Free and Open Source Software communities remain elusive and intangible despite the significant amount of research that has been done on the subject. The significance of these communities is also something that has been under much debate. Some authors (Raymond^ 2000; Lanzara & Momer, 2003; Oh & Jeon, 2004) describe FOSS communities as entirely virtual systems that operate almost exclusively over the Internet on a global scale. Other authors (Krishnamurthy, 2002; O’Mahony & Ferraro, 2004) maintain that in many cases, a significant amount of FOSS communities often operates off-line in the ‘real world’, and that a considerable quantity of FOSS development is actually performed by individuals. It is probable that in actual fact, FOSS development is a mixture of both these theories. While some projects will have large numbers of people working on them, other projects may have few or a single developer.
Furthermore, although some projects will exist entirely on- line, others may involve off-line meetings between people The data collected for this research used a predominantly quantitative on-line survey method. Reaching members of FOSS communities for data collection is inherently difficult, for the reasons of intangibility and levels of participation explained above. The sample set of this research consisted of a particular type of Open Source group within the UK, the Linux User Groups (LUGs).
The term is slightly deceptive as most of these groups do not only concentrate on the Linux Operating System but on a wide variety of other Open Source operating systems, application and programs. The research findings presented in this paper are based on the 145 survey submissions received Although the survey was directed at the UK LUGs, it was open for others to participate. Analysis revealed that of the total number of submissions, approximately 12% came from people who were not part of a FOSS society, club, or user group. Many of the LUGs are involved in software development in some way, and members may also be involved in other software development communities. The survey used dealt with individuals’ experiences of on-line FOSS communities in general, not specifically the LUGs, and although for some members, experience of a FOSS community will only be the LUG, others will certainly have a broader experience including other communities. The survey results demonstrate this, as many members have referred to other communities in their submissions.
The survey itself dealt with several aspects of FOSS communities and the attitudes and participation of community members. This paper covers the areas of the survey that collected data about the specific reasons a member may have for participating, in terms of the actual activities involved, and how and for what purpose a member makes use of communities. The basic motivation for anyone making use of an on-line FOSS community is to perform some function, i.e. to use an on-line tool to achieve a desired action. It is which functions a member uses and why they use them that the initial phase of the research attempted to discover.
This section of the survey collected community members’ perceptions of what they actually do within FOSS communities and the pragmatic reasons for participating. Research subjects were presented with several possible reasons for making use of on-line FOSS communities; • To find out how to perform a task in a software application (Problem solving). • To help other people to use software applications (Providing support). • To suggest alterations or improvements to software programs (Peer review). • To contribute bug fixes or code improvements (Software development). ?same forums but it is still possible to separate the two activities.?Again the members were also given the opportunity to provide their own answer to the question in case none of these options were appropriate.
For this question members were asked to choose only one option from the list. Figure 3 shows the choices made by the members and Figure 4 the results as a percentage.?Figure 5 shows the results of this question being put to the developers and Figure 6 shows the same data in a percentage format.?Other uses specified by the developers were: to use the development forums as a source of research material, to disseminate software to others, to use FOSS development activities for personal professional development, and again, just for the fun of it. By their very nature, FOSS development and the communities performing it are open to anyone who wants to get involved at any level. The fact that they are also facilitated by the Internet means that a community is not usually confined by any geographical constraints, but rather exists on an international or global scale. It is this fact that justifies the use of the UK Linux/Open Source User groups as the sample set for this research. The groups may have members from all over the world and each member is likely to be involved with a myriad of other diverse communities.
The collection of the data for this research itself is a good example. The request for participation was sent to specific UK groups and resulted in submissions arriving from many other countries which were not specifically targeted. An acknowledged potential limitation of the research is that LUGs are perhaps more likely to focus on support than other kinds of FOSS community. There are some communities that are almost entirely focused on software development and much less on support. An extremely interesting result was the apparent importance of social exchange within the communities.
70% of the surveyed members stated that meeting and talking to people with similar interests was one of their main reasons for their participation. Although many LUG members are involved in other communities there is no way of proving that the members reached by this survey are entirely representative of FOSS community members in general. It may be that communities are far more focused on software development than has been demonstrated by this research. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that the data has only been collected from FOSS community members who are not opposed to filling in surveys.
This of course is a potential problem for all academic research but as a person’s views on surveys are not directly related to their views on the subject matter, this should not significantly distort the results. The research has investigated communities that are involved with both support and development activities and consequently has collected data from the different types of members. The data has shown that in terms of support, problem solving is the main reason that members have for using FOSS communities, concurring with the work by Lakhani & Wolf (2003). Interestingly however, only slightly fewer members chose providing support as a reason.
This suggests two things; firstly that the majority of FOSS community members, in this type of community, perceive support as being the primary reason or function of the community. Secondly that members rank getting help from others, and giving it to others,as equally important. The moral views of Stallman (1999) therefore may be just as applicable now as they were during the early years of Free Software . Although it is possible that members who prefer to receive support rather than give it may be less likely to fill in a survey, the significant number of members who chose providing support as a reason for participating, shows that this view is common among FOSS community members. It also shows that those involved in FOSS are aware and appreciate the importance of sharing and collaboration in community systems as well as software development. Members also saw peer review and actual software development as being of equal importance.
Since peer review can be performed by member who may have little or no knowledge of software development, in the programming sense, this highlights the importance of the user in the FOSS development process and the close user-developer relationship that exists (Scacchi 2005). It also demonstrates that FOSS communities are highly involved in the development of software, even when many of the participating members are not contributing code and may not even be programmers. These contributions would instead be in the form of software testing, bug reporting and general suggestions on function and operation (Pavlicek 2000; Moody 2001; Raymond 1999). If these results are to be considered representative of FOSS communities in general, the results would suggest that only approximately 50% of member activities within the community are for reasons of software development.
The presented research has extracted information about FOSS communities from the very members that they consist of. It is this unique viewpoint that has revealed the very interesting inferences that have been taken from the research findings. It has looked at the ways in which members of a FOSS community perceive the group that they are in, and has revealed some of the very specific motivational aspects involved. Although FOSS communities are still often seen as ad-hoc and chaotic, the research has shown that it is common interest and community relations that bind these communities together, and allows them to produce both knowledge and software in such an effective fashion. The research has demonstrated that there is strong sense of sharing and collaboration within communities that support FOSS development and use. This manifests itself in two main ways, firstly in the areas of software development where code, ideas and suggestions are shared and secondly in the software support area, where information about software use is the object of transfer. It is this code and knowledge generation and transference between community members with diverse sets of expertise and backgrounds that allows FOSS communities to function so well.