The Ignored Group of Ubuntu

Categories: Linux
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Comments: 14 Comments
Published on: November 2, 2011

This morning in the Community Roundtable, Jono talked about the culture of Ubuntu and how it is changing and morphing. This caused me to think about another group of people who have popped up in the Ubuntu (And open source in general) world.

Just Users.

There is an open source culture out there that if you are using you should contribute back. And yes, while this is the practice that we use and this is why Ubuntu has grown, there is a small unseen issue that crops up from this. That is the expectation that a user needs to (or should) give back. We have reached a point in relevance where we now have a group of people who are using Ubuntu and open source in general who have no desire and no inclination to contribute.

When you talk to someone in Ubuntu about new users the phrase “How do we get them involved?” comes up. I do not think this is a very healthy attitude at all. We let people know that they can get involved (it’s all over the website) but, I think that we need to change the mindset of expecting them to get involved.

There are other open source projects who have started to master this mindset. Let’s take Mozilla Firefox as an example. If you were to walk down the street and ask people about the internet most of them have heard of or, are using Firefox as a browser. There are “Just Users” and are not contributing to Firefox and they are not being pressured to do so.

This is something that we need to be aware of as we become more relevant and as we stretch out to more platforms. Not all of our users are going to want to contribute. With coming at users with the mindset of figuring out how to get them involved can feel like a religious group walking around and knocking on doors to “talk” (pressure) people into their way of thinking. In a way, open source people do the same thing without realizing it. We automatically expect things back from people who use our software and we make sure that we talk to people about it.

We even do this internally. Yesterday at the Leadership Summit there was a mention about Canonical people becoming more involved in community. In a way we are forcing our “community views” down the throats of people who are not interested in such. This will cause frustrations on both ends. The employee and the “Just User” as well as those of us who are involved start to feel frustrated. The first group gets frustrated because they feel that the ideals are being pushed onto them and the pressure they feel is very unwanted and/or uncomfortable and the second group has already built in expectations on what people “should be doing” when they use open source software, these expectations are not being met.

This causes an instant rift within communication between these two groups of people. This rift is not healthy and in some ways can become damaging.

I think that if we all start becoming aware of this mindset and start actively working our way around this idea of “users must contribute” we will see the value in having a true Ubuntu point of view. That is, Humanity Toward Others.

  1. Roscoe says:

    As the *Ultimate End User*, I thought that I was the only one thinking along these lines. Glad to see I am not alone. Thank you for bringing this up.

  2. Excellent points Dave. I agree!

  3. Re: Forcing “community” on Canonical employees

    That’s such a wrong way to view the situation. It’s not about Canonical employees being forced to have an interest in the community out side of their jobs. It should be about how best to leverage/involve the community in their work to make Ubuntu better. I think Alan Bell said it well in IRC:

    community is a tool of the job
    this is *nothing* to do with off-time
    community involvement for Canonical is not about doing more, it is about using the community to get the job done better
    if your 8 hours of work are not community facing then you only get 8 hours of work done.
    if that person involves the community and gets another 5 hours of effort from the community then they get 13 hours done in 8 hours

  4. Jef Spaleta says:

    why are you lumping “just users” and “Canonical employees” into the same post? Very different groups. And since Canonical is actually heavily involved in making decisions which materially impact the direction of Ubuntu as a project expecting them to live up to the project community ethos is a bad thing? Canonical builds its business around the management and control of Ubuntu as a brand and as a technical deliverable. If “employees” feel uncomfortable communicating and justifying their decisions to the contributing project community instead of just their manager inside the Canonical fenceline then that is a problem created by Canonical’s management. It was Canonical’s choice of on how they have structured business development and project development. And Canonical’s chosen way to intertwine business and project objectives so closely means corporate hierarchical culture and the meritocracy of a project culture are in direct conflict inside the common Ubuntu deliverable and will continue to be in direct conflict.

  5. cprofitt says:


    I agree… you put this very well. I blogged about this same concept after our meeting this morning as well.

  6. YoBoY says:

    You are right, most of the global actions are done to have more contributors. But what other global actions are you expecting? The project Ubuntu always needs new contributors.
    On contrary, the distribution Ubuntu is for end users and all actions for the users can’t be global, you always have to adapt your talk to your public. So it’s the role of the local communities to extend the users base, and it’s also the role of the local communities to try to find new contributors in these users.
    My loco chooses to extend the user base at all costs, and try at the same time to find new contributors but it’s not a priority.

