AOC Managing Communities

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Both online and offline interactions have their place, but it is interesting to see how the two are merging in our social interactions to the point where we do not even consciously think about how we use them both. The social motivation to participate in online communities become an extension of our human social needs in the offline world.<br>
Both online and offline interactions have their place, but it is interesting to see how the two are merging in our social interactions to the point where we do not even consciously think about how we use them both. The social motivation to participate in online communities become an extension of our human social needs in the offline world.<br>

Revision as of 21:43, 2 October 2006

Back to Chapters for AOC
Note: Dawn is editing this chapter offline - please do not edit this page.



Ch 3: Community Participation (Dawn)

 (Suggested Vignette – Karl Fogel, someone else)

New people are joining and participating in online communities in everything from open source projects like Firefox to social networking sites like MySpace and LinkedIn.


As is typical within any diverse group of individuals, each person has a different motivation for joining and participating in a community. Some possible motivations include socializing, altruism, desire to solve a problem, gaining knowledge, resume building, political beliefs, desire for status / recognition of peers, and others. Amy Jo Kim frames community motivation using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Norms and Behavior:

Each online community has a set of norms and ways that participants are expected to behave; however, there are some norms that are common to most communities. Most communities have documentation with rules and guidelines for participation that users should read carefully before participating. It is also a good idea to get a feel for how people behave in a particular community by monitoring the community for a period of time before beginning to actively participate. In the event that people are not behaving within the established norms, online communities usually have methods that can be used to sanction inappropriate behavior.


Write this last


Eric Raymond wrote that "Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch."[1] Within open source software communities, many projects are started to fill the developer's need, and as the user of the software, the developer has a personal stake in the product's quality. Linus started Linux to fulfill his personal need for a Unix-like operating system that would run on lower cost hardware. Other developers frequently contribute to open source projects to fill a need of their own to have a particular project ported to a favorite hardware platform or to add an additional feature that would make the product more closely meet their needs.

This idea can also be applied to other online communities outside of software. People join and participate in social networking communities, like the MySpace community, to fill a social need and have an online location to hang out with friends, coordinate social events, share new (or old) music, and blog about their ideas and experiences. Others join business-oriented networking sites, like LinkedIn, to make better connections with people in related industries and to network online with like-minded people. Some people join online news and information communities, like Digg and Newsvine, to share and discuss information with others.

These examples demonstrate that people can join online communities to fill a particular need, and those needs can take many forms and motivate people in different ways. Keep in mind that motivation is incredibly complex. A single individual may be motivated to join and contribute to online communities for many different reasons, which when combined form a powerful set of motivators. Motivation can also be culturally determined. What motivates someone from the United States might be very different from what motivates a person in China, Japan, or Russia. This section will describe several different ways that people are motivated to participate in online communities, but keep in mind that most people will be influenced by come combination of these motivations.


Many open source developers are passionate about open source and have a strong ethical foundation and moral reasons that drive their contributiopns to open source projects. Richard Stallman, the founder and driving force behind the free software movement of which open source software is a part, based this movement on the belief that software should be free (as in freedom, not necessarily price) and open for others to modify and share with others. Richard Stallman views his decision to begin the free software movement as taking the moral high ground to make the world and the software development community a better place where developers can share their code freely rather than restricting access using proprietary licenses and non-disclosure agreements. The following quote comes from a discussion about why there was a need to create the free software movement in the early 1980s when software began moving from a freely shared academic model of cooperation to a proprietary corporate model of protecting intellectual property.

The modern computers of the era, such as the VAX or the 68020 had their own operating systems, but none of them were free software: you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement even to get an executable copy.
This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, "if you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them."
The idea that the proprietary software social system—the system that says you are not allowed to share or change software—is anti-social, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong may come as a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless? (Richard Stallman)[2]

This is almost a religious passion for the open source / free software community based on a strong belief that software should be open. Other open source developers are less motivated by these philosophical arguments and more motivated by their passion and love of the activity of programming. Many developers love to program and are motivated to contribute to projects that they are passionate about, rather than the projects that their employer or university thinks are important. In many cases, open source developers write code all day at work or the university, and then they come home and write open source code for projects that they find interesting. The ideal for many programmers is to have an employer pay them to write open source software at work, but more on this in a later section.

