Winter Camp gathering shows the value of channels between free software projects and their constituents

By Andy Oram
March 9, 2009

Last week I was privileged (mining that term for its multiple connotations) to engage with 150 other people in a unique and moving set of experiences at an event called Winter Camp. My first impressions, based on just readings and a few early meetings, already demonstrated the engagement we all felt. My next report was generated in the heat of our work and reflected an almost fairy-tale atmosphere. A couple days after the end, I can cull some lessons for open source programmers and projects, as well as for people in other networks trying to make change.

The inquiry driving Winter Camp, sponsored and run by the Institute of Network Cultures, seemed austere and academic enough despite an explicitly political tinge involving the empowerment of people who are not currently represented in social decisions. We were here to explore how we could improve the effectiveness of far-flung groups (which we called "networks").

It was the unique characteristics of the participants--unique in our diversity as well as in what we held in common--that led to the week's emotional intensity.

Be Your Constituents

But first some ideas for free software development. I came here not as an O'Reilly representative but as a volunteer with FLOSS Manuals, a nonprofit devoted to creating open books. For a free software development team, we're an unusual collection of people. Most are directly involved in the project are artists and many are educators. This might make us more sensitive to the reactions of the people for whom we're developing the project.

I hate using the term "users" for these people. Not only does the word have ugly connotations; it draws a reprehensible border around the ways those people can interact and contribute, just as much as would the term "consumers." Pursuing the theme of artists doing software development, I have tried considering these people an "audience" instead. But in a fascinating conversation I had this morning with researcher Ned Rossiter, one of the Winter Camp organizers, he criticized the metaphor of"audience" as an undifferentiated and passive mass. He suggested the term "constituents" instead. The search for the perfect term is ongoing.

Perhaps an artist's sensitivity explains why FLOSS Manuals has met the constituents' needs more effectively than the scads of other free documentation projects that have been tried over the years. Do we have some practices in common with other successful free software projects?

An old saw about free software, which has quite a bit of truth, is that programmers create excellent interfaces for tools aimed at programmers like themselves, but compare unfavorably to proprietary equivalents when the tools are for other constituents.

Some of the best free tools for artists and other creative people may have overcome this limitation. But it's a constant challenge for free software. We may still be operating in the shadow of the early hacker ideal that was alive in the age before the PC, when hackers thought anyone who cared about information should become a master programmer himself.

The advent of universal computing drove hackers to modify their ideal, with its deceptively elitism, and to competed instead with proprietary companies to provide easy-to-use point-and-click tools. But this success has created an inherent gap between their view of the software and the constituents' view.

The constituency for a free software tool normally hovers faceless in the background. From the viewpoint of software developers, all too often, the constituents are represented by a bunch of whiny forum postings asking why the software doesn't work the way they expected.

For well-established projects, conferences can briefly bring together programmers and their constituents. But conferences are sporadic and expensive. Putting key representatives of the constituents on project boards also helps, but we all know from forays into politics that listening to a representative is far less effective than providing channels for direct input to all the people being represented.

One of the joys of Winter Camp, for me, was a chance to build alliances with our constituents--with educators, artists, and political activists who use free software every day and want documentation--and to request their active help. Our challenge is to sustain the collaboration beyond this week.

Free software could benefit from more such intense inclusivity. Just as software engineering practice has moved beyond the isolated programmer model (where requirements are thrown over the wall into the developer's cubicle and his code is thrown over another wall to the testers), free software needs mass constituent participation.

When I started this blog, I titled this section "Know Your Constituents." After writing the first couple paragraphs, I changed the title to its current text. I think this totality of identification is crucial for software development. For FLOSS Manuals in particular, certain goals of founder Adam Hyde helped us get where we are today:

  • Making contribution easy while preserving an effective structure to documents
  • Creating attractive output both online and in print
  • Putting in extra effort to do things that are hard to do, such as providing translations into many languages

We still need to do more in several areas, in my opinion:

  • Figuring out how to make the project sustainable, which of course involves regular income
  • Ensuring documentation's quality and accuracy
  • Ensuring that contributors are recognized

Even in our current early stage, FLOSS Manuals has progressed quickly. It has been chosen by friends of One Laptop Per Child and the Sugar project to do a series of manuals, and this has earned FLOSS Manuals attention from other free software constituents. We discovered so much interest at Winter Camp (where several members of other networks had written for our books) that we set up a special talk attended by over twenty people from other projects. Now we're intensifying our roll-out of new projects.

As for me, I'll participate on the weekend of March 21-22 in a project at the Free Software Foundation in Boston: a book on how to use the command line. I hope Boston-area hackers can come there and contribute.

Unbalanced challenges

The feeling that we had more at stake in this gathering than academic inquiry came quickly, as we heard stories from political activists at winter Camp. Some people here are in exile from their home countries. One participant, Issa Nyaphaga, was arrested and tortured in Cameroon for his political cartoons. He then spent twelve years going from one host country to another without a passport, leaving his family behind. He is now a successful artist and teacher in New York City.

We saw a bit of one participant's film about destructive ecological practices by oil companies in Nigeria. Other people deliberately set up home in underprivileged areas to help educate or organize the poor; others collect funds and provide houses for artists forced into exile.

