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<title>The Role of the Community</title>
<para>A very important asset of free software is the free software
community. Just like with any technology or concept, free software has
adepts that defend and promote free software to great extend. The free
software community itself is very vivid and eager to help others in
exploring the wonderful world of free software...</para>
<para>Free software communities are similar to real communities, but with
the Internet as main communication channel. Hence, these communities
aren't clustered in space like real life communities would, but are
scattered throughout the world. Nevertheless, the Internet ensures that
participants of a community, even when they are lightyears (figure of
speech) apart, talk to each other the same way as neighbours do.</para>
<para>The Internet is a great asset for these communities: you are not
judged based on the color of your skin, your age or your looks. What
matters is how you communicate with others, how you present yourself and
how you react in discussions. Debates in a community can often become
quite vivid, especially when the subject is one where facts aren't
sufficient to provide good answers. And when these discussions change from
debates into almost insulting fights, a flamewar<indexterm>
</indexterm> is born.</para>
<para>In flamewars, facts and reason are often far away. You should
definitely try to avoid flamewars for discussions where decisions have to
be made, but it is impossible to really prevent them as they are the
result of people who have an active interest in a subject they are eager
to defend, especially when there is no clear answer to the question that
started the flamewar.</para>
<para>Examples of such flamewars are ``What is the best Linux
distribution?'' or ``What text editor should I choose?'' because these
questions don't have clear answers: the best distribution for one person
might be the worst for another, and there are many text editors around. In
latin one would say ``de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum'' (one
shouldn't argue about tastes and colors) and this is very true for these
kind of questions.</para>
<para>When you don't have a choice, flamewars don't exist: you cannot
compare one product with itself. But in the free software world, choice is
an important concept. You have the choice between many free operating
systems (next to Linux you have many BSD flavors, Sun Solaris 10 and even
less popular but promising operating systems like the GNU Hurd),
distributions (there are over a hundred distributions around), graphical
environments (not a single day goes by without battles about GNOME versus
KDE), office suites, etc.</para>
<para>An often debated subject is ``the best distribution'' and although
this book might seem a bit biased on the subject the best answer I can
give you is that there is no best distribution, at least not generally
speaking. The meaning of the term ``best'' is judged by people who have
personal preferences about their operating system. And many of these
people defend their best distribution very vividly.</para>
<para>Distribution communities are very active, mostly because they are
quite large. The Gentoo community for instance is known for its
responsiveness: the Gentoo chat channel is always alive (with more than
800 participants at any time) as is its forum (with more than a thousand
posts per day) and mailinglists. Of course, general flamewars on
distributions are often on more neutral grounds, but heated discussions on
other topics are a daily routine.</para>
<para>For this reason, most communities have people who keep the
discussions sane and prevent flamewars from growing too much. People who
try to induce flamewars on the communication channels (called
</indexterm>) are taken care of by these operators: channel operators
can kick or even ban such people from the chat channel, mailinglist
operators remove these people from the list and forum operators remove the
profiles of these users. You can safely say these people are the police of
the community.</para>
<title>Local Communities</title>
<para>A specific type of community is one which is local in space. Such
communities often organise meetings (conferences, talks, barbequeues,
...) and offer help to people local to the location where the community
is hosted.</para>
</indexterm>s (Linux User Group<indexterm>
<primary>Linux User Group</primary>
</indexterm>s) are succesful examples of such communities: these
groups aggregate together, debating on the evolution in the Linux world
and help others with Linux installations (Linux Install Fests<indexterm>
<primary>Linux Install Fest</primary>
</indexterm> are local meetings that offer help in deploying your
favorite Linux distribution on your system). You might find a LUG very
close by.</para>
<para>Many LUGs offer various services to their users which is often
unseen in communities for commercial software. Moreover, many LUGs offer
these services free-of-charge:</para>
<para>individual, on-site help with installation, configuration and
maintenance of a Linux distribution or other free software</para>
<para>courses, talks and presentations offering you more insight in
available Free Software</para>
<para>specific documentation tailored to the needs of its own