The reasons for contributing to other online communities are not that different. The blogger community is a great example of people participating because of a passion about a topic. People blog about topics they are passionate about. Lawrence Lessig blogs about legal matters associated with free software, digital rights management, and other restrictions on how people can use and share information. Michael Arrington is passionate about web 2.0, and his TechCrunch blog is becoming the place to find the latest web 2.0 companies. Seth Godin blogs about marketing and the spread of ideas. Others blog about sports, food, knitting, politics, sex, religion, terrorism, technology, art, music, life, news, books, travel, romance, television, friends, family, and every other topic that someone, somewhere might consider interesting.

Other web 2.0 sites are springing up to form communities around topics that capture people's passions. Flickr is just one example. People with a passion for photography are motivated to share their photos on Flickr with a community of people who have the same passion. Users are encouraged to comment on the work of others, and many of the photographs are under various creative commons licensing allowing liberal use of the work by other people. Dawn's Flickr photos are mostly vacation pictures to share with family and friends online; however, some people share really amazing, professional quality photography on Flickr.

Intellectual and Skills Building

The desire to learn new skills and to share knowledge may be what motivates most people who join and participate in open source projects. The Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study from 2002 and similar subsequent surveys found that the most common reason that people joined open source communities was to learn and develop new skills with 79% of survey respondents listing this as a reason join. When asked why they stay in an open source community, learning and developing new skills was still the most common reason (70%) followed closely by sharing knowledge and skills (67%) [3]. Most open source developers seem to be motivated to join and continue contributing to open source projects to learn and develop new skills, and as they continue to participate in open source projects, the desire to share their information and knowledge becomes a more important motivator over time.

Maybe include something about proving yourself & getting hired out of the community? – this may fit better in a later section.

In addition to building skills and sharing knowledge, many open source developers just like a good challenge, and they are interested in solving tough problems. Eric Raymond describes the problem solving motivation in the context of hackers (keep in mind that in this case hackers are people who love to write software and figure out how things work; they are not people who break into computers or engage in other destructive behaviors.)

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom and voluntary mutual help. To be accepted as a hacker, you have to behave as though you have this kind of attitude yourself. And to behave as though you have the attitude, you have to really believe the attitude.

1) The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved. Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes lots of effort. The effort takes motivation. Successful athletes get their motivation from a kind of physical delight in making their bodies perform, in pushing themselves past their own physical limits. Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your intelligence.
If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll need to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'll find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and social approval.
(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning capacity — a belief that even though you may not know all of what you need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn from that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece — and so on, until you're done.) (Eric Raymond) [4]

The Make community is an interesting example outside of open source software of an online community formed around problem solving, learning new skills, and sharing knowledge with others. The foundation is the quarterly publication, a combination magazine / book, called Make, which provides detailed instructions for how to make or modify almost anything imaginable. Project examples include electronic insects, a soccer-playing robot, a robot made from an old computer mouse, a cigar box guitar, a toaster tea popper to pull your teabag out of the cup at exactly the right time, a cell phone-based anonymous megaphone, and much more. These range from low-tech and simple with only a few parts and no soldering required, while others require extensive electronic and computer skills with circuit boards, wiring, and programming. Regardless of the skills required for a specific project, this is a community of serious tinkerers.

