From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly ( by Jono Bacon

Teams: The Building Blocks of Belonging

Teams are the building blocks of community structure: they are the Lego bricks that build an army of volunteers united by a mission. But as building blocks, they fit together in many different ways, with countless variations and possibilities in how they are constructed.

For us to understand community, we need to understand what makes teams tick. We are now going to spend some time focusing on the essential ingredients that should be present in all teams. These ingredients are the best-practice elements that make teams strong, welcoming, and productive. We will explore these foundational ingredients now, and then later in the chapter we will determine which specific teams will comprise our community.

Finding Your Place

Everyone has dreams. We all have ambitions and experiences that we lust after, and we are all guilty of using the opportunity of a rainy day to stare out the window and let our minds take us toward these grand visions, be they flying into space, making millions of dollars, or playing bass guitar in front of thousands of people.

Teams fill an important role in a strong community: they are small ecosystems with attributes that can be hugely valuable to success on the wider scale of your community. Once we’ve taken a high-level look at these attributes, we can use this knowledge to build our practical implementation strategy later in this chapter.

Units of Belonging

Teams are units of belonging. Members join, are energized by the team’s spirit, and develop a sense of belonging that encourages them to contribute back to the team. This “Circle of Life” philosophy provides the team with a consistent exchange of experiences and value.

If we slice a team open, we can see a number of generations, like rings in a tree trunk. Each generation is a source of stories (already established in the previous chapter as an important source of communication) and also a source of mentorship. Each generation passes down stories, experiences, and life lessons to the new generation.

Scope defines the breadth and range of something. It is the length of a book, the size of a festival venue, and the comprehensiveness of a project. Scope describes the extent of the mental fishbowl that you are in, be it a book, venue, or initiative. A typical example of scope that is familiar to all of us is the place in which we live.

Geographical communities are analogous to digital communities: with both, our perception affects our confidence. Take the example of someone who relocates to an entirely new area. For most people who have just moved, the environment is initially hugely overwhelming. Once this person has explored most parts of her city, town, or village and knows where the grocery store, hospitals, and other key resources are, she starts to develop a sense of confidence. Understanding the scope of the area gives us this confidence.

The reason for this is that we are all raised to be cautious of the unknown. Unfortunately, this makes us afraid of it, too. When we know the full extent of the fishbowl that we live in, as well as the other fish in that bowl, it helps us to build a measured sense of safety. Your sense of scope makes you feel safe when you confirm that you live on a safe street and not in the middle of a gangland.

The scope of the natives also affects our perception. Contrast someone with few friends and seemingly alien neighbors with someone who has lots of friends and very social neighbors. When you start to make recurring personal connections with regular friends, acquaintances, and love interests, a sense of belonging begins to flow through your veins. This is no different in a small face-to-face or online community.

Teams are hugely valuable in providing a manageable scope for your new contributors. If your community has 1,000 people in it in a single team, your community can feel overwhelming. If your community is instead broken down into 10 teams, each with 100 people in it, and each team focuses on a distinctive area, this is far more approachable.

Read Versus Write

Communities come in many forms. They surround books, movies, software products, political campaigns, civil rights efforts, hobbies, and more. In all their colorful and varied forms, all communities share one distinctive trait: the unity of people around a shared belief or interest. It is passion that binds together these people.

Read-mostly communities

A great example of this passion is Star Trek fans. Trekkies, as they are known, gather around the world to discuss, debate, and consume Star Trek in all of its wild and rather weird glory.

We can define Trekkies as fans—they enjoy a common interest together, either online or at conventions around the world, and their primary role is to share the consumption of that interest with others. As fans, Trekkies rarely have any direct impact on the unifying interest: the average Trekkie could not change the storyline of the show, contribute to the costumes or the digital effects, or improve what already exists. Instead, collaboration in the Trekkie world produces content for other Trekkies: it won’t take you long to find wonderfully detailed fan-made costumes, props, tattoos, fan fiction, and other creations.

Although there appears to be a very distinctive collaborative divide between the provider (the show) and the consumer (the fan), there is a middle ground. These communities are becoming increasingly important to providers and never before have artists, musicians, producers, and politicians been so aware of their followers. The Internet has enabled fans to connect more easily with their heroes, and this has developed a kind of collaboration.

This is how most communities work. Collaboration is an unofficial by-product, and although it may not change or improve on the creation of the producer, it is still likely to offer real value. The primary focus in these communities is to ensure that the community (a) always has available access to the product, and (b) that they can communicate about it with others. The foundation of these kinds of communities is access.

While each community has the characteristic of people gathering around a shared belief or interest, the actual impact of the community on this shared belief or interest varies greatly.

Write-centered Communities

For some communities, collaboration goes much further. It becomes much deeper, more intrinsic, and more accessible to all. Instead of merely enjoying things together, collaboration goes so far as to help people create things together. In these environments, the community also assumes the role of producer of the content.

The typical example here is one of the many Free Culture communities, such as Linux, Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap, Creative Commons, etc. In these communities, community members have the opportunity to change the very content that brings them together.

