angry penguin


Scritturare (engage)

Brian Alleyne's weblog on culture, politics, and technology

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Community: what does it mean today?
angry penguin

I am working on a new article, “Realizing Community in Software Projects”. What prompted my interest in this topic is the pervasive talk of community in our digital world: Facebook, Twitter, Linux, and strangely, in new business models that seek to mobilise, and monetize, ‘community’. As an ethnographer, I am fascinated by all this talk of community. But I am also sceptical, especially when I read of business models based on community. In Free and Open Source Software, there has been considerable thought and action around building communities, and sometimes I get the impression that community building is just a precursor to assemble a large group of potential customers, to whom a product will be sold at a later stage. Putting cynicism to one side for moment, what if there was something here? So I have set out to render a sociological account of community in our networked world.

Fortunately I do not have to start from scratch: some years ago I wrote a paper on ideas of community, which has been cited by several other researchers, sometimes in contexts that I would not have imagined when I was writing the paper. A good development I guess. My target in that paper was to examine the idea of ethnic community, as it is used in official and popular discourse in Britain. I came to the conclusion that ‘community’ was often used a a way of containing complexity and simplifying difference. A rather negative reading, in hindsight.

As a start, I am revisiting literature on community that I read when I was a research student in anthropology. In parallel, I am looking at some recent work on community building, especially the book by Jono Bacon, who is a  Software evangelist and hacker, and the Ubuntu Community Manager; his book is called  ‘The Art of Community’. I am finding Bacon’s book a strange read, mainly because of his hostility to what he calls  ‘theory’, by which I understand him to refer to the kind of work that we do in sociology and anthropology.  But, I am determined not to take offence, and indeed, I find that he has an excellent set of practices on how to build an open and democratic community around a project, be that project software or otherwise.


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