Fraternal Nearness

In his post Social agency and the intersection of communities and networks, Ulises Mejias expounds on the differences between communities and networks, and relates these concepts to the possibility of ontological nearness. The placement of communities within this continuum can be understood more clearly by the immediacy, intensity and intimacy of the interactions.

This conceptual apparatus is helpful for me to being to explain a phenomena that I have been thinking about for a while now. Part of the question can be though about as: What motivates the open source developer? Why would someone who works full time, often writing code professionally, choose to volunteer their nights and weekends to the continued production of more code?

I think this question is an important one for the educational community, since if we could identify this source of motivation, we might be able to “bottle it” and recreate it within the classroom.

My experiences with the Plone community has given me some insight into this question, and I think that the phenomena of Open Source projects would benefit from an analysis using the ideas proposed in Mejias’ draft.

While many people imagine that open source communities are purely virtual (the non-possibility of a virtual community notwithstanding) , it is important to recognize the ways in which these networks of individual developers become communities. Open Source projects typically use a variety of Social Software tools to communicate – email and mailing lists, web sites, forums, discussion boards, blogs, and irc, to name a few. They also often hold face-to-face conferences, and some projects even regularly arrange sprints (also).

Anecdotally, I found it fascinating to observe a progression in intimacy, to the point where some people’s day jobs are just what they do between conferences and sprints. It is no secret that sprints and conferences help make these communities function, cementing interactions over mailing lists and irc.

But an interesting comparison that I would like to propose, which I think can also be described according to the dimensions proposed by Schutz, is the similarity between an Open Source community and a college Fraternity.

[Disclaimer: I was never in a college fraternity, so this analysis is partially speculative]

Fraternities (and I suppose professional guilds and/or unions which they might be related to) are an example of an extended network/community which is disappearing from the modern urban reality. Some people find these kinds of connections in religious congregations, but otherwise many of us have lost the extended networks of people we know, but not intimately or closely.

Like fraternities, Open Source projects typically have a steep gender imbalance, members often go by aliases or nicknames, develop internal languages, acronyms, and lore. The “project” or “organization” becomes an independent object of importance that members become loyal to, and devote their time and resources to supporting.

Eric Raymond has written a bit on the motivations and structure of the hacker community. I have also heard alternate accounts of developer motivation, beyond status and recognition, that have to do with escape from “reality” and immersion in an environment that the developer completely controls. There are many potent sociological, ethnographic, and anthropological research questions that this touches on, many under active research (e.g. Effective work practices for Free and Open Source Software development, or wikipedia’s research pages).

In summary, I think that Mejias’ framework is very useful, but would benefit greatly from more examples which exercise the ideas. Perhaps we can work these categories into our ssa wiki.

slipery handles

Today I leared that a friend of mine changes her IM handle every time she switches jobs. That’s nothing, she changes emails every time a relationship ends.

I don’t know why or when she started doing this, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

“Because its your music, and you paid for it”

This afternoon I attended a talk given by Bill Gates at Columbia University. The talk was a part of his university tour, probably prompted by the well documented braindrain happening at MS right now (Certain well known competitors seem to be following the strategy outlined in Good to Great – get the smartest people you can find “on the bus”, and then let them drive…).

Here are my raw notes.

I must say that this afternoon’s talk was a bizarre experience. Perhaps its all the theory stuff I have been reading lately, but I was in a very psychoanalytic, read between the lines, kind of mood, trying to pay as much attention to what he didn’t say, as to what he did.

First, he has clearly taken some lessons from Steve Jobs. He presented casually and demoed live software. One big difference – while Jobs enjoys demoing creative authoring tools, Gates spends most of his time demoing tools of consumption. He continues to treat his gadgets as receivers, not transmitters, and this is all getting a bit tiring.

Next, close to all the software contexts he described were business and work related. There was very little talk about socializing or play (save for the xbox, and socializing in that virtual space). It was eerie that when someone asked him what his greatest accomplishments were, he responded how much he loved work (and working at his foundation). All of his examples for the uses of ubiquitous computing were work/consumer related (auto tracking receipts for expense reports, shopping, collecting business cards when traveling, Location info – while in traffic (presumably while commuting)) — this is all summed up with his grand vision of the future smartphone as replacement for wallet.

Isn’t there something else the phone could replace? Could our phones become surrogate brains, man’s best friend, or personal assistants? Can’t we conjure up a better metaphor than wallets for how software will change the world? Will it do anything beyond making us better and more efficient shoppers?

The talk kept getting weirder – Gates played a video, which most of the audience thought was very funny. I will have to save my analysis for my Media and Cultural Theory class (or the comments), but it really threw me off.

Gates never mentioned Google, Firefox, or Linux. Did acknowledge the wikipedia (by name), freebsd, sendmail, and the NSCA browser. He even made two truly surprising statements regarding IP – after demoing that the new XBox 360 will connect to an IPod, an audience member asked if it would be able to play fairplay protected ACC files. Gates responded that it won’t be able to, because Apple won’t let him (Ha!), to which he added “its your music and you paid for it.” He also stated that “studios have gone overboard in protection scheme”, and ” will always have free and commercial software.”

Before the session, they passed around cards with potential questions (I am still not sure if the questioners were plants, reading these cards…).

Here were my, never asked questions:
1) Technology can bend towards good or evil. What can we do to insure that it is used for the Good? What is M$ doing to promote the use of its software for the Good.

2) In the upcoming world of omniscient surveillance, what role will M$ play in insuring individuality, privacy, and anonymity. What is M$ doing to contribute

Serenity Lost

Nothing like a little pulp sci-fi to resonate with a class on emerging tech. I saw Serenity tonight (skip this post until you have seen it, unless you aren’t planning to at all) and was amused at how a central plot line revolved around some information that has been covered up by the authorities, and the struggle to disseminate that message.

The simplicity of a single message whose content can change the world, and a single distribution channel from which to broadcast it from is amusing, but poignant. I mean, if you could broadcast one message to the world, what would it be? Are these folksonomies helping in filtering and distributing this information, or are we just ending up on our same disconnected islands of information we started from.

I am thinking of the disjoint sets of books that liberals and conservatives read, but there must be many other examples – perhaps the entire blogosphere falls into this category. One thing I have realized as I begin to rely more and more on my rss client, is that once I am lost inside of it, if you aren’t syndicating a feed, you don’t exist.

I am quite aware that a full-blown information war is currently underway. The existence (and adoption) of Flickr allow me laugh at the Bush administrations attempts to prevent the publication of Katrina’s casualties, but how did this story get swallowed up?

If bittorrent didn’t exist (or was outlawed) and we could not reclaim the “lost” bandwidth of individual broadband subscribers, large file transfers and exchanges would probably have to be mediated through centralized bandwidth providers like akamai or cisco. But this is not quite as simple as centralized vs. decentralized publishing models, since that is only half the equation. The information retrieval needs to happen on the other end, or else you’re screaming into an abyss.

I was once lucky enough to find myself in a conversation with the author of citeulike. I casually inquired as to whether he was planning on releasing the engine which powers his site under an open license. He replied that he would, but that it would be a bad idea. citeulike is supposed to be a service, not a product. Its value is actually diluted the more there are that are running. Part of flickr or delicious’ power are in their popularity. They are much more effective the more users they have, leaving us once again in a paradoxical quandary, where we need a decentralized, centralized service.

Too many flickrs, and they are all rendered weaker, and too few, and we are back in a situation where our information is in danger of being homogenized, controlled, and filtered.

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