Interview With Andy Oram, Editor of AoC

One of the forces behind the Art Of Community coming together is Andy Oram, a senior editor at O’Reilly. At O’Reilly, he specializes in open source, editing the first books put out by an American publisher on Linux and such ground-breaking works as “Peer to Peer” and “Intellectual Property and Open Source”. He is also interested in providing better education for online communities, an issue he has researched here.

I sat down with Andy and did a short interview with him about the Art Of Community and his other interests. Enjoy!

What is your primary role in the Art of Community?

As an editor, I often think of myself as playing Aaron to the author’s Moses. Moses knew what to say (he had even better authority for his teachings than my best authors do) but he had a speech impediment that made it hard for him to express himself. Aaron was deputized to clarify Moses’s teachings so the hoi-poloy could understand them.

What sort of interventions do I perform? All kinds. I look for places where the author jumped from one subject to another too quickly, or made questionable leaps in reasoning. I rewrite passages boldly sometimes, saying, “I think you meant to say this…” I suggest major reorganizations of material and support them by writing introductory or transitional material. (In many books that I’ve edited, the initial paragraphs of many chapters are my own.) I challenge statements by contrasting them to advice I’ve read elsewhere. And I speak from my own experience, which is especially useful in this book because I’ve participated in a wide range of powerful community experiences that I’ll explain further down in the interview.

To return to the Aaron analogy, I sometimes go too far beyond my role. “Hey, I’ve got a cool idea; let’s create this golden calf!” I always let the author have the last word, but they always let the vast majority of changes stand.

Recently we’ve brought in Simon St.Laurent as an editor too. He has his own fascinating stories to tell as an editor and an organizer.

How did you get involved in editing and how did you join O’Reilly?

For ten years I worked in conventional technical writing jobs, turning out manuals on things ranging from debugging FORTRAN programs to designing real-time X Window System applications. Many people would consider such tech writing a lost decade, but I loved it and took my work far beyond the usual that companies request.

But eventually I realized that computer companies would never invest the resources necessary to do really good documentation–it’s just a cost, not revenue-producing–so I accepted a job as editor at O’Reilly, which I got through the old boy network. I had started with a very positive experience, updating the classic book Managing Projects with Make before joining the company.

Now I’m trying to start a new venture at O’Reilly which, in a curious way, is a return to my original role in technical writing. But this time, instead of helping teams with their documentation inside companies, I want to help teams of loosely linked developers, often on open source projects. That’s the twenty-first century equivalent to working on a company team. I discuss this project here.

How did the Art Of Community project come to life?

A number of people recognize communities as central to making projects such as open source development work, and now communities are recognized by business experts as critical to successful business as well. By community, I mean a fairly stable collection of people who see themselves as contributing to some shared good and who participate to help each other. The open source team, business, or other people leading the project have to grant a lot of leeway to the community, and not try to manipulate or dictate to it. The balance between providing direction and following one’s followers is one of the themes of the book.

We tried at first to do this book as wiki, with multiple experts in the field contributing chapters and everybody being free to edit each others’ chapters. It turned out that we took the ideal of community too far. After three earnest attempts to recruit authors, we had only three chapters and these chapters weren’t coalescing into anything resembling a book.

When Jono approached me with a similar idea, offering to write the book himself, I was ready to take him up on it, and management at O’Reilly enthusiastically went along. We’re still involving the community: we’ve contacted all the people who showed interest in the original group project and will try to get interviews or short contributions from them. Jono has contacted a wide range of other leaders in this area as well, and the web site where this interview appear is part of our strategy for genuinely involving the public in the creation of the book, which will be released under a Creative Commons license.

What is your experience of community? You have been involved in a community organization for four years. Who are they and what do you do?

My experience with community goes back to about the age of five, when my parents took me to a civil rights march on the Washington Mall. That particular community effort paid off in a big way with a related event that took place on the Washington Mall this past January 20.

As I grew, I learned more about the labor movement and protests throughout history and realized the importance of working together, even while I saw the value of individual creativity.

These themes–individual contributions tied to community effort–came together in the free software movement. I learned about free software pretty early in its history as a conscious movement and have become fascinated since then with the spread of the open source idea to other areas. As part of my answers to this interview, I counted the articles I’ve put online about open source. I’ve written 109 articles on the topic! I have also studied crowd-sourcing and peer production, which are related to community.

Joining Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in the 1980s, I learned how to organize communities and political projects online.

I first encountered Saul Alinsky’s ideas on community organizing in the 1980s as well. I didn’t appreciate the power of community organizing until a few years ago, after working hard to develop a community that was very important to me: my synagogue.

Although I was born Jewish, I didn’t engage in uniquely Jewish activities until my wife and I joined the synagogue. I chose my own Hebrew name, the Hebrew equivalent of Aaron. I worked on a lot of committees in the synagogue and particularly led its social action projects, trying always to put them on a more consciously political and world-changing path. In 2005 I agreed to join a small group that would bring our synagogue into the local community organization, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

It’s been wonderful to drive downtown and sit next to Haitian nursing home workers and other people living very different lives from me, but dealing with the same economic and social forces. This work is a salutary balance to my involvement in relatively ethereal issues like defense of the fair use exemption to copyright, or opposition to the broadening of data that can legally be caught by wiretaps without a warrant.

Our synagogue recently won an award for some of our work, but we’re even more gratified to see that the entire leadership of the synagogue (including people who were very skeptical about the money we invested in GBIO) has come around to our view of the importance and benefits of organizing for our own synagogue community.

What are the most exciting communities that you have seen recently?

In addition to ones I mentioned, I’m impressed at how FLOSS Manuals inspires authors to contribute free documentation. Among other things, they organize “sprints” where a bunch of people get together for a few days and turn out a whole book. I’m volunteering in an advisory position to them.

In these tough economic times, what are the opportunities for community?

Clearly, businesses and non-profits alike will have less money to hire professionals, so they’ll have to learn to inspire volunteers and coordinate them so as to make the most of their contributions. There will also be more needs to fill, and some people with strong talents to offer will unfortunately have more free time than they want.

And the whole thrust by President Obama toward volunteerism and involving the public in decision-making opens up opportunities on a national level for communities to make a difference. I knew from the beginning of Obama’s campaign that he was serious about bringing people together and letting solutions come from the grassroots. I think a lot of observers dismissed that talk as feel-good fluff, but I recognized in it the same Saul Alinsky community organizing methodology that I was practicing in GBIO. It’s not fluff, it’s solid and productive. I expect that, in the not too far future, it will be hard to get a leadership position in business or government without demonstrated experience in organizing communities.

What are you most excited you about with the Art Of Community?

I’m going to doff my community organizing cap for this answer and don my editorial one. The Art Of Community is, after all is said and done, a book, and what excites me is the book as such. I love opening each chapter to see the unique way Jono presents his personal experience, in a very personal style. He brings his whole life into the book. We’re also working very hard to structure this woolly bunch of insights and principles into a fast-flowing and highly readable narrative.

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