Research

I am mainly interested in areas that are related to Free/Libre/Open Source Sotfware (FLOSS) communities and more general aspects of online communities. Usually, “people’s issues” are what raise my interest as a researcher using insights drawn from psychology, sociology, and organizational behaviour.

Here are the areas in which I have done or am planning to do research for the next couple of years:

FLOSS community newcomer experience

To my understanding, FLOSS communities have over the last 5 to 10 years understood that their survival and sustainability strongly depends on their capacity to attract newcomers. The Google Summer of Code is one example of a large initiative which has striven to lower the barrier of entry to newcomer. Each year, more organizations are involved, but also more and more students (more than a 1000 in 2011). However, FLOSS community managers have acknowledged that no more than of 20% of the Summer of Code participants stick around in the communities they have been involved in through SoC (see Dave neary’s blog post, Leslie Hawthorn’s talk at LCA in 2012, or Donnie Berkholz’s presentation at FOSDEM in 2012, for some more information about issues with SoC and mentoring in FLOSS communities). The missing piece of the puzzle could be that there is no clear understanding the actual experience through which a newcomer has to go through. It is one thing to make sure that a lot of documentation is available on the project website to make sure newcomers can learn how to apply a patch in Git for instance but it is a different story to know what a newcomer does of such resources. Similarly, two mentor-mentee relationships (SoC or not) can be significantly different. One mentee could be provided a lot of emotional support while the mentor also provides clear step-by-step instructions and detailed feedback. In the other case, the mentor could simply be a facilitator who introduces the mentee to various members of the community and the mentee could simply figures most of the work by himself. There is a need to be in the shoes of a newcomer and understand more in depth his/her experience from the inside.

FLOSS community citizenship behaviours

The existence and survival of a FLOSS community relies on the basic assumption that members need to get the work done.  ‘Good’ members in a FLOSS community seem to be the talented and productive developers who largely contribute to the project. However, communities have soon realised that even a top-notch programmer can have a very negative influence on a community if his or her behaviour is not in line with the behavioural expectations of the community. For instance, a community which core values are about attracting newcomers and creating a friendly and supportive atmosphere may have to get rid of people (even an extremely talented developer) who make potential newcomers run away. In addition, a FLOSS community is much more than a technical project. There is a core social component which makes it possible for a community to live and sustain. Considering that, a ‘good’ member would then be someone who is good technically and/or socially, there is a need to understand more in depth what kind of social behaviours are necessary to ensure the survival of a community. A community is a complex social entity with a variety or mechanisms and norms. This area of research investigates the notion of citizenship in the context of FLOSS communities. What does a ‘good’ FLOSS community citizen do?

Toxicity in FLOSS communities

While exploring the notion of citizenship, I interviewed a number of people involved in various communities. When discussing about what a ‘good’ contributor is, the conversation often led to the problem of poisonous people in FLOSS communities also given the name of As.h.eS. Donnie Berkholz (Gentoo) has made several presentations about the problem of As.h.eS in communities by showing how they severely damage a project and its community (see latest version). These community members are also qualify as ‘poisonous people’ (see Google TechTalk about how a FLOSS project survices poisonous people). In this stream of research, I have personally chosen the term toxicity to refer to the phenomenon but I am not pretending that it is any better, it is just an effort to encompass all terms in one.

There are two overall perspectives to study the toxicity phenomenon. One is to focus on toxic people themselves and study how they impact a project. A second approach is not to focus on individuals themselves but rather on ‘toxic behaviours’. This perspective is broader as it encompasses the individuals qualified as As.h.eS or poisonous but also members that may not overall fall into the category but who one day or another performed an action that has a negative impact on the project. For instance, a person may occasionally send a flaming message which may trigger further flaming from other members or other negative actions in the community. The flaming message has been toxic and has spread but one cannot qualify a member to be a toxic individual for the community for having sent one bad message when perhaps having a bad day. He may still be a good contributor for the community.

Flaming can be one type of toxic behaviour but there is a need to first define the notion. An intuitive definition of the term could be something like any action performed by a member that has a negative impact on a project or its community and that triggers further similar actions from other members. Once the notion is defined, then there are various aspects that can be investigated such as measuring the negative impact on a project/community, understanding the replication mechanisms of toxic behaviours, or designing a toxicity metrics that would allow to monitor the degree of toxicity within a FLOSS community.

Burnout in FLOSS communities

Burnout is obviously not a new phenomenon. Since the industrial era and then the knowledge era, people at work have burnt out. Academic research started investigating burnout from the 70s , Christina Maslach being one of the pioneers in the field. Burnout has now started to become an important issue in the particular context of FLOSS communities. The virtual nature of a FLOSS community makes it difficult to identify individuals who are burnt out or even the signs or precursors heralding a membe who is about to burn out. Some communities do not see burnout as a serious matter as they think that no matter what, somebody will pick up the job. However, other communities have realized that member burnout hinders the functioning of a project. If a certain number of members rely on the work and inputs of another member (such as a maintainer for instance), then this member burning out would affect the group as a whole thus the project. As a result, there is a need to understand the phenomenon more in depth, to identify its precursors, and also design preventive and coping strategies that would help communities to address the delicate issue of burnout.

Free/Libre/Open Source Sofware movement and the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school

The Free/Libre/Open Source Software phenomenon has now reached beyond the scope of a simple alternative sofware development approach. It has become a legitimate social movement which promotes individual freedom and acts towards the achievement of a free society. The FLOSS social movement can be explored and understood under the lens of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School.Theories from key critical thinkers such as Marx, Adorno, Horkheimer, or Habermas can provide good insights on the FLOSS societal phenomenon by placing it in a broader context.

I have already presented a paper at a Canadian conference about the approach I am using. You can find the paper here. Please do not hesitate to give me amy feedback or share some of your insights.

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