The Make community is way more than just a magazine. People use the Make forums to post questions about how to make or modify some object, and other users help out by providing tips and suggestions for how it might be made; however, there are also more philosophical discussions on the forums about whether or not certain types of machines violate the laws of physics and whether they could ever be made. The forums are also used to arrange off-line meetups of groups of makers within a local community. The mother of all meetups for this community is the yearly Maker Faire, which drew 20,000 people in April 2006 for a weekend of demos, entertainment, and fun with like-minded people. Make also has a group blog with several contributors and frequent podcasts.

Blogging is another activity that can allow a person to fulfill their need for intellectual pursuits and to build skills online in a manner slightly less technical than the above open source and maker examples while still being community oriented. This is the primary reason that Dawn blogs. Blogging about a topic forces you to think about the topic and analyze it in more detail than you might have if you only spent time thinking about it. This analysis and the writing that follows help to fulfill the intellectual need to learn new things and share them with others. By allowing comments on the blog, you bring in an element of community. The community provides valuable feedback on your ideas (good and bad), and people point out errors and suggest corrections. As part of the blogger community, other blogs and increasingly mainstream media link to your blog providing additional feedback on your ideas, or people do not link to a particular entry (maybe it was not as brilliant as you thought it was).

Along with intellectual motivations, blogging can also help build and refine skills. Writing is probably the most obvious skill that blogging can help to develop. By blogging every day or at least a few times a week, you are consistently practicing writing and over time learn to more clearly and consistently articulate your ideas. Blogging can also build other skills depending on how it is used: web development, cascading style sheets (CSS), JavaScript, html, learning to respond to negative feedback, and more.

Status and Recognition (Level 2)

Our actions within online communities can generate status and recognition; some people seek this out, and it becomes a motivation for participation in online communities, while others find that status and recognition come with their actions whether or not this was a motivation for participating. Linus Torvalds is probably the best example out of the open source community of a person who became an accidental celebrity. *maybe add source or quote somewhere here* As described in Chapter 2, Linus started the Linux operating system out of his personal desire to have a Unix-like operating system running on less expensive hardware. His original goal was for Linux to be “just a hobby, won't be big and professional”[5], and he shared his ideas with a community of other like-minded individuals. These are not the actions of a man wanting to be famous for his creation; however, as Linux grew in popularity over time, Linus gained recognition and elite status within the Linux and open source communities.

In the previous Intellectual and Skills Building section, we described how some bloggers are motivated by intellectual needs and skills building. Taking this idea one step further, a blogger focused on intellectual motivation and the desire to build skills may also gain status and recognition for her writing. She may be consciously motivated by status and recognition or it may reinforce her desire to contribute to the blogging community even when it is not sought out. For some bloggers, status and recognition may be the primary motivation for blogging. Blogging can be a way to show the world that you are an expert in a particular topic and gain recognition for your expertise within the broader community.

Gaining status and recognition for your expertise in an online community can also have a number of interesting side effects, which can further increase community status and recognition. If you have name recognition through blogging, open source contributions, or other community activities, getting selected for speaking engagements at conferences becomes more likely. Assuming that two people submit identical speaking proposals for an event, the conference organizer will most likely select the proposal from the person with community name recognition. The name recognition suggests to the organizer that the person is already recognized for their expertise; therefore, it is likely that this person will have a higher quality session. The person with name recognition will also be a bigger draw for attendees than an unknown speaker; for example, more people would be interested in attending a session led by Mitchell Baker, Chief Lizard Wrangler and President of Mozilla, than a session led by John Doe, a passionate, but rather unknown Firefox contributor and evangelist.

