A community is shared mythology

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 12, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Everyone now and then, someone insists that there is no such thing as a free software community -- only a collection of code and licenses. That has always seemed self-evidently false to me, but it struck me as especially so when I attended LinuxCon last month.

Probably, I was overly-aware of the sense of community because, for personal reasons, I hadn't attended a conference for several years. Consequently, I seem to have spent most of the three days of the conference either catching up with old acquaintances like Jay Lyman and his family, or else meeting Internet friends like Carla Schroder for the first time. At one point, I took forty-five minutes to walk the twenty metres from the top of the escalator to the registration desk, because every time I turned around, there was another hand to shake or shoulder to hug. From the moment I stepped into the hotel, I felt as though I had come home after a long trip

However, even taking my personal circumstances into account, the sense of community was overwhelming. Keynote speaker after speaker stood up and praised the shared values of collaborative development, sometimes taking a broad swipe at Microsoft in the process, but always assuming not only a shared sense of values, but of being everyone in hearing being engaged in a vast enterprise of overwhelming importance. In session after session, people spoke, not only about their life work, but their enthusiasms, grateful for an appreciative or at least an understanding audience.

In the hallways, it was the same. When you talked to a stranger, you didn't have to worry that they understood what you were talking about. You could assume a common set of references -- not just to Linux, but to asides and in-jokes about GNOME or Richard Stallman, or the GNU General Public License. For some, just being freed of the need to explain yourself as enough, but others rushed around getting pictures of themselves with Linus Torvalds, Eben Moglen and anyone else with any claim to fame, seeking validation of themselves by claiming thirty seconds with their heroes. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who felt at ease in the company.

Beyond cynicism

Of course, it is easy to be cynical about such things. You might say that the Linux Foundation's publicity, focusing on the twentieth anniversary of the Linux kernel, was spectacularly successful in creating -- at least for three days -- its own reality in a couple of thousand people already open to its marketing campaign.

You might say, too, as I have, that singing the praises of co-operation is unconvincing when it comes from the CEO of a company that is on track to do a billion dollars worth of business in a year, or that statements about distributions working together would be more credible if they didn't come from the representative of an ambitious small company.

But, while such comments would have a degree of truth, they would also miss the point. No marketing campaign, however clever, could create the sense of community at LinuxCon from nothing. It could only draw on existing sentiment, amplifying it and encouraging what was already there.

Similarly, no matter how hypocritical or inconsistent some of the speakers might be, the very fact that they found it necessary to evoke shared values and idealism says something. To operate in the atmosphere of the conference or of free software in general, even the shrewdly business-like find it advisable to refer to the better part of themselves, and to claim shared ideals.

Yes, it is true that those ideals are not fully realized. For instance, free software is not the meritocracy that everyone praises, especially if you are female. But the ideal of a meritocracy remains important in free software, no matter how flawed its implementation actually is.

And when a group of people have shared values and references, and tell the same stories to make themselves feel good about themselves and their work, what is that, except the definition of community? It may be an imperfect community, one in which some people's interests are narrower than others, and one in which conflicts exist (I thought that several times Eben Moglen looked as though he were about to object to the use of "open source" rather than free software). Yet, when the shared values are more important than such differences, then the existence of a community becomes obvious.

Next time someone tries to tell me that a free software community doesn't exist, I'm going to ask them if they've been to a conference recently. I feel confident that, nine times out of ten, they won't have been.

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