To investigate the notion of citizenship in the particular context of FLOSS communities, I conducted some interviews with individuals from a range of communities such as Ubuntu, Debian, GNOME, KDE, Gentoo, Mahara, and WordPress.
The questions were not about defining of citizenship in the specific context of FLOSS as this is not the main objective of this research. This project adopts a practical view, it is instead about what a good FLOSS citizen does within a given community. What does he or she do so that the community might say: “this person is a ‘good’ citizen”. The answer is not trivial and obviously depends on the perception of people but at least it is possible to identify some of the behaviours that are beneficial for a community and that falls under the umbrella of citizenship.
The interviews revealed a set of six such behaviours that are interpersonal help, conscientiousness, considerateness, civic virtue, boostering, and behavioural compliance. The chosen terms are arguable as I have tried to find words or terms that would best encompass the aspect I have identified during the interviews. I have to admit that some of them could certainly be better named, I would appreciate any suggestion or feedback.
Helping others is perhaps the essence of FLOSS communities. I define here interpersonal help as the extent to which a member voluntarily performs actions aimed at helping other community members who have expressed their need for project-related help.
Helping is a bit of a subjective term and one may be tempted to see everything that happens in a community as instances of help. What I call interpersonal help are things such as people who are always ready to lend a hand to members who have expressed a need for help. I could be about providing an answer to a question which deals with an area for which we are an expert and if this is not the case then redirecting the person to someone who is an expert. This is then some sort of reciprocal acknowledgement between two people that one needs some sort of help in a project and the other one agrees to help.
There is a difference between doing the job and doing a good job. This is where conscientiousness takes place. I define it as the extent to which a member performs actions and carries out tasks in a dependable and reliable way by being careful, thorough, responsible, and organized.
Under this type of behaviour falls things such as taking your tasks and roles seriously and trying to do your best each time you are carrying out any type of assignment. Conscientiousness also characterizes important aspects in FLOSS communities such as regularly informing the community about one’s work and progress and also letting the community know when one is not able to perform or complete a given assignment. A conscientious FLOSS community member is also one who voluntarily perform maintenance tasks to keep project resources to a good standard. I refer here to tedious tasks for which one rarely get credit such as cleaning code or documentation.
Most communities’ code of conduct (inspired from the Ubuntu code of conduct) recognize the act of being considerate as an highly valued quality for a member. I define Considerateness in this project as the extent to which a member performs actions by always being aware of other people that could be affected and by taking into account the potential consequences of his/her actions on other community members.
Being considerate involves thinking beyond oneself when contributing to a project. It is associated with the awareness of the people surrounding you and how your contributions will impact them and their work. A considerate community member would always consult people who might be affected by his or her actions or decisions,would try to avoid creating problems for other members when contributing to the project, and would take steps to try to prevent problems caused by his or her contributions with other members.
There is a sense of civic responsibility when being a community member. We could define such sense as a responsible and constructive involvement in the life of a FLOSS community, including expressing opinions and taking part in decisions, attending/partaking in social events, and keeping updated about issues that involve the overall project and the areas in which the member is involved.
It is first important for a member to keep up with the latest development and announcements about the overall project as well as in the areas in which the member is involved. The is a sense of civic responsibility is also expressed when members attend and partake in social events organized by the community such as conferences, hackfests, or sprints. Finally, expressing opinions and taking part in decisions is also some important matter. However, such participation must be constructive and effective. In other words one shall express his or her opinion way when it deals to an area for which the person an expert but the member shall also keep it quiet when a discussion or debate does not deal with an area which is clearly understood by the person.
Finally, someone with a high sense of civic responsibility would abide by any decision that has been made for which the person either agrees or even disagrees, accept it, and act accordingly.
The interviews showed that aspects such as “improving image outside of the project” or “advocating a project outside” were emphasized by most respondents. As a respondent pointed out “if you are a true passionate citizen then naturally you will be talking about the project in good terms and spread your passion to other people, promoting it to others”.
I define boostering here to encompass all above aspects by using the following definition: the extent to which a member acts with the best interest for a FLOSS community and promotes its image to outsiders.
Improving the image of a project starts with defending the project when a person inside or outside the community criticizes it. It is then about encouraging friends, colleagues, and family to use the software developed in the community and promoting the project to the outside world. Overall, such a passionate member always acts and contributes with the best interest for the community.
This list of behaviours is certainly not exhaustive but it is a step further towards understanding what FLOSS communities need from their members to ensure their success. This could also help FLOSS projects reflect on the actual code of conduct and encompass some of the aspects presented in this blog post.