Since I learn by documenting, I'm starting to chronicle the things I'm learning about doing open-source community work here.
Over the past week (or two years, depending on how you count it), I've been talking with a group of people - many of them who I've known for some time - interested in bringing open-source educational technology to the Philippines. The OLPC and Sugar projects serve as convenient starting places for this. They know it's going to be a volunteer effort. So far so good.
And then I was told that our next step was to hold a private meeting to discuss high-level strategies amongst ourselves. (Virtual nods all around.) Wait, stop. Hold on, I told them. Why?
The resulting discussion was fascinating; I'd forgotten how much I'd taken radical transparency for granted, and their questions made me stop and explain to them - and myself - why it was the way to go. Some of our more interesting discussion points are below - I'm curious what people think of the questions and my responses. (Would you have phrased things differently?)
[We can't have this discussion on the mailing list because] there are still people on the mailing list that have different ideas on where the organization is.
That's really good to keep transparency on, actually. You get multiple points of view, and clarity on which ones you aren't working with so you can go your separate ways and not wait on each other.
One of the reasons that the meeting wasn't highly publicized is that it could grow too big.
Why is this a problem? Size shouldn't be a problem; issues that ''appear'' to be caused by size are the problems, and they're solvable. In general, if more participation is a negative, there's probably some other bottleneck we need to fix.
(Paraphrased:) Last time we tried to have an open meeting, we got a lot of off-topic questions on basic things we've answered a million times before.
Yeah, I can sympathize with that. The best solution I've found is to tightly define the meeting scope ("during this meeting, we are hammering out a mission statement" = by definition, we aren't doing anything else) and ruthlessly defer things that are off-topic, but have one or two people offer to stick around after the meeting and take additional questions.
Another solution is to have meetings open to all, but only allow certain people to speak.
Also: make a FAQ.
The mailing lists have become a "catch-all" [and they're such a mess, we're going to split into separate blog sites for each topic].
I'd actually advise against this, from a community-building perspective. The olpc-ph list is still pretty low-traffic - it's just that the traffic we get there is... well, lousy traffic. (My own posts are not exempt from this description.) There aren't a lot of good email discussions there.
But people are there. So instead of starting separate blogs (or even separate mailing lists), we should start good conversations in the spaces we already have. When the good conversations are clearly bursting the mailing list's attention capacity at the seams, or when they're clearly being hurt by all the lousy conversations, *then* we start new things - generally, you want to tighten groups before you split them.
We need to work on our capacity (or volunteer model) to handle inquiries and cultivate our member base [before we open participation up to people outside this small group].
All the more reason to publicly discuss how we're going to handle incoming volunteers/requests so that the folks who may be volunteering/requesting things from us have a chance to participate.
Mind you, I don't expect many (if any) other people to join in - I think that if we're lucky, maybe we'll get 5 observers, 2 of whom might talk at some point. But we should give them the option! And publish full logs afterwards for the people who couldn't come - we must default to transparency if we want other people to step up and take their own initiatives on this, because that is what is going to give us that capacity to handle inquiries and cultivate our member base. (I mean, I sure don't want to handle all those inquiries and do all that cultivation on my own...)
An open meeting is our first full-step forward. If that's how we want to do this entire thing, that's how we should operate from day 1.