The second day of the gathering brought an Amsterdam political organizer who asked us to join a protest in support of undocumented immigrants being held in a jail near the airport. I have a lot I could say about immigration politics in the US, but I feel unqualified as a guest to take a stand about immigration politics in the Netherlands. Still, one tiny incident I heard from a Winter Camp participant is relevant.

He had attended a demonstration at the airport and held up signs to show support for the jailed immigrants. The guards inside the jail closed the shutters so that the inmates couldn't see the demonstrators. That small act of severance is hard to appreciate unless one understands the isolation and helplessness that attends imprisonment. The guards could probably justify their action, perhaps by citing fears of inmate unrest. (But what is more likely to generate unrest: optimism or despair?) Whatever your stand on immigration, censorship needs to be protested whether it involves putting filters on Internet service providers or closing the shutters in a jail.

I have already mentioned that the political goals of the gathering's organizers played a subordinate role in the invitation, which stressed questions about forming and sustaining networks. It's remarkable, therefore, how much the final participants agreed with the organizers' political goals. It's even more remarkable when you look at how the invitations went out--a very decentralized process.

The organizers chose a dozen networks to invite, heavily relying so far as I can see on an old-boy network of their own. (I believe that every network had at least one leading resident in the Netherlands.) The leader of each network then chose members to represent the network at the gathering. Some were small enough to invite everybody, whereas others worked out the invitee list through various planning mechanisms. A lot depending on who happened to be free, who could put aside family responsibilities for a week, and so on.

But this ad hoc, almost arbitrary invitation mechanism led to an extremely cohesive network philosophically and politically. If anyone who considered himself a centrist or moderate happened by accident to find his way to Winter Camp, he must have spent his time cowering under the stairwell. I think the invitation process in itself is a fascinating experiment in establishing conformity.

Stress and articulation

I myself come out of political movements whose slogan is "Organize the unorganized," but in the context of Winter Camp the slogan is less about unionizing impoverished day laborers and more about trying to negotiate the limits of discipline among people whose careers are devoted to fighting organizations.

Some participants were so wedded to "horizontalism" and anti-elitism that they hate to use terms such as "institution-building" (because to them, "institution" means a large corporation or oppressive government). As sophisticated intellectuals, they should be able to redefine "institutionalization" as the evolution of their favorite modes of interaction into stable formations.

Radical visions are fine to start with, but one can't posture as someone who has never compromised with the world as it is in order to survive--never turned in a school essay, never written a grant proposal, never presented a passport at border control. You need a strategy for moving from one institution to another, no matter how radical your critique; I have been convinced of this by seeing the consequences of failed states.

And of course these earnest networkers included people who tried to pull rank or who used their erudition to subtly devalue other people's contributions, human failings that have to be addressed by any quest for social improvement.

The struggles of the networks to translate ideals into expression came out on the final day, as each network was given twenty minutes to present the results of their week's work.

FLOSS Manuals offered a pretty standard, frontal presentation--perhaps even a boring one, I admit. But we had accomplished a lot, and wanted to boast about it:

  • We've defined key functions--coding, web design, finance, public relations--and made a commitment to replace our reliance on a single individual with a team in each area
  • We made plans to contact like-minded organizations for guidance on how to cheaply and efficiently fix our key gaps in governance and finance.
  • Two coders developed a database schema for our new back-end.
  • Two designers scrutinized the current web site and made some changes to allow easier interaction and show the most important features.
  • We started a manual on how to write a manual. This project particularly appeals to me. There are shelves' worth of textbooks and professional guides for technical writing, but none that we've found focuses on the needs experienced by today's online communities or takes into account the new technologies and social environments of online information production.

How did other networks use their twenty minutes? A few put together creative impressions of their experience, but usually failed to answer the question of what they had learned or accomplished. Some networks did not let their anti-hierarchism stand in the way of delivering twenty-minute lectures in opposition to hierarchy.

One network opened the floor and encouraged audience members to talk to each other. They wandered through the theater offering to talk and answer questions, but refused to allow microphones in order to combat centralism.

Many people in the audience, of course, grabbed this moment to open their laptops. I'm happy to report that many of us tried to use the opportunity in the spirit in which it was offered. I flagged down a member of the network and asked what I felt was the key question in this context, whether you are schmoozing at a conference, going onto LinkedIn, or arriving in a new town: who is worth talking to? We agreed on a fairly standard response: that the solution is to make connections, and that certain people are well-positioned or specially skilled to be connectors.

I don't want to leave the impression of a dour or cantankerous gathering; in fact I found the general tone to be the joy of discovering news and new connections. The week's events ended with a dance, music being furnished by the participants. This polyglot crew was slow to set sail on the embedded spaciality of the non-vocal, but once we got going we really rocked.

Further steps

All these people are doing wonderful things back home. Whenever I sat down with an artist, activist, or coder, I came away impressed. The problem is that when a network discusses what brought them together, the individual achievements get leached out and what's left is a bunch of abstractions that all sound the same. So I did not manage to answer, for myself, the question of how networking can add new strength to individual efforts.

The answer will have to come from post-gathering analysis by the network organizers. They're in a good position to find out something, I think. The dropped into our meetings regularly, although they didn't interrupt us and try to make us self-conscious about what we were doing. They carried out two dozen interviews on videotape. (I don't know yet whether these will go online.) And they've asked us for explicit feedback. I'll be interested to see the next turn in this spiral of practice and research.


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