Monday, July 23, 2012

OSCON talk: "Open Source 2.0: The Science of Community Management"

One of the best talks I saw at OSCON 2012 was "Open Source 2.0: The Science of Community Management" by David Eaves, a consultant who specializes in negotiation.  He had a very short talk during the opening plenary session (this part was videotaped).  Then, he had a full 40-minute slot, which I attended because I had enjoyed the keynote.  I didn't take any notes because I had to stand in the back with a lot of other people who had crowded into the room, so this summary will be impressionistic.

Eaves talked cogently about specific challenges faced in building community around open-source projects.  These include their distributed nature, differing motivations, part-time attention from members, and the fact that email is a terrible communication mechanism that is highly susceptible to misinterpretations of meaning.

Eaves contrasted the typical zero-sum, adversarial approach to negotiation to one in which the parties respect one another, attempt to understand one another, and seek a solution that is advantageous to everyone.

Eaves emphasized the importance of listening.  He caterogized different purposes of communication.  Then, he characterized one long thread in a bug-tracking database as everyone trying to prove a point without anyone listening.  Understanding the needs and motivations of others will make you much more effective, but too many people don't do it.

Eaves noted that people are not evil or irrational.  People act rationally to maximize their perceived self-interest.  Thus, understanding their self-interest, and their perception of it, can help you to find solutions that satisfy both them and you.  (That also might include educating them about their true self-interest, if you can do it without being bombastic.)  It's important to know your own self-interest and to be rational about it.  Separate out the things that are actually important to you from the things that have to do with your ego, or with one particular way of achieving those ends, or from your first ideas about a solution.

Eaves discussed that open-source projects tend to be unfriendly to newbies, as I mentioned above.  Reactions to suggestions from new members, or to suggestions that are slightly off, can be aggressive and downputting.  There are several rational explanations for this behavior.  One explanation is that developers believe that thick skin is correlated with competence; thus, their behavior is an effective and efficient way to weed out people who would not make valuable contributions.  (It's a different question whether that correlation actually exists, and thus whether the developers' behavior is productive.)  Other explanations include that developers are protecting their own time or increasing their reputation.  Eaves suggested a "newbie" badge beside newcomers' posts, so that other people would treat them more gently.  I had always thought that the badge was there as a return mechanic -- people will want to keep posting to get "newbie" off their profiles -- but this is another excellent reason for it.  Some people will treat the newbies more gently, and other people might be more inclined to ignore them.

Overall, Eaves provided good information about seeking win-win, and not in a perfectly fluffy and content-free context, but with examples and exercises.

He recommended two books, "Getting to Yes" and "Difficult Conversations", both of which were already on my list of books to read -- maybe now I will actually read them.

He also pointed at some of his blog posts, which I have not yet read:

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