Career Advancement

This status and recognition from community activities and speaking engagements can also be used as a self-marketing tool leading to career advancement. The traditional hiring process usually relies on a resume, interviews, and references to select the best candidate; however, this is a less than ideal way to find the best person for a job. For example, someone with a brilliantly spun resume and a gift for conversation may not be able to dive into the details required to complete real projects, while the person with a lousy resume and poor communication skills may be the best computer programmer for the job. In contrast to the traditional hiring process, online communities provide examples of real work. Many open source companies focus their hiring process on people who already contribute to the community, which gives them an opportunity to evaluate their contributions and interactions with their peers in a real life situation allowing them to select the best contributors rather than selecting a person who may or may not be an ideal candidate. Similarly, reading a person's blog can also provide quite a bit of insight into how a person thinks, their depth of expertise on a topic, and how they respond to criticism via comments. A blog and participation in other online communities can provide more information about a potential candidate than the resume or interview process. Companies may also proactively contact leading bloggers on a topic to see if they are interested in a job. Status and recognition have always been a recruiting tool for companies, but with the proliferation of online communities, more people are motivated to participate to boost their status and recognition.

A few bloggers are even using their blogs as recruiting tools. When Amanda Congdon very publicly left the Rocketboom video blog, Jason Calacanis offered Amanda a job at AOL/Netscape with great pay, ownership rights to her videos, access to their new studio in LA for filming, and a travel budget to cover stories on the road as a public post on his blog. Robert Scoble jumped into the fray by posting a blog entry speculating on what it would take for him (at PodTech) to hire someone as amazing as Calacanis. Mark Cuban put a new twist on this trend by putting out a call on his blog offering a job to anyone who can solve the problem of getting people out of the house to watch a movie in the theater without spending more money on marketing than what the movie can earn. Several popular industry blogs have also added niche job boards designed to help companies recruit the right people by providing a matchmaking service between companies they blog about and readers of the blog with a deep interest in their topic. The TechCrunch CrunchBoard and GigaOm Jobs are two of the highest profile entries into the niche blogger job search space.


Some people are motivated to participate in online communities for social reasons. There are niche social networking sites for everything from dog / cat / fuzzy pet owners to car / film / book / music lovers to shoppers to mommies. Online communities can be a great method of connecting with people in a social environment, having fun, and maybe even wasting time in a way that helps energize and refresh our workaholic, play-starved brains (Second Life and MySpace). Other people are motivated to participate to increase their social network in a business setting (LinkedIn).

Most social software is not about achieving some goal or increasing productivity. Some people may get productivity gains out of using some social networking tools, but I would argue that this is a side effect more than a motivation for participating in many communities. Young people do not use MySpace solely as a substitute for productivity tools like email and IM; they use it as an online mall or coffee shop where they can connect with friends, get to know friends of friends, leave inside jokes as public comments to demonstrate that they are in someone's social circle, organize events, and more. These online activities create a network of peers and identification within their community of friends. When all of your friends are on MySpace, you miss out by not joining, which is a strong form of peer pressure and social motivation. Second Life is another great example of a community built around social diversion. People in Second Life create avatars to represent their online self, meet new people, and engage in all kinds of interesting activities.

For others, the social motivation for participating is less about pure fun and diversion and more about networking and increasing business relationships. Many of us participate in the LinkedIn community to build our business network online. We can search for jobs, get connected to other people with similar business interests, get introduced to someone we may want to partner with, or reconnect with old colleagues. This is the online version of attending an industry conference or trade show to meet people and connect with others that you already know within the industry.

An interesting side effect of having so many of our social interactions in online communities means that for many of us, our online and offline interactions began to merge. We need the offline interactions in addition to the online community; however, the online interactions can drive new offline relationships. Many of us who blog “meet” people online as a result of comments back and forth in the blogosphere, but we take the opportunity to meet these bloggers in the offline space when we get an opportunity at a conference or other venue. After Dawn began exchanging blog comments with Josh Bancroft, they both realized that they worked at the same Intel campus, and getting together offline resulted in him joining the Art of Community Lightning Talks session at OSCON 2006. In many cases, open source conferences like ApacheCon and DebConf give people an opportunity to meet other community members. In open source projects, it is not uncommon for people to participate in a community even working very closely with particular people for years before ever meeting them in the physical world. Even Second Life has a conference where people can meet the real life people behind the avatars.

