Art of Community: First chapter of upcoming book available for download

By Andy Oram
July 16, 2009

art-community-cat.gifI was a fervent activist in several communities long before I started working with with Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon on his book The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation. We've just released the first chapter of this book (as HTML on the O'Reilly site and a PDF on the companion site Jono created).

Community is such a hard concept to talk about, maybe because we all grow up in communities and live in them all our lives. Also because communities overlap in such a myriad of different ways; we've all learned how to move between communities hour by hour. But at some point we suddenly come across a chance to form an online community, and all our native, instinctual community-building behaviors get thrown into pandemonium. (A pandemonium, as you can find if you look at Paradise Lost, originally referred to a sort of community.)

In online communities, we can't sum up people the way we can in face-to-face communities; we can't count on meeting them at a particular time and place; we can't group ourselves intuitively into subcommunities--all sorts of skills we exploit in order to live in face-to-face communities fail online.

The problems are well-known, but the skills to build online communities are not as universally distributed as the skills to build face-to-face communities. Of course, skills learned consciously in one can also help in the other. Jono displays the skills in spades.

In addition, an online component can bolster a face-to-face community, and face-to-face meetings help to cement online communities. Although Jono's book focuses on online communities--and software-oriented communities at that, especially free software communities--it contains a chapter about face-to-face meetings. Most of his insights apply to any kind of community that has an online component--as most do nowadays.

Having studied communities and scraped my knuckles organizing a few communities, I was impressed at the breadth of Jono's view when he pitched his book. He knew sociology, he knew management techniques, he knew personal psychology, he knew finance, he knew communication tools, he knew life cycles--and he had personalized all that knowledge. You'll see that come across in the book in all the stories he tells, revealing a lot about himself while offering lessons that transcend time and place.

In short, I felt that Jono understood the purpose of a community and the factors that make it work. That requires nothing less than understanding the human condition. I myself saw the human factor more and more in everything I did. (You can find some of my own organizing experiences in an interview I did for Jono during the creation of the book. Later in the process, we added co-editor Simon St.Laurent, who has fascinating background of his own as a local community activist.) O'Reilly had already tried a couple times to get a book titled The Art of Community going, but in Jono's hands I felt the project would really achieve its potential.

In eleven brisk and action-packed chapters, it has.

If you lead a community, want to set up a community, would like to become more involved in a community, or are aided in some way by a community--in other words, if you are anybody but a bitter malcontent--you'll learn a lot just by reading the chapter we put online today. In it, Jono explores the puzzling magic that makes communities work against the odds, the idea of a social economy, the different roles story-telling plays, the role of ego (you need one, just keep it to yourself), and a lot more. And I'm talking just about Chapter 1.

So there's the book--which will be in the stores in a few weeks, and which we'll also release under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license--there's the web site, and in a couple days there will be even more--a community leadership summit! Jono has organized this free, open summit with the help of O'Reilly, his employer Canonical, and a number of other organizations. I'm very excited about getting there two days from now.

My first community was my family. My first online community was the Cyberrights mailing list that I comoderated in the mid-1990s for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. My family has held together reasonably well (something not to be taken for granted nowadays) but I saw the Cyberrights mailing list fall apart after three years as I desperately tried to arbitrate a public feud between two comoderators who adhered to different ideologies on a few crucial issues. I think, had a couple of us possessed the skills I have now--or The Art of Community--the mailing list would have survived and continued to make a positive contribution. May we all be able to strengthen our communities.


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