Three realisations about community

Through May/June I was travelling in the US, to a number of feminist and tech events including WisCon, AdaCamp and Open Source Bridge.

I gave talks, ran unconference sessions, and sat on panels at each event, as well as talking to lots of smart people doing good stuff. In between, I hung out with remote colleagues and met new ones in spaces like San Francisco’s feminist hackerspace Double Union.

Along the way, I made three realisations, all of which are related to community in some way.

1. Community is my career, now

Especially at AdaCamp and OSB, I found myself looking at the schedule and considering which talks and sessions were right for me.

I find I’m no longer interested in most of the tech talks — if I want to learn about a specific technology, I can usually do so more effectively online when I need it. I used to go to those sessions out of a sense of duty, but now I’m out of the tech industry and working for myself, I don’t have to fake it any more. I still go to some tech talks, but usually to see what cool stuff other people are working on, not because it’s particularly relevant to my work.

Then there were the community sessions, ones covering topics like how to create a welcoming environment for newbies to your open source project, moderation strategies for online forums, and distributed agile development. All interesting and worthwhile topics, but ones I’ve been dealing with for years.

Back in 2009, I attended SXSW (and hated it, but that’s another story) and went to a session for first-timers, where someone gave the advice: “Never attend a session whose subject you already know about.” You’ll sit in the audience either bored, or frustrated. Without wanting to denigrate the excellent community sessions at the conferences I went to, I do have to say that a lot of them fell into this category for me. I attended to support my friends who were speaking, and I certainly picked up a few interesting tips, but if my goal was to learn new things then I’m not really sure these sessions were worth my time.

My realisation, over lunch on the first day of OSB (and thanks to Sara Smollett for helping me figure this out), is that I’m a mid-career community organiser. This is why open tech/culture events aren’t working for me — the tech content is no longer particularly useful to me, and the community content tends toward the 101 level.

So, how can I advance my skills and experience as a community organiser? Community management events in the tech field aren’t going to do it. I need to look wider, at fields with more established community theory and practice: social work, activism, politics, organisational behaviour, social psychology, just to name a few. So this is what I’m doing now: trying to learn and level up my community skills by reading and studying in these areas. Next year, I hope I’ll find a way to get to conferences that cover those areas in depth.

2. Community organiser, not community manager

The second realisation I had is around terminology.

Management is a business term. Organizing is a political one. I’m more interested in community organizing — helping people come together to achieve social change — than in managing people for business purposes.

I came to this realisation through my efforts to study things from outside the online/tech community management field. I’m re-reading Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which talks about what makes effective neighbourhoods. Jacobs was instrumental in organising her neighbourhood community to resist having a freeway put through it in the 1950s. Reading about her on Wikipedia I found that she appreciated the work of Saul Alinksky, considered to be the founder of modern community organizing.

That’s when it clicked for me. Community organising is a practice with a long and successful history of working for social and political change, and community organisers aren’t afraid to upset those in power to make a better world. That’s what I want to be doing.

So, from now on I am using the term “community organiser” rather than “community manager” about my own work. Reframing it this way has given me a new perspective and momentum. I have a lot to learn, but at least I’m clear on what direction I’m heading in.

3. I’m still not an open source person

Back in 2011 I wrote Why I’m not an open source person any more, and reading back over it, it still holds true… mostly.

At AdaCamp someone requested an “introduction to open source” session in the 101 timeslots, and I since I wasn’t interested in most of the of the other 101 sessions and knew the subject well, I stepped up to run it. I talked about licensing, culture, and software development practices. I hope it was useful to the people who attended, but I felt unsatisfied by it. It’s not what I wanted to be doing.

The next day, someone asked me if I would help them promote their open source outreach program in Australia. I said, regretfully, that I wasn’t up for that. Open source isn’t my thing any more, and I don’t have the enthusiasm to do a good job of it. She pushed me, and I pushed back, and I came away really frustrated — partly that I hadn’t been listened to, but also partly because I had had trouble expressing my own boundaries and needs, because I didn’t really understand them myself.

Well, reframing my community work as political has helped me figure that out. For me, open source is a tool for social change. Specifically, I’m interested in social justice and sustainability, and I use open source toward those ends.

If someone asks me to do something simply “because it’s open source” (or open data, or open access, or whatever other kind of open stuff), I’m not going to be into that. I’ll need a lot of convincing that open source is a worthwhile end goal in its own right.

If someone asks me to do something open-source related that’s for another social or political goal that I support (say, government transparency, or individual privacy) then I’ll wish them well and help spread the word, but it’s not where my focus is.

I use open source and other open-licensed stuff as a tool for social change, especially in the areas of social justice and sustainability. But it’s just one part of my toolkit. I’m not an open source person any more. I’m a community organiser who uses open source.