Why Open Source Community Managers Should Watch Star Wars

The Community Leadership Summit (CLS) will start in a few days. This post was inspired by meeting notes of last year’s event.

Community development is a tricky thing to get right. In a typical vendor or consortium-driven Open Source community, the community manager has to deal with multiple stakeholders, each with their own agenda, goals and “hot buttons”. It falls to the community manager to understand these (often overlapping or conflicting) agendas and massage the relationships within the ecosystem – both between the various stakeholder groups and between the stakeholders and the parent vendor/consortium – to ensure forward progress. Needless to say, this can be quite challenging, even at the best of times.

The Death Stars

The task is further complicated when a community manager belongs to a so-called “Death Star” company (as discussed during CLS 2011). If you remember your Star Wars, the Death Star was a gigantic space station created by Darth Vader, capable of destroying entire planets with a single blast of its laser cannon. In a similar vein, there are some software companies that are perceived as Death Stars – in effect, they’re so big and powerful that they’re capable of destroying entire Open Source communities with small shifts in their business plans or software strategies. Companies like Microsoft and Oracle are the ones that are most often clubbed in this category and perceived as “evil”.

From the CLS meeting notes, it can be seen that community managers face various challenges when working with the communities of so-called Death Star companies. Some of these challenges are internal, perhaps due to company management or policies, while still others are external, arising from negative user preconceptions of the company as “evil” or “bad”. In both cases, community management becomes harder and can create frustration for both community members and managers.

Good, Bad or Ugly? It Depends on Where You’re Standing

Personally, when I hear companies being labeled “good” or “bad”, my internal alarm bells start ringing. Rather than adopting a moral perspective, which can raise emotions and tempers and hinder overall progress, both community managers and members should instead adopt a pragmatic perspective.

  • To begin with, it’s important to realize that companies want to make money and are themselves answerable to shareholders (most of whom have invested in the company because they anticipate a financial return on their investment). So, how a company relates to its community is colored by this fact, as also by its business model and its market environment.
  • At the same time, behaving ethically is becoming increasingly important for companies, to ensure a positive public image. Google is perhaps the most famous example with its “don’t be evil” motto, but thousands of other companies have also realized that unethical business practices, such as using cheap child labor in Asia, hurt more than they help. In other words, the “invisible hand” or market forces often themselves serve as checks and balances to prevent companies from behaving irresponsibly or unethically.

Keeping these perspectives in mind will help Death Star companies and their community leaders better define their relationship towards each other, as well as towards the community they steward.

  • Death Star companies should realize that Open Source communities are freedom-loving and opinionated, and adopting ethical business practices goes a long way towards creating a positive public perception.
  • At the same time, community managers should realize that companies aren’t de facto “evil” or “good”: business decisions often occur in reaction to rapidly-evolving marketplace events and so shouldn’t be necessarily imbued with moral implications.

The Moral of the Story

Remember that at the end of Star Wars, Darth Vader (the bad guy) turned out to not only be the father of Luke Skywalker (the good guy) but also learned goodness from him. All it took was a little understanding and time. In a similar vein, today’s so-called Death Stars might, if they’re given some patience and kindness, turn out to be the very champions of the communities they’re often accused of destroying. Something to think about, perhaps.

Then, there is an important figurehead, who believes that F/OSS is fueled by selfishness. Are we all little Darth Vaders?

Plus, it seems that IT companies in general are more aware of ethical issues than others. Doesn’t look all that bad, if you ask me.