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September 26, 2008

The Maemo (Generative) Community...

Imagine meeting a distant family member — one whom you may have known something about, but never actually had the chance to meet. The feeling must be extraordinary: seeing a stark resemblance (if not with you, with someone else in your family), sharing similar likes and dislikes (maybe even common paths taken or avoided throughout life), reminiscing about completely disconnected times, but having an odd sense that the two of you are not as different as you might have expected… Now, imagine doing this with almost three hundred people.

Maemo Summit 2008 Day 1 #0017That’s what last week felt like. (the first ever -oriented conference; sponsored by ), hosted at for two full days of lecture, dialog, catching up, and partying, converged on East Berlin, September 19 – 20. Along with official Nokia product and feature announcements, the mostly community-driven colloquium was more of a homecoming than a typical seminar or learning experience. While the information exchanged was exciting, inspiring, and vast — even to the amazement of some Nokia employees — the general sense of community far outweighed any other aspect of the conference.

But what is it that makes such a ragtag group of gadget enthusiasts strive so hard to develop and support community? Is it because everyone is so much alike? Possibly. Is it because each of us has similar interests? Maybe. Has technology finally come to a place in our culture where it can create and sustain community on its own? Hardly.

Interestingly, the question of how the Maemo community exists and thrives was probably one of the most often asked questions of the week (not only at the Maemo Summit, but at the preceding conference, ). Although, the question is not a new one. While few of the Maemo community may know it, I am part of another open source, but completely un-software-related community called . Honestly, this question has been asked by us and about us for more than a decade.

While there are many different layers to the success of the Maemo community (a little more about this later), a single word can define why a community such as this works: generative. The Oxford dictionary simply defines generative as, “relating to or capable of production or reproduction.” More specifically, according to Edmund Husserl, a renowned 19th & 20th century German phenomenologist, a generative community can frequently be seen in a people who generate diachronic communication based on commonality and temporal exclusively, regardless of an individual’s present locale. Moreover, generative community begins (and is sustained) when a people can objectively ascertain and develop a way of life in which each individual agrees to adhere — in most cases, manifested in a linguistic unification between each person within the community1.

Of course, that’s just a complex way to say that the Maemo community was formed by a common language (the open source Maemo software platform) common interests (using, improving, and developing applications within the platform), and (kudos to Nokia) good timing. Unhindered by age, ethnicity, gender, or location, the contemporary condition of the World Wide Web, open source software, and mobile computing fostered a catalyst for a brewing economy that was just waiting to be born. Prompted by the corporate sponsorship of nothing less than a social experiment, a people burgeoned from a few die-hard gadget hobbyists into a cabal of more than 12,0002 passionate zealots, all willing to defend the Nokia against any competing threat, but more importantly, willing to spend their hard-earned cash on the latest additions to the tablet répertoire.

When left alone, most formulas — even if potent — don’t do much unless they are combined to make a solution. In the case of the Maemo community, the role of meddling alchemist can easy be attributed to the employees of the Maemo team at Nokia. You see, this experiment was never meant to be hands-off, and those who were committed did everything that they could to stay in the mix. From actively moderating the various bug reporting processes to adding lively and intelligent dialog to the discussion forums and mailing lists, the Maemo team proactively became a part of the community themselves. While it could be argued as to what might become of the Maemo community apart from the Nokia Maemo team, the fact remains that a symbiosis has been created between unofficial community participation and official corporate sponsorship3. The Nokia Maemo team has become so interwoven into the overarching personality of the community that the impact of their absence would most likely be felt much more deeply than could be predicted.

Nothing other than the recent Maemo Summit could exemplify just how much of an impact Nokia still has on the Maemo community. Not only were they able to bring almost three hundred people together from every part of the world, but they created an environment where friendships were made, projects were inspired, and enthusiasm for their product was inspired. It is impossible to know for sure just how much tablet-oriented evangelism was generated during the two-days of the summit, but it was live-blogged (both in the micro sense and in long-form) by several people from morning to evening on both days. Likewise, just days after the conference there have already been over four hundred photographs published to the “Maemo Summit 2008“ group on . Regardless, it seems that Nokia corporate may be catching on to the importance of the community and realizing how a community like this might benefit their bottom line4.

Therefore, it seems, that the Maemo community is generative on many different levels: in and among the community itself (whether it be via application development or innumerable friendships); for the Nokia Maemo team (as an important resource for user experience testing as well as core application development); and for Nokia Corporation itself (referring to over 12,000 happy — and passionate — customers). It is because of this generative existence that the community thrives (and survives). It is this sense of a greater purpose that I was drawn to take part in the community — not just remain a bystander. It is because of the overwhelming support that the Nokia Maemo team offers to the community as a whole that such a variety of potentially volatile interaction succeeds. Further, as those of you who are a part of the Maemo community may know, it is why I am so proud to have been recently elected to the inaugural .

However, can community like this be duplicated? In today’s age of technology-aided communication, the answer to this question may be, “yes.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who try and fail at creating a vibrant, sustainable community. While this might be due to something that was failed from the start (e.g., the product, the idea, the timing, etc.), it is most likely due to the fact that the impetus behind the community was to build-and-run and to not engage with that which was begun (i.e., with an exceedingly deist approach to creation). Even if the linguistic and temporal tides are right, it is the extremely consequential factor of ongoing involvement that must exist for a community to endure and remain generative for all of the parties involved.

1 John Barnett Brough and L. Embree (2000). The Many Faces of Time (Contributions to Phenomenology Volume 41). Springer.

2 Maemo. Intro. The Home of the Maemo Community. Maemo.org < http://maemo.org/intro/ >.

3 Chris Ziegler. Mass exodus from Nokia’s Maemo group — what does it mean? 25 March 2008. EngagetMobile < http://www.engadgetmobile.com/2008/03/25/mass-exodus-from-nokias-maemo-group-what-does-it-mean/ >.

4 Roger Sperberg. About Nokia. Takeaway from the Maemo Summit. 22 September 2008. InternetTabletTalk < http://www.internettablettalk.com/2008/09/22/takeaway-from-the-maemo-summit/ >.

Posted at 2:46 pm

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