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The Architecture of Participation

by Tim O'Reilly
Apr. 6, 2003

I had a great email conversation this morning with Adam Turoff, which he gave me permission to share here. Our first messages to each other are quoted completely; Adam's second message is quoted in bits, because it was interspersed with quoted bits of my response. I've done a minimal bit of formatting, and added some URLs to our exchange.

Adam started off:

I replied: Adam replied to my idea that "the architecture of participation" was a key concept with a little more detail on one particular proprietary developer community he'd had some experience with: He also responded to my idea that empowerment of individuals, not just corporations was key: Adam had some good thoughts about the continuum between a cargo cult community and one that is truly participatory. He doesn't know exactly where the dividing line is, but I agree very much with his idea that if you turn the participation dial only so far, you don't get community; if you turn it too far, you get anarchy. Adam also had a few choice comments about my citation of the Amazon web services community: In closing, Adam wondered what made open source click when it did: I tend to think it was the critical mass that was brought about by the global network. It allowed for free association by developers on a massive scale. In the 80's, it was much harder to build a decentralized developer community. Only companies had the resources to build critical mass around a technology. But on the internet, freely redistributable software could find adherents worldwide, and those adherents could freely associate, work together, and build something that none of them could have done alone.

Still, physical proximity is useful to add to the mix once the community self-organizes on the net. I still remember the enormous buzz at the first Perl Conference I put together in 1997. All these people who'd worked together for years were meeting for the first time. "So you're Larry!" I heard more than one person say. The mind at the other end of the teletype suddenly given flesh and voice. And if they were meeting Larry Wall for the first time, how much more were they meeting each other. (That's why conferences have become so important a part of O'Reilly's business model. Open source communities can form in cyberspace, but getting together in the flesh can really help them to reach the next level of critical mass.)

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.

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