People watching for fun and profit

by Jono Bacon

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the european Friends Of O'Reilly get-together in Enschede, Holland. This event was an invitation only affair that was attended by around 130 people involved in interesting parts of the technology spectrum. Not only did the event give everyone a chance to get to know each other, share some beer and chat about what they are doing, but it was an excellent opportunity to indulge in a little game I love to play - people watching.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know this 'people watching' thing sounds like some kind of ominous stalking activity, but I promise you it isn't. The general idea is that you look at someone who you have never met before, and you try to guess what their ambitions are, what their quirks are and generally what shapes their life. When my girlfriend is wandering around a shop and I am sat outside waiting with all the other bored spouses in a similar position, I generally play this game and observe the people who wander past me. Within my little world I envisage people who work for the CIA, drug pushers, bored housewives, children's TV presenters and a host of other wacky vices and professions that I see in people, all based entirely on their appearance and body language.

When I am at technology conferences, events and shows, I generally try to adapt the game to guess what kind of technology people are into. This is often fun, and as these events are typically attended by friendly people who I get to know, I sometimes get a chance to check if my scorecard is accurate. Admittedly, I don't always get it right - I once had someone pegged as an anarchic BSD user who hated capitalism and had anti-Microsoft tendencies. Later in the bar it turned out this individual was an accountant from East London who codes in Visual Basic in his spare time. Oof.

Ever since I started playing 'people watching', I have noticed a few correlations and patterns in groups of people who use similar technologies. I have not been quite so committed as putting these results into a spreadsheet, but I am pretty sure someone is going to email me and ask for one anyway. These patterns have certainly not been triggered in my mind by stereotypes or pre-judged opinions, but they have been genuinely formed from identifying similar sets of behavior. Likewise, these patterns are not necessarily related to physical appearance or movement - they are sometimes similarities in interests, curiosities and opinion. This is no exact science, and if you are a student reading this and expecting to see some scientific proof behind my observations, you should really have a look somewhere else. Although I would love to share with you my observations about specific groups of people, I am not going to. The simple reason behind this is that my interest and the reason behind this blog entry is not on the observations, but why these similarities exist. Many sciences are based around the concept of patterns, correlations, humanistic similarities and other defining properties of groups. There must be a reason behind this, surely?

To take a simple stab at an answer, one could assume that there is some form of catalyst behind the culture in the group. This catalyst may be a person, a concept, an ideal or a goal. If this idea is true, you essentially have a central point of innovative thinking and leadership and the rest of the group are sheep endlessly bleating in tune to that of the leader. I don't believe for a second that this is the case. Within many communities, there are gods, demi-gods and mere mortals, and I rarely see one true leader who inspires the community with culture and thinking in addition to being the release maintainer and keeping the CVS ticking over.

I think this inherent culture permeates from deeper inside the community - deep within the attractions that draw the community together. In my view, the uniqueness behind people who are attracted to a particular technology is a uniqueness that is sparked by the technology in question. This particular facet of their imagination and personality is the culture and the technology is the catalyst.

What is specifically interesting is how different communities who are aligned around similar technical contexts differ. Take for example, programming languages. Danny O'Brien recently mused on the differences between Perl and Python hackers in Linux User & Developer magazine. Danny referred to the Perl folk as "chaotic/good trickster archetypes" and Python users as "peaceful, northern-european-have-their-glasses-on-a-little-string-to-stop-them-loosing-them sensible fellows". I think Danny has this pretty much spot on, and this allies with some of the patterns picked up from the blissful science of people watching.

If we take the Perl brigade as an example, what is it that makes Perl hackers have this often off the wall fascination with doing odd things with the language? I know a number of Perl people, and I am often amazed, inspired and sometimes dumbfounded in response to some of the mind games that they play with the language. Some of these games range from simple mental exercises to determine how l33t they are, right up to odd and frankly pointless efforts to contort Perl into every possible box they can think off. If the programming world has a wall, the Perl folks will figure out a way of getting more graffiti on it than anyone else with a more interesting design and possibly on one line.

What is also interesting is that these attributes found in the Perl community don't always map over to other programming communities. Sure, there are people doing wacky things with Python, PHP, C, C++, Assembly and other languages, but there just seems to be a lot more of this stuff going on in the Perl community. What is it that makes a Perl hacker experiment in these different ways with the language? Is it Larry Wall? Has he made a definable set of boots that everyone tries to walk in? I don't think he has, but there is something inside Perl people that makes them match up correctly to Perl to carry out their ambitions and interests.

Unfortunately, this is one of those frustrating stories where you don't really get a full and complete conclusion. I have no idea why we have these similarities in different groups of people, and when I have some time, I plan on doing some real research into the subject to determine why some of these patterns exist. We all have hunches and views, and this is why I wanted to write this blog entry. What do you folks think about the subject, and what kind of patterns have you noticed in technical user groups?

What do you think? Have you seen any patterns in certain groups? Have you a theory on why these patterns exist?


2004-08-30 00:03:15
On Leaders
I rarely see one true leader who inspires the community with culture and thinking in addition to being the release maintainer and keeping the CVS ticking over
Sometimes there are true leaders at the helm of a project. These leaders are an inspiration to users and sometimes users, imitating these leaders, become active members of the community.
It would be interesting to look at a community through its mailing lists and see how does the activity of the lead developer influences the activity of the community. Does an active leader makes an active community? I think so, actually I know so. Being in the wxpython community for 8 months taught me that when users are the main focus of the lead developer the project is successful.
2004-08-30 07:21:05
The answer is out there...
Check out the free demo portion of this site:

They would say that people attract each other based on their name qualities.

Explained it for me anyway.



2004-09-09 17:05:51
There's another word for this, Jono--some people, especially law-enforcement and civil rights professionals call people-watching "profiling". I guess what's a tool to some and an insult to others is probably always fun to somebody.

PS - I do it too.