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A very important asset of free software is the free software community. Just like with any technology or concept, free software has adepts that defend and promote free software to great extend. The free software community itself is very vivid and eager to help others in exploring the wonderful world of free software...
Free software communities are similar to real communities, but with the Internet as main communication channel. Hence, these communities aren't clustered in space like real life communities would, but are scattered throughout the world. Nevertheless, the Internet ensures that participants of a community, even when they are light years (figure of speech) apart, talk to each other the same way as neighbours do.
The Internet is a great asset for these communities: you are not judged based on the colour of your skin, your age or your looks. What matters is how you communicate with others, how you present yourself and how you react in discussions. Debates in a community can often become quite vivid, especially when the subject is one where facts aren't sufficient to provide good answers. And when these discussions change from debates into almost insulting fights, a flame war is born.
In flame wars, facts and reason are often far away. You should definitely try to avoid flame wars for discussions where decisions have to be made, but it is impossible to really prevent them as they are the result of people who have an active interest in a subject they are eager to defend, especially when there is no clear answer to the question that started the flame war.
Examples of such flame wars are ``What is the best Linux distribution?'' or ``What text editor should I choose?'' because these questions don't have clear answers: the best distribution for one person might be the worst for another, and there are many text editors around. In latin one would say ``de gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum'' (one shouldn't argue about tastes and colours) and this is very true for these kind of questions.
When you don't have a choice, flame wars don't exist: you cannot compare one product with itself. But in the free software world, choice is an important concept. You have the choice between many free operating systems (next to Linux you have many BSD flavors, Sun Solaris 10 and even less popular but promising operating systems like the GNU Hurd), distributions (there are over a hundred distributions around), graphical environments (not a single day goes by without battles about GNOME versus KDE), office suites, etc.
An often debated subject is ``the best distribution'' and although this book might seem a bit biased on the subject the best answer I can give you is that there is no best distribution, at least not generally speaking. The meaning of the term ``best'' is judged by people who have personal preferences about their operating system. And many of these people defend their best distribution very vividly.
Distribution communities are very active, mostly because they are quite large. The Gentoo community for instance is known for its responsiveness: the Gentoo chat channel is always alive (with more than 800 participants at any time) as is its forum (with more than a thousand posts per day) and mailing lists. Of course, general flame wars on distributions are often on more neutral grounds, but heated discussions on other topics are a daily routine.
For this reason, most communities have people who keep the discussions sane and prevent flame wars from growing too much. People who try to induce flame wars on the communication channels (called trolls) are taken care of by these operators: channel operators can kick or even ban such people from the chat channel, mailing list operators remove these people from the list and forum operators remove the profiles of these users. You can safely say these people are the police of the community.
A specific type of community is one which is local in space. Such communities often organize meetings (conferences, talks, barbecues, ...) and offer help to people local to the location where the community is hosted.
LUGs (Linux User Groups) are successful examples of such communities: these groups aggregate together, debating on the evolution in the Linux world and help others with Linux installations (Linux Install Fests are local meetings that offer help in deploying your favourite Linux distribution on your system). You might find a LUG very close by.
Many LUGs offer various services to their users which is often unseen in communities for commercial software. Moreover, many LUGs offer these services free-of-charge:
individual, on-site help with installation, configuration and maintenance of a Linux distribution or other free software
courses, talks and presentations offering you more insight in available Free Software
specific documentation tailored to the needs of its own users
If you have some time to spare, I really recommend to join a local LUG - even if you are not searching for help, you can still offer your own expertise to others and make connections (yes, social networking is important).
When people want to discuss a particular software topic or distribution, online communities are often formed. These communities do not (or to a less extend) organize meetings at a specific location (often called "in real life") but rather use the Internet as the meeting place ("online" meetings).
Online communities have the advantage that its members can be anywhere in the world and just like LUGs, they still offer services to its users, also most of the time free-of-charge:
online help with installation, configuration and maintenance of the software
In particular cases, communities can even offer interactive help through technologies such as SSH (Secure SHell - allows users to log on and work on another machine) and VNC (Virtual Network Computing - allows users to graphically log on and work on another machine, or see read-only sessions).
courses and online presentations
documentation, more specialized to the software title but often also localised (translated)
This is possible thanks to the various technologies available on the Internet, including
Wiki (online collaboration software for developing documentation) software has become quite popular for developing and releasing documentation. The use of wikis allows users to edit existing documentation or author new documentation online (with a simple browser) and the results of their editing is immediately visible to others.
Online (web)forums, where people can participate in discussions by placing messages and reacting to other messages. The advantage of web forums is that they are accessible through your web browser (which most firewalls still allow), can be consulted after the discussion has long been closed and where messages can be extended with images, attachments and formatted text.
Mailinglists, which is similar (function-wise) to web forums, but then organized through e-mail. People subscribe to a mailing list and then receive all mails sent to that mailing list to their personal mailbox. Replies to these mails are sent back to the mailing lists where they are again distributed to all mailing list participants. Mailinglists are quite popular in free software communities as they are easily moderated and can be filtered. Also, mails often reach people faster than messages on a web forum so you could see a mailing list as a faster discussion medium.
IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a way of communicating with many people interactively. Most people know Instant Messaging software such as MSN or Google Talk. Well, IRC is somewhat older but still very much used as it supports chat rooms where several hundreds of people can participate. IRC is the fastest medium for participating in discussions and can be seen as a method for creating "online" meetings.