<para>If you have some time to spare, I really recommend to join a local
LUG - even if you are not searching for help, you can still offer your
own expertise to others and make connections (yes, social networking is
<title>Online Communities</title>
<para>When people want to discuss a particular software topic or
distribution, online communities are often formed. These communities do
not (or to a less extend) organise meetings at a specific location
(often called "in real life") but rather use the Internet as the meeting
place ("online" meetings).</para>
<para>Online communities have the advantage that its members can be
anywhere in the world and just like LUGs, they still offer services to
its users, also most of the time free-of-charge:</para>
<para>online help with installation, configuration and maintenance
of the software</para>
<para>In particular cases, communities can even offer interactive
help through technologies such as SSH<indexterm>
</indexterm> (Secure SHell - allows users to log on and work on
another machine) and VNC<indexterm>
</indexterm> (Virtual Network Computing - allows users to
graphically log on and work on another machine, or see read-only
<para>courses and online presentations</para>
<para>documentation, more specialised to the software title but
often also localised (translated)</para>
<para>This is possible thanks to the various technologies available on
the Internet, including</para>
<para>Wiki (online collaboration software for developing
documentation) software has become quite popular for developing and
releasing documentation. The use of wiki's allows users to edit
existing documentation or author new documentation online (with a
simple browser) and the results of their editing is immediately
visible to others.</para>
<para>Online (web)forums, where people can participate in
discussions by placing messages and reacting to other messages. The
advantage of web forums is that they are accessible through your web
browser (which most firewalls still allow), can be consulted after
the discussion has long been closed and where messages can be
extended with images, attachments and formatted text.</para>
<para>Mailinglists, which is similar (function-wise) to web forums,
but then organised through e-mail. People subscribe to a mailinglist
and then receive all mails sent to that mailinglist to their
personal mailbox. Replies to these mails are sent back to the
mailinglists where they are again distributed to all mailinglist
participants. Mailinglists are quite popular in free software
communities as they are easily moderated and can be filtered. Also,
mails often reach people faster than messages on a webforum so you
could see a mailinglist as a faster discussion medium.</para>
</indexterm> (Internet Relay Chat) is a way of communicating with
many people interactively. Most people know Instant Messaging
software such as MSN or Google Talk. Well, IRC is somewhat older but
still very much used as it supports chatrooms where several hundreds
of people can participate. IRC is the fastest medium for
participating in discussions and can be seen as a method for
creating "online" meetings.</para>
<para>Communities often perform the role of support people: if you have a
question about their software project they are eager to answer and help.
If you think the software is insufficient, they will help you expand it or
have it work together with other tools (or even redirect you to other
software projects if they feel you want something out of their favorite
tool that the tool isn't made for).</para>
<para>Support can be given on many levels...</para>
<title>Documentation Guides</title>
<para>A documentation guide is often created with one goal: describe how
to do something with the tool. Such guides are therefor often called
</indexterm>. Much work is put in such HOWTOs because they should be
correct, well formed but also complete. The better the HOWTO, the lesser
questions are asked after reading it. If you ask the community how to
perform a certain action and the action is described in such a HOWTO,
you'll be redirected to that HOWTO (sometimes with a more crude
reference to the RTFM<indexterm>
</indexterm> term, or ``Read The Fucking Manual'' - although the third
term is also often read as ``Fine'').</para>
<para>Other types of documentation are FAQs (<emphasis>Frequently Asked
Questions</emphasis>) which are generally very small HOWTOs or answers
to conceptual questions rather than technical ones. When you're new to a
certain tool it is very interesting to read through the FAQs before you
ask your question. Not only are chances high that you find your answer,
you might find out more about the tool which can be very
<para>Some communities also offer a knowledge base. Such systems can be
seen as an aggregation of questions and answers, but unlike FAQs they
might not be frequently asked. Knowledge bases often offer support
solutions to specific setups.</para>
<title>Internet and Usenet Forums</title>
<para>Internet forums (webbased) or Usenet forums (newsgroups<indexterm>
</indexterm>) are a more interactive approach to obtain support.
Internet forums have the additional advantage that you can add specific
formatting in your questions: you can show command code, exceptions or
errors better than in plain text. You can even include screenshots.
