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Inside | Outside

This was first given as the keynote at foss.in/2005, India's premier Open Source conference, 1 Dec 05. You can view the slides online here, or download them in PDF form.

How participation is the only factor which matters in communities, especially the open source world


This is a talk about how anyone (ie, each and every member of the audience) can succeed. They can advance themselves, play a part in, and even lead an Open Source project.

You see, lots of people talk big, and many expend considerable effort debating issues back and forth on mailing lists, web forums and chat channels, but at the end of the day only one thing matters in the open source world: participation. Those who do set the direction.

It turns out this isn't limited to just IT. I originally was just thinking about software projects but have increasingly also been thinking about the organizations that grow up around such things (conferences, national groups, and even enlightened companies) and the politics therein.

Take the case of governance of a FOSS organization. Imagine you and I are directors on a board or members of a committee. I [for instance] may or may not be interested in a particular course of action. If I really need to advocate it not happening, then maybe I will exert myself to oppose it. But on the other hand, by in large, what the organization only does is what the individual players do, and if you get up and do something, well, you've done it, and a) it's not for me to say no, and b) I'm irrelevant anyway - you're the one doing the work, so it's your call.

This issue came up in a debate on planet.gnome.org a few months ago - at the end of the day GNOME is (and only will be) that which the developers actually [choose to] create. Anyone and everyone else's opinion doesn't matter — because you can't really force a developer to do anything.

That sound negative, but the flipside is that the work that does get done tends to be stuff that people believe in, want to, or feel they need to do. With the result that overall motivation, and enthusiasm tends to be really high, and surprise quality results.

I have had a personal recent experience with this. In the last 4 months I have gone from being interested bystander to release manager for a project. Why? Because it needed doing, no one else was doing it... so I stepped up, took care of a few things, and now I'm it. Done. This is not a new phenomenon by any stretch. People have observed in the past that those who do gain credibility and moral authority within communities. But what people seem to gloss over is that the magic of the FOSS movement is that anyone can do.

Experienced hackers tend to forget what it's like to be on the outside. Sometimes we're not as charitable to our users as we could be — but these very same people are the pool from which will grow the talent that will help us out and carry on our endeavors. So nurture these people. Invite them in. Welcome their views. Teach them, but let them find their own paths. Remember you were young once too.

To all the newcomers, who look at those uber cool hackers on the inside and think "that could never be me", I want to tell you this: Open Source represents more than just software - it's a way to BE involved. All you need is a little enthusiasm, a little persistence, and before you know it, you won't be on the outside anymore. You'll be in. You'll even have a hackergotchi.

Don't believe me? "No one can tell you no." They can say no, but in the end you have the opportunity to do what you want. And THAT is freedom as in free software.

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