People-centric social media, such as Google Plus or Facebook, where likeminded people collaborate and discuss their favorite topics. The advantage of these is that they are much better integrated with recent technological evolutions; people with modern cellphones (smartphones) are continuously available and can quickly interact with whatever is happening on the communities.
Communities often perform the role of support people: if you have a question about their software project they are eager to answer and help. If you think the software is insufficient, they will help you expand it or have it work together with other tools (or even redirect you to other software projects if they feel you want something out of their favourite tool that the tool isn't made for).
Support can be given on many levels...
A documentation guide is often created with one goal: describe how to do something with the tool. Such guides are therefore often called HOWTOs. Much work is put in such HOWTOs because they should be correct, well formed but also complete. The better the HOWTO, the lesser questions are asked after reading it. If you ask the community how to perform a certain action and the action is described in such a HOWTO, you'll be redirected to that HOWTO (sometimes with a more crude reference to the RTFM term, or ``Read The Fucking Manual'' - although the third term is also often read as ``Fine'').
Other types of documentation are FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) which are generally very small HOWTOs or answers to conceptual questions rather than technical ones. When you're new to a certain tool it is very interesting to read through the FAQs before you ask your question. Not only are chances high that you find your answer, you might find out more about the tool which can be very interesting.
Some communities also offer a knowledge base. Such systems can be seen as an aggregation of questions and answers, but unlike FAQs they might not be frequently asked. Knowledge bases often offer support solutions to specific setups.
Internet forums (web based) or Usenet forums (newsgroups) are a more interactive approach to obtain support. Internet forums have the additional advantage that you can add specific formatting in your questions: you can show command code, exceptions or errors better than in plain text. You can even include screen shots. These forums allow for any user to be helped quite fast: forums are read by many and the interface is simple enough to quickly see the new topics.
An additional advantage of internet forums is that, once a question has been asked and answered, it is stored in the database of the forum. Hence, the entire forum can be seen as a knowledge base with a multitude of answers. Very popular topics are often made sticky, meaning that the topic remains on top even when no further discussion happens on it, increasing the chance that new users read the topic.
Usenet forums (or newsgroups) are another popular approach to support although it must be said that newsgroups are not used that often for free software tools. Usually you'll find a newsgroup when the project itself doesn't provide a forum (anyone can launch a new newsgroup) although it does happen that internet forums and usenet forums are linked: posts in one forum are merged with the other.
A more direct approach are mailing lists, e-mail addresses where several dozens (or even hundreds) individuals listen to. A mailing list is often perceived to be a bit faster than forums because many developers frequent mailing lists but not forums due to the ease of use: mailing lists result in plain e-mails which can be easily filtered.
Most mailing lists are archived as well, allowing you to skim through the older topics in the list. Whereas forums are usually pure for user experience, mailing lists are used as the primary communication channel for development purposes. Some projects also have internal development mailing lists which aren't readable to the public. This isn't because they want to hide development stuff from the users: such mailing lists are used to communicate security issues, personal information (including account information) but also to talk about topics that are juridically difficult to defend if they are made public.
Chatting is almost the most direct form of communicating with each other. Many free software projects use IRC (Internet Relay Chat) as a central communication channel. Users can be quickly helped through IRC while developers can talk and discuss changes quickly.
Chat channels can be very popular. Gentoo's main chat channel (#gentoo on the freenode network) has between 800 and 1000 participants at any time.
Once in a while, developer groups come together for real-life support or to discuss the evolution of their software. In many cases, real-life meetings offer a way for people to get hands-on, interactive help. We have talked about LUG meetings (where real-life meetings are often held) but also software communities have real-life meetings. Many of these meetings offer a way for developers to meet each other (for the first time), discuss topics and learn from each other.
In some cases, hack fests are organized. During these meetings, developers aggregate together with a single goal: to develop new features or remove bugs from the software. Although this can well be done online (virtual gatherings), hack fests allow developers to communicate freely and help other developers with their problems. Meeting in real life allows developers to easily show the problem they have (some problems can be difficult or too time consuming to write down).
In the Free Software world, conferences are often organized. During these conferences
talks are given about certain software titles (design, features, evolution, ...) or projects (infrastructure, offered services, used technologies, ...)
booths are organized where projects can show themselves to the wide(r) public. Distributions frequently use booths to hand out installation CD/DVDs and show systems running the distribution.
companies offer information on how they use (or develop) free software (and sometimes recruit developers)
FOSDEM, or the Free and Open Source Developers European Meeting, takes place in Brussels, Belgium at the beginning of each year (around mid-february). During this conference, talks are given about coding and development of software, but you'll also find booths about various software projects/distributions and developer rooms (where a single project can offer talks about project-specific topics).
FOSDEM is held during two days and has become a major conference in the Free Software community, especially in Europe as many other conferences are held in the USA.
FOSS.IN, or the Free and Open Source Software conference in India, is one of Asia's largest FOSS conferences. It occurs at the end of every year in Bangalore, India, featuring talks, discussions, workshops, meetings and more from international speakers, users and developers.
LinuxTag is a free software exposition with primary focus on the Linux-based operating systems and solutions. Unlike FOSDEM, LinuxTag focuses more on the integration of Linux (and free software) in larger environments, offering booths to both commercial companies and non-commercial organisations.
It's slogan is "Where .COM meets .ORG". You can visit LinuxTag around spring every year.
Try to find the online discussion methods (web forum, mailing lists, IRC) offered by the Gentoo Linux distribution.