OSCON 2009: Building Belonging

Ubuntu is widely known for its community-building efforts, so I was very interested to hear what Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu community manager, had to say at OSCON.

Jono suggested that people want to be in a community (any community) because it gives them a sense of belonging. This makes sense to me--we are, after all, social creatures. And Ubuntu seems to do a good job at this. Jono showed a photo from the recent Ubuntu Developer Summit in Prague, in which all the volunteers were highlighted. I didn't have time to count, but it appeared to me that over half the people there were volunteers, not Canonical employees.

So how does a community foster this sense of belonging? Jono had several suggestions. One was to treat all contributions as gifts. That doesn't mean accepting every contribution. But if the contribution can't be accepted for some reason, be constructive and gentle in your feedback.

Jono suggested some ways that structure can help foster belonging. For example, Ubuntu structures everything in teams, even user groups. This makes everything simple and uniform: to get involved, find a team that you want to join. And because the teams are smaller than the community as a whole, it's easier to get started and make connections.

Structure can also be used to encourage socializing. By this Jono didn't mean the structured team-building exercises that one sees in the corporate world. Rather, the idea is to budget time just for chatting, sharing stories, etc. Besides encouraging social bonding, this promotes information exchange that might not happen otherwise.

Jono also noted the importance of the virtual environment. First, he drew an analogy with physical neighborhoods. People are more inclined to hang around someplace that is kept-up, safe, and inviting. Second, the virtual environment can help build belonging by making contributions (and contributors) visible.

Community members can reinforce a sense of belonging by framing questions or issues in a way that leads to progress. Jono's example was to change the thought "this sucks" to "I won't live life this way".

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Random information that I hope will be interesting to Oracle's technical community. The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

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