The Ubuntu community is one such example. Ubuntu is an entirely free Linux operating system that is designed to provide a complete, free, stable, and secure system for desktops, servers, or mobile devices. Ubuntu is built using hundreds of pieces of preexisting Free Software tools that we refer to as upstream applications. Each of these upstream applications has its own community of volunteers and developers. Ubuntu itself has a community of volunteers and developers who take said upstream software and assemble it in an easy-to-install and easy-to-use system.

Ubuntu has spawned a huge community. Over 200 Ubuntu user groups, known as Ubuntu LoCo Teams, have formed around the world. Nearly every country has a LoCo team, with a range of users from Linux experts to entirely new users.

Anyone in the Ubuntu community can affect what appears in Ubuntu itself. Every part of the system is open to contribution. This includes the software on the disk, the supporting documentation and resources, art and design, bug reports, and almost anything else. Everyone has the opportunity, through hard work and merit, to make a positive contribution to the Ubuntu system that the community gathers around.

Understanding how our communities collaborate is important to understanding what we want to achieve and what is possible.


A meritocracy is a system of governance in which its members are given responsibilities and recognition based upon achievements, merit, and talent. Those who are part of a meritocracy (such as in the Ubuntu and other open source communities) can make tremendous advances in respect and responsibility by simply doing good work. In these communities, money, class, and family connections have little or no impact on the ability to progress and build a reputation.

The magic of meritocracies is that the playing field is level for everyone. Those who work hard and show a recurring commitment to the community are rewarded. Those who think that driving a car with a blue neon light underneath it will impress us are going to be sadly disappointed.

Few would argue that a meritocracy is a bad thing. Its fundamental basis is in rewarding hard work. This concept largely maps to the general life lessons that we are all raised with: work hard and you reap the rewards of your efforts.

In these collaborative meritocracies, our primary goal is to ensure that the communication and contribution channels to collaboration are open, well defined, and enforced. These communities are complex: there are many different aspects that affect how simple it is to become involved and collaborate.

Although meritocracies represent the poster child for what many consider great communities, they are not a requirement. Some communities absolutely distinguish between members based upon who they are, where they come from, and other attributes. This has been particularly applicable for business-oriented communities that maintain a clear hierarchy and members who are by no means considered equal.

Your community needs to decide for itself whether it is a meritocracy. I would, however, tender one piece of advice: if you are involved in a volunteer community that is open to all, I would highly recommend you take a meritocratic approach. It will make your community look and feel more accessible and help to encourage a sense of belonging and equality as opposed to a community divided by classes. From the perspective of new members, the opportunities offered by meritocracies are inspiring. It is hugely attractive to members when anyone can join a community and further themselves and their reputation based upon great work and participation.

If your community is currently or has decided to be a meritocracy, you should communicate this extensively to the outside world. Don’t use the word “meritocracy,” though: most people have no idea what it means. Instead, talk of equality and provide examples of how your members have built their reputations based on their efforts.

Working Together is Success

Your teams also need to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Volunteer communities can sometimes feel like production lines. The work is not always enjoyable and not always pleasant. There are times in every community when repetition, housekeeping, and conflict play a role in an otherwise enjoyable merry-go-round. When the community begins to see more bureaucracy and repetition than useful and enjoyable contributions, something is wrong. Very wrong. It is important, in these challenging times, to remind your community members of their crusade and the value of their work in achieving it.


The building blocks of community are its teams, and the material that makes these blocks are people. When we understand people, we can build humane environments that are energizing and inspiring. Central elements of a healthy environment are respect, diversity, and rewarding people for their efforts, irrespective of who they are or where they come from.

Typically, when we talk about diversity, we use familiar examples: gender, race, sexuality, and class. Although important, these poster children of diversity can sometimes focus attention away from more subtle and potentially potent forms of diversity that we can encourage, explore, and celebrate. Diversity descends much deeper than skin color and gender.

Building deep-level diversity can bring a wealth of goodwill and openness to your community. Often these deeper, hidden kinds of diversity teach us life’s most valuable lessons. While all equality is important, we need to grow this sense of deep-level diversity.

Although this is an intellectually responsible position, people are people, and people can be irresponsible. For diversity to thrive and prosper, it needs to be built on a foundation of respect. When members of a community are respectful and considerate of each other, it encourages an environment in which people feel comfortable bringing their own kind of diversity to the game. It is this respect that affirms Graen’s previous acknowledgment of the risks of diversity on team cohesion and performance.

Every community needs to cherish and respect deep-level diversity. Its importance is not something that can be enforced with actions, bullet points, success criteria, or other organizational devices. Leaders are responsible for modeling the right behavior and encouraging it in others, but ultimately all members are responsible for remembering why your community is doing what it is doing and standing shoulder to shoulder, connected by diversity to grow and take on future challenges. It is diversity and this sense of united openness that will keep your community strong and reactive to any obstacles in its way.

These essential elements of community are the primary goals that we want to achieve in our social economy. There are no specific actions or tasks that can achieve each of these elements; instead, they need to live in the woodwork of your community. They are attributes that we should always strive for, both throughout the rest of this book and throughout our future endeavors.

BuildingCommunity/TeamstheBuildingBlocksofBelonging (last edited 2010-09-07 00:58:29 by pendulum)