What counts more for community: labels or actions?

I was recently in an argument on Twitter (I know, I know). The summary is that there was disagreement on whether stated party affiliation or cast votes were more indicative of the state of the body politic. We didn’t arrive at a consensus, but it got me thinking about open source communities.

Communities are notoriously difficult to pin down. Where are the boundaries? Is a person a member of a community when they (or someone else) decides to apply that label to them? Are they a member when they make some overt participation effort? Is it a mix of both?

In general, I tend to think that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a duck. That is to say a person is a member of a community if they participate in the community, even if they don’t self-assign the label. For example, if someone considers themselves a political independent but they vote for Democratic candidates 80% of the time, they’re probably a Democrat. Similarly, someone who frequently answers questions in an open source project’s IRC channel or mailing list is a member of the contributor community, even if they don’t think they are (perhaps because they’ve never contributed code).

This isn’t to say that communities shouldn’t welcome people willing to self-assign membership. Unless someone has behaved in a way to warrant exclusion, they should be welcomed and encouraged to become active participants. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving them full access, though. I still consider myself a contributor to Fedora Documentation, even though I haven’t really made a contribution in a while. I still have commit access to the repo, but if someone decided to suspend that, I’d understand.

There’s not a good answer here. How a you define community is largely context-dependent. It’s worth considering how we define the boundary.

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