So, after a brief work-related hiatus, I’d like to get started with a book review.

Generally, I like to read fiction, but every now and then I have to work through some nonfiction book to gain some knowledge. I’ve tried to read technical books about programming APIs etc, but in recent years I’ve found these to be quite boring, since they’re a bit too far on the basics side of things. Why should I buy and read a whole book about something I can learn with a few free online beginner’s tutorials just as well?

So, I’ve moved more into the “general concepts”-genre of nonfiction books. One big example of that is “The Art of Community” by Jono Bacon. The author is the manager of the Ubuntu community, and he shares some of his experience with the reader.

Communities are everywhere, from knitting clubs and programming workshops to political parties. There are certain rules that underlie these groups, which everybody knows instinctively. However, when you want to manage such a group, you have to know these rules explicitly, so you can act upon them. The book does a good job of giving you the feeling of what’s involved there.

The hard part about being a community manager is that you have to steer the community, without being seen as a leader. The majority of the book content is about what you have to do to get the community where you want it to be, by letting the members do what they want to do. This is done mostly by nudging and removing obstacles at the right places.

The author also provides very nice checklists for what you have to do to get things started and how to expand the community leadership into a board when it’s necessary. The chapter about governing a community is very large and reminds me a lot about our political system. However, it’s probably only relevant to a very small group of people, because communities of a size where such a system is necessary are very rare.

In general, the book tries to explain things in a general manner, so even though it’s of a technical origin, a knitting club manager can understand and apply the knowledge. However, some parts of it are probably completely incomprehensible to those. For example, there’s an extended discussion about what version control system to use, which is far too specific. In my experience, people are very bad at ignoring things they don’t understand and just give up instead, so that’s probably a roadblock for technically challenged readers. Some concrete examples also suffer from this issue, but for me they were very illustrative.

As a side effect, the book also explains the way the Ubuntu community works and its principles. That alone is very insightful, and allowed me to spot some BS in some online publications writing about Ubuntu.

So, what’s my verdict? If you know a bit about open source software development, the book is very enlightening, even when you don’t plan to manage a community, because you get a better understanding of the mechanisms that are at work in every one you are a part of (and I think everybody is part of some, even when they’re not aware of it). However, when you’re actually working on creating/expanding one, the book is great. Actually, I think everyone who is working on such a thing should read it, in order to avoid easy mistakes that can break everything. Just make sure to have to general knowledge about software development methods and open source software, otherwise you’d not understand a large part of the explanations.

The book is available as an ebook for free at http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/, but also from O’Reilly.

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