Both online and offline interactions have their place, but it is interesting to see how the two are merging in our social interactions to the point where we do not even consciously think about how we use them both. The social motivation to participate in online communities become an extension of our human social needs in the offline world.




Although many people contribute to communities without any additional compensation, some community members are motivated by economic concerns. Getting paid to contribute to a community can happen under a few different methods: regular job duties, advertising supported, or freelance work.

It has become increasingly common for people to participate in a community as part of their regular job duties. We have been seeing this trend within the open source community for a number of years as companies sponsor open source developers by hiring them and putting them on a salary to support a project. The Linux community provides a number of good examples. The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the adoption of Linux in the enterprise, hired Linus Torvalds and other key Linux kernel developers providing them with a relatively unbiased source of income allowing them to focus on their contribution to the Linux kernel with fewer distractions. Companies like IBM, Intel, and Red Hat along with many others also hire Linux kernel developers and maintainers benefiting the company in a number of ways. Many companies rely on Linux, and it is in their best interest to maintain a healthy and thriving community around the project thus increasing the chances that the community and the Linux kernel will survive and prosper. Supporting the developers helps to ensure that good developers stay focused on the project rather than having their attention divided by having some non-Linux related full time job required to provide financial support. By drawing a salary from a major company, the developer can focus full-time on community contribution without worrying about finding money for the next house payment. By having community members on staff, the company can also increase the likelihood of getting support for their most recent products. For example, when IBM and Intel release new hardware platforms, they usually need some changes to the Linux kernel to support the new platforms, and with developers on staff who are both intimately familiar with the Linux kernel and the company's hardware, they are in a much better position to help the community prepare the Linux kernel to run on the next generation of hardware.

Community manager positions are becoming more common as online communities become increasingly popular. Companies use community managers to help facilitate community discussions on forums, to seed wikis with initial information to help people get started, to answer people's questions or resolve any technical issues that may arise within the community, and to be the liaison between the community and the company supporting it. A few examples:

  • CollabNet has community managers for developer communities.
  • Blizzard has community managers for the communities of people playing World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game.
  • Yahoo hires community managers to work with a variety of online communities including Flickr and Yahoo Video.

Some communities are also experimenting with paying people on a freelance basis for contributions to a community:

  • Various companies and individuals, including Novell and Mark Shuttleworth, have offered bounties paid to open source developers for completing some task as specified by the organization or person paying for the bounty.
  • Google offers students a stipend to work on open source projects as part of the Summer of Code program.
  • Netscape is experimenting with paying top contributors for submitting stories to the site.

The ability to make money for the community through advertising can also provide motivation for participants. With the current popularity and ease of using online advertising, a community can also be supported financially through advertising. Services like Google's AdSense give anyone the ability to quickly and easily include ads on a website or blog and receive payments when a certain number of people click on the ads. Some larger communities can also get corporate sponsors to advertise on the site.

Economic motivations can also create issues and conflict of interests in some cases. Sometimes the goals of the person paying the bills through developer salaries, freelance work or advertising can conflict with the community goals. A company may push a staff developer or bounty hunter to contribute a piece of code or a feature that the community does not want. An advertising sponsor can try to influence the community to favor one company over another. In same cases this influence can be blatant and at other times subconscious. It is natural for people to want to repay the kindness of others even when we do not consciously realize that we are not being completely objective. These conflicts of interest demonstrate the negative side of economic motivations within communities.

Altruism or selfishness

Conclusion to Motivation

Contributing for Free & maybe talk about gift economy

Norms and Behavior



  1. The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 23 of the 2001 revised edition.
  2. This quote comes from Richard Stallman's chapter in the 1999 book, Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution by Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone page 54.
  3. The Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study. June 2002.
  4. This quote comes from the "How to Become a Hacker" essay in Appendix A of [The Cathedral and the Bazaar page 197 of the 2001 revised edition.
  5. comp.os.minix newsgroup post from August 25, 1991
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