‘All Books Are Participatory’: Interview with Adam Hyde at FLOSS Manuals.

morgancurrie November 22, 2011
8 minutes

Adam Hyde is the mastermind behind FLOSS Manuals, a set of wiki-editable collaboratively written how-to textbooks for open source software. I talked to Adam about the next steps for his project, the future of publishing (the one where a book is ‘alive’ and each author can take a cut), and the worldwide spread of the booksprint format, a process enabled by Adam’s Booki software that brings together a group of people to produce a book in 3-5 days.

Morgan Currie: Can you describe the original climate that FLOSS Manuals came out of?

Adam Hyde: Well the climate was bad documentation, undernourished documents in free software organizations across the planet, and a feeling that I could do something about it because no one else was.

MC: Why do you think this was the state of things?

AH: Because free software projects are run by backend people, 99% men who talk C+.

MC: Would this imply that they’re not plugged into an institution that can push things along?

AH: No no, many come from large organizations, but they do not understand or give sufficient attention to the ‘end user’ as someone who needs some love and attention. For example I recently did a sprint with a very established free software project. It was their first document in the eight years they had been running. Some organizations do not do manuals because they feel people ‘just get it’.
Of course its also good to remember that using a manual for training people to use our software is only the starting point. Manuals have a bigger role and value.

MC: Can you describe this larger role?
AH: Advocacy, PR, marketing, funding acquittal documents, helping other parts of the organization sell ideas ‘further up’ the chain, funding application materials, internal discussion documents, feedback processes, pre-sale aids, post sale-aids, etc. Docs live outside of ‘how to use the software’. Imagine if you are a developer or a consultant and you work with Drupal. You take along a customised printed manual of drupal to the potential client and that manual has your company’s branding all over it. Like you wrote the doc. Very powerful. Or imagine a funding acquittal – you get some funds, and you give the funder a BOOK as one of the outcomes of that funding. They love you and give you more money. Funders hardly ever get tangibles.
MC: So FLOSS Manuals allows people to personalize the use of the documents to that extent. You could make a fork of it, essentially, and put your own branding on it.
AH: Yes. It’s federated publishing. Take a book, and do with it as you like. We can’t stop people from taking off the attribution stuff, but I don’t expect they do.

MC: Can you describe how these manuals have been taken up by communities?

AH: That’s a biggie. Civicrm is a good case. They talk consistently about the book in their lists and point to it from forums all the time, and they have annual book sprints. They are depreciating the wiki and using the docs as their official docs. They now want to sprint with other humanitarian organizations to do bigger sprints with like-minded software document teams.
MC: Is the entire project then taking on a shape you didn’t foresee from the start? If so how?
AH: FLOSS Manuals is now starting to realise some of the things I hoped for it when I started it. It’s a slow process. You have to create a culture…that takes time. For example, it takes time to break down people’s ideas of publishing. They come with a pre-installed idea. Tell them anyone can take your book and publish it and make money…they feel queasy. Checkout A Webpage is a Book, in the chapter ‘About this book’. It documents how you can make money from this book. You can sell it yourself. We have all the tools so that this would take you two minutes to do. Try to explain that to someone, why they would want to do this?! It is the future, I am sure, but it doesn’t make sense to many people, so you need to build this up in a community culture, to get them used to ways of working, to challenge them, to show them what the advantages are and help them to experience them.
MC: Do you consider participation a part of this process?
AH: Participation is all over this – all books are participatory.
MC: It’s even a participatory way of injecting a never-finished collection of ideas into a market.
AH: I would not say never-finished. I would say ‘alive’.
MC: Do participants have some say in the overall management of the site, the licensing tools, the direction it’s taking?
AH: There are three tiers to this: one, the board of five people, two, the language associations – some separate organizations, and three, the communities. Tiers one and two exist to make three’s job easy.
At first the organization was invisible. Now it has more muscle since we had a meet up in Berlin in October. There is a stronger board that will be separate from the English FLOSS Manuals, so we’ll have all equal language foundations, all on the same tier, with the flossmanuals.org helping each wherever it can. The Dutch organization is the meta organization. There will be French, Finnish, English, all autonomous. The meta organization is there to fuel the greater picture and help the language organizations when needed.

MC: How is FLOSS Manuals sustained?
AH: We don’t have any funding and are now looking for some. We have no employees but want some to help the communities do what they want to do. We just started now looking for money four weeks ago. We have had project funding for Booki development when features were needed, etc, but that’s about it. We have 40k in the back, which will last six months, and in that time we have to make it work and meanwhile find more money to keep that ball rolling.
MC: Can you describe your user population? Where are they mostly, which are most active, what typifies a FLOSS contributor…
AH: Definitely free software people, but maybe ones that can talk to other people. Free software geeks with a human interface (usually).
MC: How critical are the book sprints to the manual’s development?
AH: If you are talking about ‘a’ manual, then there are many ways manuals can come into existence. Book Sprints are one way. But if you are talking about how important sprints are for FLOSS Manuals, that’s different. The community has had massive growth spurs because of book sprints, and this in turn helps the effort at large. So book sprints help specific books and the community in general, and book sprints help the profile of FLOSS Manuals because they are very news worthy.
MC: How many are happening these days?
AH: In the last four weeks…lets see. We did four parallel book sprints at once at the Google Summer of Code event. There was a French arduino sprint in Dakar. There is a “making free fonts with free software” sprint in France next week. There is a one day thunderbird update sprint in Toronto next week. And there is a freedomfone sprint in Zimbabwe next week.
MC: It would be interesting to compare all of these…the differences between European and African sprints, with the differences in technical resources.
AH: Yeah, in Africa there’s power outages and low net bandwidth.

MC: what’s your measure of success for the project?
AH: There is my measure and the one for the goals. I measure success by how much people tell say we are doing magic, and that happens a lot. But I think the real measure is how sustainable we can make this. That’s the real hard measure, and we are not there yet. I worry that I am too much the container for a lot of information others don’t have and also I don’t see anyone as committed as me who would take over as the main whip if I stepped out. There is a lot of cultural stuff that needs to be internalized. That takes time. So we have a lot to do to get there. I want to be expendable. And maybe I am already but I fear that I am not quite.
MC: Do you see FM doing more than manuals on FLOSS, with people taking up the platform to build textbooks on all sorts of topics?
AH: www.booki.cc is for books about non free software topics. We push that stuff there. I started this: www.booksprints.net to push book sprints into this area, and the book i am writing is to try to get people to start their own FLOSS Manuals type organization for their own interests.
MC: We aim to compare different organizations’ approaches to participation to map the ways it can shape the public’s voice and change the value an enterprise creates. Do you have a statement to make about this re FM? Participation for you happens on so many levels, which automatically makes it quite distinct.

AH: I think the book is a powerful tool for building communities and publishing has locked this off from the world for a very long time. One of the principle models for building knowledge online is going to be the book and the fact that it is so valuable a community building device makes it ripe for participatory knowledge building.