In the last article, we finally went beyond theory to some practical tips on how to improve communication in your community. In this article, we get even more practical, offering some easy to follow tips which will make a material difference in your communities.
There are two concrete things—one piece of advice for both community developers and individuals seeking to join a community, and one piece of advice for community projects interested in encouraging greater geographical diversity. Each one has a number of consequences.
Focus on the Relationship
The number one piece of advice is that relationships grow over time, between individuals. The more that you can do to enable community members to form strong relationships with people from other cultures, the better.
For projects, there are a few ways to do that: encourage the creation of local user groups, and encourage locals who are already members of the community to take on mentorship roles for others in their region. Send some of the leaders of your project to local events, and put a heavy focus on the social interactions with the local user group members. And bring a small number of people from the local user groups to your main event, and encourage them to form relationships within the project. One way to do that is to treat visiting community members in young communities as VIPs at your major event. Another is to encourage a kind of network of local user group leaders who share experiences and help each other.
For individuals approaching an open source project, a focus on the relationship as the fundamental building block means that your priority will not, initially, be technical (getting code accepted), it will be social (understanding how changes are proposed and evaluated, and who are the key members of the community). It also means that you should start small when joining a community, and through initial interactions with the community, grow relationships. You need to understand how your proposals and ideas will be received and considered by the community to ensure success. To make your path to integration easier, look around the community for someone who could potentially help mentor you, who understands your frame of reference.
Make it Easier to Work Together
There are a few practical considerations in open source projects that make it harder to have cultural and geographical diversity. Chief among them are English as the lingua franca, and the tendency towards real-time meetings.
In some projects, regular, real-time meetings are the norm, and it doesn’t matter what time you pick, it will be bed-time for the kids somewhere, it will be 3am for someone else, morning rush for others, family dinner time for others. Meetings times are always chosen to be convenient for most people in your current community, resulting in a minority who deal with inconvenient times, and a huge number of people you never see, because they will not join meetings.
Another consideration in real-time meetings is that, for non-native speakers, participating in an English language video or phone conference, or even an IRC meeting, is very mentally taxing. Debating or discussing complex ideas in your 2nd or 3rd language is hard—and it is very frustrating to wait for an opportunity to express your opinion, and once you finally get your chance, the meeting has moved on to another topic, or you feel like your opinion is ignored just because of your accent.
Real-time meetings have a place in a community—in-person meetings at conferences and other events are a great way to build relationships, and sometimes you have issues where you just need to get the right people in the same (virtual or physical) place to power through a discussion.
In general, asynchronous, written communication provides people from other cultures the closest thing to a level playing field. Mailing lists, bug trackers, and patch review systems all allow for this type of asynchronous communication. David Eaves once described the success of open source as being a victory of cooperation over collaboration. In other words, as a community, we have figured out how to allow people to work independently and merge the results, rather than have to agree up front what should be done. All too often, projects are adopting a model where prior agreement is required for useful community work.
The hardest thing about encouraging cultural diversity in community projects is that so many of the differences that make interaction hard are invisible to us. Learning lessons from various fields of social studies can give us some tools to uncover unspoken assumptions, and generally improve the experiences of everyone in our community.
Two simple ways to get started are to reduce the focus on synchronous, real-time communication, and create mentorship and travel programs to create a strong focus on building personal relationships across cultural boundaries. These two steps may be enough to get things moving in the right direction, and give an opportunity for longer term learning and increased cultural diversity. No-one expects perfection overnight, the most important thing is to get started in the right direction.
To succeed as a community, we need to be aware of, and mitigate for, cultural differences. This takes work and understanding, and dealing with conflicting values can be an uncomfortable experience. In the end, the increased diversity and awareness in the community makes the effort worthwhile.
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