“Field of Dreams” is not a strategy for community growth

A wooden fence at the edge of a horse pasture shrouded in fog.

In the classic 1989 movie “Field of Dreams“, a voice from the past says “if you build it, he will come.” People often misquote it as “if you build it, they will come.” The idea being that simply creating a cool thing will draw people in. It’s a nice thought, but it’s almost never that easy. I call it the “Field of Dreams Fallacy.”

I commonly see open source projects taking a Field of Dreams approach. They hope that the mere act of existence will be enough to build a community. They might even say something like “contributions welcome!” but have no indication of what kind of contributions they’re looking for. Corporate projects seem particularly likely to fall into this trap, but that’s only a gut feeling.

Growing an open source community requires individual connections. It’s not a broadcast function. After all, open source projects (generally) produce code, but they’re made of people. People thrive on relationships. This principal is the foundation of the Flywheel Theory of Community Engagement. It stands to reason, then, that you must build relationships to build a community.

Building relationships takes time and doesn’t scale easily. One person can help bring a few people into the project, but not dozens at once. But once those few people are fully into the project, they can each bring a few more. You can see how this compounds quickly. These relationships can last a long time — I’m still friends with the people who helped me into the Fedora Documentation team 15 years ago. More importantly, they make the community “stickier” for contributors. People will want to stick around if they’re working with their friends.

One of the more ambitious objectives discussed in Fedora as the community works on its next strategic plan is the idea that everyone has a mentor and everyone is a mentor. I recall being a little lukewarm on this initially, but I’ve come to see it as a necessary step in achieving the broader goal of doubling the number of active contributors. Fostering relationships individually, not just a broad “I am in this project”, helps attract and retain contributors because it gives them a meaningful connection to the project.

There’s a lot more that goes into growing a community, of course (marketing!). But relationship-building is a vital first step.

This post’s featured photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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