Adventures in Open Source: Community

On December 15, 2017, AOL Instant Messenger is shutting down. I haven’t used AIM in well over a decade, but it was a big part of my life for years as it probably was for many people. It served as the conduit for friendships founded in a love of micro-brewing or Florida politics. Even before AIM though, we formed book clubs, supper clubs, and formal organizations. Humans have a need to belong. For communities and societies with access to it (because not all do but that’s a post for another time), technology has allowed us to expand our connections more easily beyond our own zip codes.

Part of my research is looking at what makes an open source project successful. Community has begun to emerge as a theme not only in researching open source projects, but also AI, global social unrest, and RIOT as a whole.

My initial thought on how to build a community for an open source project was really about attracting enough people. One of my ideas was to figure out who was already an important person in open source, get that person or those people on board and that would organically attract other people. Another thought I had was to market the project to people by targeting their specific interests. Taking a Netflix approach. “Hey I see you liked an open source project about facial recognition, perhaps you would like this project!”

I had the opportunity to talk to Sandra Ordonez, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Festival. I wanted to know from her what the magic formula was for building a new community. The secret, she told me, was…that…there really isn’t one. Her insight might seem obvious, but I truly thought if we target the right groups of people that would be a more efficient way of building a community. That strategy might still build a community, but it would likely be weak and subject to crumbling given the first sign of stress for individuals or small groups.

Building a strong community is an incredibly bespoke process. It is about looking at the strengths and challenges of the individuals and figuring out the best way to build relationships. It is a messy process that doesn’t have a set algorithm for success. What works in one situation may have a negative impact in another situation. What’s most important she says is, “seeing everyone as an individual and understanding they are not just a mass but a person with real feelings, emotions, goals.” People have to know each other and be invested in each other’s success in order for the project to also succeed.

While I haven’t used AIM in ages, other tech has taken its place. For example, I met one of my best friends through Foursquare. The Foursquare app (the check-in portion is now called Swarm) allowed users to create and name their own places. I created a spot for my house and named it Hall of Justice. Both being comic enthusiasts, we started chatting and became friends offline as well. Neither of us use Foursquare anymore, but our friendship has sustained. Building a strong community is a very messy and unpredictable process. The key, however, is that even if the project falls away, the connections between the people would still remain.

This was just the start of my adventure into the world of open source. This foundation of community is important because ultimately, to build the project, the community has to be happy. For example, GitHub points out the importance of documentation that is up-to-date and easy to read for both users and contributors as one quality that keeps the community happy. New questions and ponderings develop with each person I talk to and article I read. An article from Knight Lab at Northwestern University suggested having a clear vision for the project which made me wonder, what is the vision, who and what will be impacted the most by such a project? How can the vision for the project be expressed via the code of conduct and documentation? In the weeks to come, I’ll answer these questions and more in my adventures in open source.

Image: By Ryan Cash of Snowman (Ryan Cash of Snowman, via email) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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