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FSCONS 2014 and patterns that plague communities

A week has passed since this year’s Free Society Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, where last weekend I travelled to speak about "The case for Free Software Crowdfunding". Several talks have stayed with me, and crept into my thoughts over the last seven days. And one in particular will stay with me for a long time yet.

First of all, a quick summary:

  • 200 attendees
  • ~60 Talks, workshops, and performances
  • 2 Keynote speeches
  • 2 Live music sets
  • Hosted by Gothenburg University (Humanities Dept.)

This was my fifth time at FSCONS, and the conference has a special place in my heart. It was here in 2009 that I met Free Software professionals for the first time, first volunteered for the Free Software Foundation Europe, and first felt at home among digital freedom activists. FSCONS convinced me it could be possible to work for freedom professionally – not just volunteer during late nights and weekends. Seven months later I moved to Berlin to intern at FSFE.

Programming system product diagram

From program to product by Fred Brooks, from my talk

The conference has changed a lot since then. The venue has moved from the old location at Sweden’s iconic Chalmers University. Attendees have ebbed from around 400 to half that, and components which used to define the weekend, such as parties at Berg 211, and presentation of an annual Nordic Free Software Award, have dropped off the agenda. A new, younger organisation committee has been established in recent years, and the academics, such as friends Henrik Sandklef and Jonas Oberg, no longer attend. Even FSFE, who helped establish the first FSCONS in 2007, and who in 2009 convinced me to attend with discounted tickets and Fellowship meetings, no longer participate officially.

For all that change however, things are in surprisingly good shape. Talks were coordinated exceptionally well, keeping to schedule (a rare thing in my experience), with seamless handling of audio and video recording. Vegan food was dispensed at appropriate times, and while it wasn’t cheap (10 SEK / meal) it was nutritious, easy to find, and delivered and retracted smoothly. Live music in the large cafeteria area provided a good atmosphere for the conversations that, for many attendees, will have been the real highlight of the weekend. And at least one special announcement took place: the launch of The Journal of Peer Production on Friday evening, which did something to rekindle FSCONS’ academic glow.

The great exhibition of London illustration

A bazaar of thriving, funded, Free Software, as imagined in my talk

Also representing the academic community were Bjorn Lundell and his colleagues from the University of Skovde, who interviewed me about use of Open Standards in the enterprise. Having given my talk shortly before, my energy reserves were low, but I was nonetheless delighted to contribute my knowledge to a series of research which both Collabora and FSFE have used to defend and promote Free Software in the past.

The high note of the conference for me however was Leigh Honeywell’s presentation ‘Models We Use to Change the World‘. As she identified a long list of patterns which faced by well meaning organisations and relationships with their staff, I rushed to note the names of the many books that were referenced, and even a few perfectly selected quotes. "The tyranny of structurelessness". "The unaccounted cost of emotion work". "Undermanagement-induced burnout". These are some of the many concepts Leigh addressed during her whistlestop tour of organisational patters that hold back our communities. Some of those patterns bedevil commercial organisations too, and quotes from books such as "Exit, voice and loyalty" originate from that sector. Because they reminded me of many challenges that I’ve faced over 11 years of Free Software activism, they were fascinating. Moreso the possibility of overcoming the limits of those patterns now they’ve been identified.

In all, despite it’s altered flavour, FSCONS proved again to be a melting pot and meeting point for an alternative crop of Free Software do-ers. "Makers" and "commoners" made up the numbers of absent academics, and informal fratrenising on-campus substituted more lavish social events.

Flirtation painting by Glindoni

The wooing of new crowfunding backers and Free Software users from my talk

My talk should be online one week soon (many thanks to the inimitable Klondike and his team). I must add my thanks to friend and one-time colleague Lucile Falgueyrac for helping me iron out its kinks the night before. Perhaps I’ll manage another post on "last minute management of a presentation’s emotional content" if I have time. You’re unlikely to finda more in-depth yet accessible summary of the current TTIP negotiations than her talk (delivered Saturday), the recording of which should also be published shortly.

Otherwise, thanks to Stian Rødven Eide, Leif-Jöran, Oliver Propst, and the rest of the FSCONS organisers for another unique conference, and I look forward to the FSCONS CFP mid next year, and wonder what will be our subjects then