Communities of Limited Liablity

In a marvelously appropriate off topic posting at Gizmodo the host points out a great article on how cell phones have a corrosive effect on people’s level of engagement with the place they are actually in. It’s a much more sophisticated take on the way that virtual places are in a vicious competition with physical places than the usual ranting about cell phones going off during meetings.

Meanwhile here at ApacheCon across the room a group of ten people is gathered closely around a round table. They are all gazing silent intent into their computers.  Occasional complaints about the network’s speed are heard.

I was very discomforted the first time I went to an ApacheCon. I had large complex mental models of the other participants in Apache. Models that I suddenly had to update with unnecessary facts – A is a drinker, B is quiet, C is a fast talker, D is tall, E is cute, F is young, G is old, H has a piercing, J has white hair, K isn’t very sociable, L is very personable…

On top of that is the shift in medium problem. This person, with whom you have a complex relationship entirely in one medium is suddenly shifted into another medium. IRC or email has an entirely different granularity and nature than other mediums. I know that some number of those people across the room are in IRC, maybe even talking to other people at the same table. That doesn’t surprise me in the least.

The  literature  on communities includes the  marvelous  term “Communities  of Limited  Liability”. Such communities meet most of the common tests of “community” (for example). But their members are aware that the scope of the community is limited.

The original example was urban neighborhoods. Members of such community know they are members, can identify other members, have a common practices and stories, and will come to each other aid as well as the aid of the community. But they don’t do any number of the other things that some people might assume are implied by community membership. They share holiday meals. They don’t marry each other. They don’t know details of each other’s personal lives – jobs, families, interests. The scope of  their  community involvement is clearly circumscribed.

I like to believe that  it is  part of modernity that people are parts of dozens such communities.  Each of these community relationships is very intense but only within the limits of that community.

I still feel a bit weird about the way that ApacheCon creates connections outside of the limited liability of the open source project relationship. There are risks, and  responsibilities  in that.

But I certainly don’t feel that it’s bewildering anymore. Now I kind of enjoy the weird sensation.

And, it’s nice, I’ve gotten to know some very interesting people.

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