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.

3 Responses to “Fraternal Nearness”

  1. October 24th, 2005 | 9:38 pm


    That is an interesting analogy that you pose between open source developers and members of a fraternity. I can speak from the fraternity side, as I helped create a chapter of my fraternity (Beta Chi Theta) during undergrad. To generalize, these organizations are comprised of similar people with similar goals who work with one another for a common cause.

    Often times these relationships last past those few years of being together. This may be the greatest disparity in your analogy. Nonetheless, it just goes to show that communities are a lot more similar to each other than what society depicts them as.


  2. October 25th, 2005 | 11:24 pm

    Hey Jonah — You mention that OSS developers’ motivations may include status, recognition, an escape from ‘reality’ or an immersion in an environment that the developer completely controls. What about the potential for business networking / resume building /job opportunities? While passion for the open source vision may be the ultimate reason for action, I have numerous friends who have received job opportunities that came about because of their open source work. I feel as though this plays at least some sort of role (however small).

    Also, if you’re interested in looking for real life examples of these open source communities to study or research, I know of a group of developers in San Francisco that meets once a month and works on all their different open source projects together (as the “SuperHappyDevHouse”
    ). Interesting group, really great people.

    – Molly

  3. November 4th, 2005 | 11:27 am

    You have provided a good illustration of some of the concepts I was playing with, so thanks, Jonah. I agree that we need more examples and applications, and it would be great if some of that could happen around our wiki.

    BTW, have you looked at The Hacker Ethic (obviously, a reference to Weber’s The Protestant Ethic)? The author analyses many of the issues you are interested in, as far as what motivates a hacker. It also contains chapters by Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells, so I recommend it highly. (You’ve probably read it already!)

Leave a reply

/* reset the net - */