Can your community get too big?

Open source software communities, like companies and cities, can come in all sizes. They don’t get too big but they can grow faster than their infrastructure and processes.

Take for comparison, the size of companies and cities. Companies come in sizes from one person LLCs to 100,000 employee megaliths. Cities come in sizes from a single person farm to enormous cities with 10’s of millions. Are some big companies too big for some people? Absolutely. Are big companies good at getting certain types of tasks done? Yes. Some people prefer some companies and small towns (maybe not the same set of people) and some people prefer big cities and large companies (again, maybe not the same set of people.)

So, can open source software communities get too big? Not really. But they can grow too fast. They can grow faster than their infrastructure; they can outgrow their governance; they can leave their mission behind.

So how can a community grow productively? By considering things like:

  • Onboarding processes. I’ve actually heard of communities having so many new people show up that to answer all their questions would have meant nobody would have time to get work done!
  • Infrastructure that scales. Where are you going to put all those new people? Will your source code control system, your chat system, and your blogging system scale?
  • Governance. As you have more people involved, you may want different ways of deciding membership and making decisions. OSI moved to individual membership from a self elected board. Gluster is moving to a new maintainer model as it grows. The evolution of process takes time and thought.
  • Mission statements that evolve. Sometimes you accomplish your original mission and you’ve moved on to something else and you need to state that for new and existing contributors like Fedora is doing now.

What else needs to grow along with your community?

Part of the OSS Communities series — maintaining existing community. Contribute your stories and tag them on Twitter with #osscommunities to be included.


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