same challenges and lessons would face different communities in different states of maturity. I would join new community groups as they were finding their feet and I would notice common challenges; getting enough momentum, encouraging people to join and participate, reducing bottlenecks and other areas. It was clear that many of these life lessons in community that we all learn should be shared and celebrated with each other.
Unfortunately the practicality of sharing this content was less straight forward. Around this time I was spending a lot of time on the road going to different open source and technology conferences, and I noticed a common theme. We would all show up from our different companies and communities, we would wave our hands around in presentations and talk about what we do, but we would never sit down and share ideas and knowledge. It was rare to sit down with another community manager from another company and have a collaborative problem-solving session around topics that affect both of us.
To me this was a real problem. As I mentioned earlier, many of us have learned the lessons of community by spending years at the University of Hard Knocks, but it felt like much of this knowledge could be disseminated into guidance that we could share between different communities which could speed up the development of mature communities. I have never believed that anyone should have the monopoly on having a a great community; great best practice and ideas benefit everyone, because communities generally create content that can benefit everyone.
I wanted to contribute to the furthering of best practice surrounding community management in two core ways; to write a book and organize an annual event.
To achieve the former, I signed a book deal with O’Reilly to write “The Art of Community.” The book provides a comprehensive guide to the underlying principles of community, then moves on to discuss building strategy, processes, governance, building buzz, conflict resolution, organizing events and more. As part of the agreement in writing the book, I asked O’Reilly if they would make it available under a Creative Commons license to ensure that those who were poorer could still get access to the information to help their communities. They were in total agreement.
While “The Art of Community” has been doing well and people seem to like it, I also wanted to solve the problem I described earlier of people never having time to share knowledge and ideas at conferences. As such, back in 2009 I founded the Community Leadership Summit. The event is designed to bring together community leaders and managers and the projects and organizations that are interested in growing and empowering a strong community. It provides an unconference-style schedule in which attendees can discuss, debate and explore topics. This is augmented with a range of scheduled talks, panel discussions, networking opportunities, and more.
The opening keynote presentation at the Community Leadership Summit.
The event provided the first opportunity of its kind to bring together the leading minds in the field with new community builders to discuss topics such as: governance, creating collaborative environments, conflict resolution, transparency, open infrastructure, social networking, commercial investment in community, engineering vs. marketing approaches to community leadership and more. The event was carefully constructed to be as independent as possible. Our sponsors were not there to sell anything but contribute to support the event and the sharing of great community best practices. Everyone had an equal opportunity to run a session, and everything was about as transparent and accessible as it could be.
While we were expecting around 70 attendees, more than 200 joined the two-day event and it was a great success. This was followed by another successful event in 2010, and on 23rd-24th July 2011 the event event returns to Portland, Ore., the weekend before OSCON.
The Community Leadership Summit is entirely free, everyone is welcome, and I would love to encourage you all to join us in Portland this July to share your knowledge and learn from others too.
Into a new era
The art and science of growing community will never stand still. Technology is changing, people are changing, and the opportunities and ideas of what we can achieve continues to grow and shape how we work together. Back in 1996 I would never have expected the world to be collaborating together as much as we do today, and I am sure that in 2026 our level of understanding and knowledge of how we work together around common goals will be even better understood and predictable than it is today.
As we move into this future we will also face interesting new challenges around what we collaborate on. Back in 1996, distributed software development was a key challenge and saw significant effort into how we worked together. We then saw collaboration refined around documentation and cartography. Today we are seeing increasing interest in collaboration around design, graphics and art. What will we see in the future? Who knows, but what I do know is that good people will want to come together with good people, united by a belief, and work together to further their goals and ethos. They will grow communities, and today we can help seed a new generation of community leaders with the experience, tools and skills they will need to be effective.
Let the good times roll.