  7. By Odin’s Right Eyeball a post that is entirely right from start to finish!

    Amen-ra Brother, Preach on!

  8. oliver says:

    Very true, and maybe even a very serious (conceptual) problem of the entire Open Source idea… As YoBoY mentioned, “the project Ubuntu always needs new contributors”, which I agree with; yet an increasing number of users don’t want to contribute, which I agree with as well :-) . And it has been getting worse as Ubuntu has become more popular.

    And it’s the same for other OS projects as well. Why should I bother to port my little project to Mac OS X when I neither have a Mac nor get any substantial contributions from someone who does? Why should I bother to fix a bug which doesn’t affect me? The only reason I can think of is that happy feeling you get if you read positive reviews or blog posts praising your project. But I doubt that feeling is sufficient for feeding a whole company of developers.

    Btw. besides Ubuntu I can only think of one project which has so many “just users”, which is Mozilla. I do wonder whether they have internally found an answer to this gap between contributors and just-users.

  9. kevix says:

    I dont know know about the Canonical situation. But about ‘contributors’ in this sense, it depends upon how you define that. If you use the older idea of ‘people who fix software bugs’, than I an understand. But the situation has progressed since then. To me, it means people who work on documentation, folks who make flyers, who help organize events, folks who assist me fix my gnu/linux problems, do language translations, who do outreach to people who are unfamiliar with free software, and more. It usually involves hanging-out with ‘ubuntu’ or free software users and these are ‘good times’, not some forced activity. My guess is that the people asking you to contribute are not stating their case as well as they could.

  10. Bryce Harrington says:

    Every user of a project incurs a cost. They ask questions that someone must spend answering, file bug reports that must be triaged and fixed, ask for features that must be considered. Let’s call the people who have the needs “users” and those who fulfill the needs “contributors”. A project which becomes very popular quickly could sharply increase in the number of users; if they do not also proportionally increase the number of contributors, then either of two things can happen: many users don’t find their needs met and become frustrated, or contributors quickly burn out; it’s possible for both to occur, and in fact quite common.

    This is why I believe for Ubuntu’s health that if it is to grow and succeed at bringing free software to more and more people, that it is equally important for some proportion of those users to take the step of going beyond being “just users” and take a role in helping their fellows. The more people who do this, the faster ubuntu can expand.

    But beyond this, I also feel that when people aren’t contributing, they’re not really experiencing the full breadth of their freedom. It’s like having free speech but never expressing yourself, or having the right to vote but never casting a ballot. Free software empowers you to help customize the system to fit *your* needs yourself. If a developer tells you “send a patch”, you shouldn’t view it as if they’re pressuring you to “pay for the software you were given” but more like someone encouraging you to go cast your vote. That’s how I like to think of it anyway.

    And yes, I do find it highly annoying when people call me to go vote. But I do go vote.

  11. Gord says:

    Here Here!

  12. Tom Cloyd says:

    I do much agree that “just users” are too often forgotten. I’m a Kubuntu user, and I will never have time to study Linux much, nor learn C/C++/whatever. I just come to it to get work done. When the OS is “improved” in such a way that I cannot figure out how to use it, I howl. I’ve been forgotten. “Don’t make me think!” Case in point: the “Activity Manager” in the new 11.10. It took me 20 minutes to figure out what the heck it was (it wasn’t about to tell me), and 10 seconds to consider it utterly useless. That it appears at all, much less in such cryptic form, suggests to me that there is a disconnect with ordinary users. I don’t want people to tell me that there is a solution I can go compile myself (I CAN do this, but often end up in the ditch). I just want good tools not to be made obsolete by “improvements”, especially when no replacements for them appear, or the replacements don’t work, or work badly.

  13. Pieter v says:

    I’m just a ‘user’, despite very occasionally trying to help others like me through contributions on the forums when we are both struggling with the same issue.
    As you can see, from this post, I like the idea of being included.
    I for one would be interested in receiving emails asking for any ideas I have on improving Ubuntu or whatever.
    I get the Ubuntu weekly news digest, which is where I found the reference to this blog.
    I just use Ubuntu on my Netbook, which originally had XP on it. I use my Netbook when others in the family are using the main Windows 7 PC, but only a few times a week.
    Anyway, invitations for ‘Users’ to “contribute” by having someone ask their opinion on things is one way I can see would suit me. I know about Ubuntu Brainstorm, but only visited it once or twice.

    Just thought you might like to hear from me.
    Cheers, Pieter

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