Interview with AoC Editor, Simon St. Laurent

For the last few months Simon St. Laurent has had his feet firmly wedged into the primary editing boots for the Art Of Community. With an extensive background in community and a nose for helping to produce great writing, Simon has been helping take my stream of consciousness and refining it. I caught up with him recently to indulge in a quick interview. Internet friends, meet Simon, Simon, speak forth…

What is your involvement in the Art Of Community?

I’m editing the book, mostly helping to make sure it flows smoothly. Every tech book is, in some way, a collection of stories. This one is more fun because a lot of those stories are human, and that requires a different take than we usually apply to stories about programming.

How did you get involved in the Art Of Community project?

For the past few years, I’ve been editing a number of our books which included community, though mostly in an online “the community is the application” sense. This pushes me further toward communities in their foundation sense, a group of people together trying to accomplish something.

What experience do you have working with community?

I grew up in a small city and my parents were active in their community, but remarkably, I really didn’t notice community until later. In some ways, community is something you notice when you cross the boundaries into or out of it.

In college, I spent a lot of time working in consensus-based systems. Consensus, I think, gets a bad rap. True, it doesn’t scale well, except in like-minded communities, and it can certainly reinforce like-mindedness within communities. It has a much brighter, side, though: the ability to block consensus changes the nature of the conversation. If consensus is taken seriously, participants who object to the direction something is heading have two choices: they can block consensus, or they can share their concerns while acknowledging that the group seems to be heading in a particular direction.

Both of these scenarios obligate the other members of the group to consider the objections seriously. It’s slow and often messy, and its values are deeply different from the “hurry up and let’s get it done” that seems to dominate most group decision-making today, but as a process it shows more respect for its participants than anything else I’m aware of. It tells people that their opinions matter, and encourages them to share them. It also reminds people that while their opinions matter, they’re part of a larger group, and the decision belongs to the group as a whole, not to the individual or even a leadership group.

I spent a few years as an active participant in the XML community, online and at conferences. XML worked on a lot of common problems, but when it addressed complex problems, it frequently made them more complex. There were, I think, a lot of people who wished I’d go away, as it was all too easy to point out the gaps in XML’s creation and implementation. Eventually I did wander away, though mostly because core XML conversations seemed – and still mostly seem – locked in an endless loop of the same questions repeated over and over with little resolution. (My departure didn’t seem to change that.)

After that, I’ve spent a lot of the past few years in local politics. I was chair of my town’s Democratic Committee for four and a half years, and was happy to retire to vice-chair in December. Unfortunately, we lost a village election yesterday – we brought out a lot more voters than usual to vote for our candidates, but the Republicans also brought out more. At the town level, we’ve done a lot better, despite some ferocious attacks. Keeping a diverse group of people working together on projects in the face of opposition can be challenging, to say the least.

My family is also spending a lot of time looking at relocalization, which is inherently a conversation about community. Connecting more directly to the world immediately around you forces you to think about who you’re interacting with, why, and how to improve the interactions.

The funny thing, of course, is that I’m not that social. Crowds especially wear me out, and at some point I have to go hide out and recharge for a while.

What most excites you about the book in general?

I think there’s actually a large audience of potential readers who don’t believe that community actually works. I know far too many people who insist that the only reasons people leave their houses are to gather or spend money and goods, and who think that the Internet is basically a pleasure dome that mysteriously spawns shouting matches in the corners. The idea that people would come together – voluntarily even! – to work on common projects is hard to see unless you work in the fields where this actually happens.

Will they pick up the book? Some will because they have to, because their work has concluded that working with community models will be more effective or more efficient than keeping their ideas to themselves. That kind of opening, which is slow but persistent, will bring a lot of people to look at this book, and to look at community in a whole new light.

At the same time, I know there are a lot of people who will be happy to find what they’ve been doing confirmed, and who will be happy to see new ways of going further.

Which specific content in the book do you think will be of most interest to communities?

I think that’s going to vary pretty wildly by community. Not so much by the type of community, but rather by how organized the community already is. Communities that already have transparent processes and infrastructure built around workflow may find a lot of the book validating, while still seeing paths not taken in every chapter.

Most communities, though, aren’t like that. Even among technical communities, workflow isn’t always structured. Process isn’t clear. As work moves closer and closer to completion, more structure appears, but it isn’t necessarily structure that was planned from the outset. As we’ve seen lately, transparency hasn’t exactly been a key value of certain communities, much to all of our financial regret at this point.

Some of my favorite sections emphasize the limits of what we can accomplish by ourselves. I’ve seen too many times how one evangelist who keeps pushing a given product over and over will have vastly less effect than a large number of actual users or participants who talk about a project in ways that inspire trust rather than doubt. There’s still room for traditional announcements, but that process becomes a lot less like sending out a fax and a lot more like sharing news with friends. I especially like the recommendation that people trying to reach out to blogs should actually have a blog, “practice what you preach”, and get some understanding of the medium.

I’m also fond of the section on Units of Belonging, and how they relate to teams. They’re different, though the overlaps between them are a lot of what makes effective teams work. It’s something I’ve thought about before, but never broke down quite that clearly. The emphasis on keeping process simple also ties neatly into practices that hold teams together. When process gets too complicated, it’s hard for participants to know what’s going on. Even though most people would rather talk about substance than process, the biggest barrier to successful substance is often failing process.

Thanks, Simon!

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