Write the Docs: Ali Spivak – Communities are Awesome

I’m at Write the Docs today in Portland and will be post­ing notes from ses­sions through­out the day. These are all posted right after a talk fin­ishes so they’re rough around the edges.

Ali works at Mozilla. They rely on a huge community of volunteers to achieve their broader mission. Ali’s responsible for the Mozilla Developer Network, an open source wiki of documentation. The web is really big, it’s a lot to document. Mozilla is trying to document everything that’s important and relevant to developers as well as all of their products.

They have about 2 million users a month on MDN and about 11,000 articles. They’re constantly staying on top of evolving standards and spec changes. There are 5 people who try to wrangle all of that. The community helps greatly; it’s a fellowship of people who feel passionate about web standards and making the web a better place. It’s the community that let’s Mozilla punch above their weight class.

That community includes 600 contributors who have made at least one edit in the last month. When you expand that to one edit in the life of MDN it’s up to 5,000 contributors.

What do all these community members do? They write articles, they edit, they translate articles in to 35 different languages. They also speak at events and help build the underlying information architecture of the site. In some cases they even throw their own events and documentation sprints.

More importantly, what their community provides, a huge amount of diversity and differing perspectives. It’s hard to know what’s relevant to document for communities outside of those you’re familiar with. Contributors from those communities who are deeply embedded in the project help greatly. In some cases this means volunteers have taken on recruiting, event organizing, and really drive the community in areas Mozilla has less of an official staff presence. In India they’ve built up doc sprints and even documented guidelines for throwing events so that even more people in that local community can organize the community.

As Ali stated, “A strong community benefits the individual, the community, and the greater society.” Getting people started is sometime as easy as showing what they need to do to edit a document. MDN makes the barrier to this very low; they want those contributions. Volunteers don’t always realize that companies will trust them to make these edits. Sometimes all it takes is showing them. In some events they’ve been able to translate over 200 articles just by showing people how. That little nudge creates a large ripple effect.

When you entrust volunteers it adds to the sense of responsibility people feel toward the community, toward the content, and toward its improvement. Everything comes around this peer respect; your users are your peers and your collaborators.

But how do you get this army of “minions” to do what you want? You don’t. Community is not minions. It’s about partners in a journey; a special herd of awesome cats. You can provide direction but you cannot control. The responsibility is on providing opportunities to use their expertise in a way that’s meaningful for them. Intrinsic motivators are extremely powerful but they’re also autonomous. A lot of a volunteer’s motivation is in contributing their expertise to an audience much bigger than they could have alone. Making it as easy as possible to do that is crucial.

Ali also recommending reading Drive, by Daniel Pink, to greater understand people’s motivations and systems of volunteering. Those motivations come out in more than just open source tech projects. They’re a part of Burning Man, events everywhere, and communities all over the world.

Building a set of principles that define a community and define its culture is also key. That helps guide the volunteer participation. It’s not a method for control, but rather a system for guiding productive contributions. Building a culture where you ask everyone to participate relies on on collaboration. Mozilla has a foundation like this. It’s a set of principles that act as a contract with their community. It keeps them responsible and responsive to the community at large.

Just having those principles is not enough, though; they have to permeate everything that you do. You have to develop a roadmap and goals with your community, not for them. Make the volunteers an integral part of the process. If you can’t convince people that something is the right thing to do then maybe it isn’t the right thing to do for that community. If you create that transparent and trusting relationship your community will tell you when you’re not doing enough or when you’re taking things in a direction not relevant for the community.

Ultimately not everyone needs to build a community in the same way. What works for Mozilla may not work for you. You can focus on what you’re passionate about, though. Think about what opportunity you can provide for volunteers in your community. More importantly, what opportunity can they provide for you?