These forums allow for any user to be helped quite fast: forums are read
by many and the interface is simple enough to quickly see the new
<para>An additional advantage of internet forums is that, once a
question has been asked and answered, it is stored in the database of
the forum. Hence, the entire forum can be seen as a knowledge base with
a multitude of answers. Very popular topics are often made sticky,
meaning that the topic remains on top even when no further discussion
happens on it, increasing the chance that new users read the
<para>Usenet forums (or newsgroups) are another popular approach to
support although it must be said that newsgroups are not used that often
for free software tools. Usually you'll find a newsgroup when the
project itself doesn't provide a forum (anyone can launch a new
newsgroup) although it does happen that internet forums and usenet
forums are linked: posts in one forum are merged with the other.</para>
<para>A more direct approach are mailinglists<indexterm>
</indexterm>, e-mail addresses where several dozens (or even hundreds)
individuals listen to. A mailinglist is often perceived to be a bit
faster than forums because many developers frequent mailinglists but not
forums due to the ease of use: mailinglists result in plain e-mails
which can be easily filtered.</para>
<para>Most mailinglists are archived as well, allowing you to skim
through the older topics in the list. Whereas forums are usually pure
for user experience, mailinglists are used as the primary communication
channel for development purposes. Some projects also have internal
development mailinglists which aren't readable to the public. This isn't
because they want to hide development stuff from the users: such mailing
lists are used to communicate security issues, personal information
(including account information) but also to talk about topics that are
juridically difficult to defend if they are made public.</para>
<para>Chatting is almost the most direct form of communicating with each
other. Many free software projects use IRC<indexterm>
</indexterm> (Internet Relay Chat) as a central communication channel.
Users can be quickly helped through IRC while developers can talk and
discuss changes quickly.</para>
<para>Chat channels can be very popular. Gentoo's main chat channel
(#gentoo on the freenode network) has between 800 and 1000 participants
at any time.</para>
<title>Real-life Meetings</title>
<para>Once in a while, developer groups come together for real-life
support or to discuss the evolution of their software. In many cases,
real-life meetings offer a way for people to get hands-on, interactive
help. We have talked about LUG meetings (where real-life meetings are
often held) but also software communities have real-life meetings. Many
of these meetings offer a way for developers to meet each other (for the
first time), discuss topics and learn from each other.</para>
<para>In some cases, <emphasis>hackfest</emphasis>s<indexterm>
</indexterm> are organized. During these meetings, developers
aggregate together with a single goal: to develop new features or remove
bugs from the software. Although this can well be done offline,
hackfests allow developers to communicate freely and help other
developers with their problems. Meeting in real life allows developers
to easily show the problem they have (some problems can be difficult or
too time consuming to write down).</para>
<para>In the Free Software world, conferences are often organized. During
these conferences</para>
<para>talks are given about certain software titles (design, features,
evolution, ...) or projects (infrastructure, offered services, used
technologies, ...)</para>
<para>booths are organized where projects can show themselves to the
wide(r) public. Distributions frequently use booths to hand out
installation CD/DVDs and show systems running the distribution.</para>
<para>companies offer information on how they use (or develop) free
software (and sometimes recruit developers)</para>
</indexterm>, or the <emphasis>Free and Open Source Developers
European Meeting</emphasis>, takes place in Brussels, Belgium at the
beginning of each year (around mid-february). During this conference,
talks are given about coding and development of software, but you'll
also find booths about various software projects/distributions and
developer rooms (where a single project can offer talks about
project-specific topics).</para>
<para>FOSDEM is held during two days and has become a major conference
in the Free Software community, especially in Europe as many other
conferences are held in the USA.</para>
</indexterm>, or the <emphasis>Free and Open Source Software
conference in India</emphasis>, is one of Asia's largest FOSS
conferences. It occurs at the end of every year in Balgalore, India,
featuring talks, discussions, workshops, meetings and more from
international speakers, users and developers.</para>
</indexterm> is a free software exposition with primary focus on the
Linux-based operating systems and solutions. Unlike FOSDEM, LinuxTag
focuses more on the integration of Linux (and free software) in larger
environments, offering booths to both commercial companies and
non-commercial organisations.</para>
<para>It's slogan is "Where .COM meets .ORG". You can visit LinuxTag
around spring every year. </para>
<para>Try to find the online discussion methods (webforum,
mailinglists, IRC) offered by the Gentoo Linux distribution.</para>
<para>A few more free software conferences:</para>
<para>The <ulink url="">Ottawa Linux
Symposium</ulink> is held every year in Ottawa, Canada during summer
<para><ulink url="">Linux
Kongress</ulink> has almost always been held in Germany although a
single instance was in Cambridge, England.</para>
<para><ulink url=""></ulink> is
hosted in Australia in the beginning of every year</para>
<para><ulink url="">Ohio Linux Fest</ulink>
is held in Ohio every fall.</para>
<para><ulink url="">Linux Fest
Northwest</ulink> is held in Washington every spring.</para>
<para><ulink url="">SCaLE (Southern
California Linux Expo)</ulink> is held late winter.</para>
<para><ulink url="">Ontario Linux
<para><ulink url="">LinuxWorld
Conference and Expo</ulink></para>
<para><ulink url="">Freed.IN</ulink></para>