Rules and reward in voluntary communities

I’ve been involved with various voluntary communities and societies over the years, and have always been interested in how they regulate and reward their members without there being any sort of financial reward mechanism.

I’m quite lucky to move in circles where financial reward is not the only motivating factor. Everyone needs to eat, but there is also a strong need to create, to help people, to be seen as being useful and to participate in something greater than one person could create on their own. These things motivate me quite a lot, and actually contribute towards why I like my day job so much. But the problem with everything I’ve mentioned is that is doesn’t work for everyone. Just like in the world of work, people need a number to associate with the contribution they make. This is usually represented by pay, but in the voluntary sector there has to be something else, which is why a lot of organisations develop a system to reward members with “points” that represent their standing in the society, and may also allow them access to other benefits.

I’m currently involved with both the Ubuntu community (in particular the Launchpad bug reporting and support software) and Camarilla UK (a live role-playing society), both of whom use some sort of non-financial reward mechanism. Launchpad has a karma system, where each time you deal with a bug or answer a question you get points (and more points if the end user agrees that you have indeed sorted their problem). Karma is listed on the profile of each member, so you can get a vague idea of how much each person has contributed. People who do a lot get thanked, talked about, and generally revered, which makes people feel like their contribution means something. Camarilla UK has a similar mechanism called Membership Class (MC) where people get points for everything above and beyond just turning up and playing games. MC can be used to have a more powerful starting character on the understanding that if you abuse it then you will lose both the character and some MC. In both systems it is assumed that members with a higher “score” will mentor newer members, and should act in a way befitting of a senior member of a community.

And that is where rules come in.

In the working world it is fairly straightforward. We have job descriptions and codes of conduct, and if we don’t adhere to them then we lose our jobs. In the voluntary sector there is no financial reward, but there still needs to be an expected standard of conduct and behaviour. Both societies I work with have a code of conduct, and both have roles and positions to which people can be appointed or elected to. So in some ways it works exactly like a job; just without the money. The one big difference is that Ubuntu doesn’t force people to sign the Code of Conduct (although there are certain things you can’t do until you’ve signed), whereas you can’t be a member of Camarilla UK without agreeing to abide by a (fairly common sense) set of rules. Both Codes of Conduct are very similar (Be excellent to everyone and don’t cause problems being the main themes), and they act more as a set of guidelines than a set of rules.

It could be said that we don’t need these things, but if you look at the number of societies that have folded due to internal squabbling or people not knowing where they stand then it is quite easy to see that we need rules and we need a way of saying “thank you” to people who give their time and their effort for free. I’ve certainly felt more involved in societies that have these things, but there is one more thing that is needed; great people who instill a sense of community and belonging with everything they contribute. Because let’s face it, one of the reasons we do these things is to meet other like minded people who understand that it is possible to thrive in a society that is not motivated by money.

Planet Localhost

Today I’ve played around with Planet (the software behind Planet Gnome, Planet Debian and lots of other planets), and installed a demo version on our home server. It’s actually quite straightforward, and I think I could theoretically get something up and running quickly if required. Of course, it does require people to have publically available blogs which could be an issue in some circles I move in.

Inbox Zero

I get a fair bit of email (up to 100 messages a day), and I think it could be quite easy to get swamped, and to miss something important. Over the last year or so I’ve been looking at methods of dealing with email, and in particular have explored variations on Inbox Zero.

My current routine for dealing with email is quite simple:

  • I only have two mail folders; Inbox and Dealt With.
  • Everything comes into my inbox, and doesn’t leave my inbox until it has been dealt with.
  • Dealing with a message could include reading it, replying to it, or using it as the basis for a calendar entry, a task, or a block of time put aside to work on a particular project. Once the item exists elsewhere, then the email itself is dealt with and so it can be moved.

I do this with all emails; at home and at work. Home emails are really straightforward, because most of them are from mailing lists or are for information only. I use Thunderbird at home, with Google Calendar to manage my schedule and tasks. At work I get a lot more mail, and it is a lot more important. I use Evolution for everything (or Outlook on Windows), and if a task is suitably complicated it gets converted into our call logging software and becomes a task/project with a target date and time put aside to work on.

As far as backups go, work email is backed up centrally. Home email is copied to the mail/file server in our study as soon as it is delivered, so that if I accidentally delete anything I have a second copy.

My other mail rule with email is that I have times in the day when I will always clear my inbox. In the morning before work I clear my home inbox. I then go to work, and clear my work inbox as my first job of the day. Then I clear it again before I leave. I then do home email again when I get in, and then again before I go to bed. I never leave work or leave home with messages that have not been dealt with.

And that’s how Inbox Zero works for me.

More productivity

This afternoon I did a bit more work on our home server (the one I built from bits of my old dead PC).

It’s now running:

  • A full installation of Mediawiki, with a few extensions, which Steph is using a lot right now.
  • A streamable repository of Creative Commons licensed music so that any computer in our house can stream a selection of new and interesting music. This works nicely with Rhythmbox and iTunes (I’ve not tested anything Windows based yet).
  • A local access only mailsever (built around dovecot with a squirrelmail front end), which grabs a copy of all my incoming mail and archives it locally. This means I now have an extra level of backup in case I encounter more problems with my externally hosted mail.

All of this is controlled from webmin, so my main laptop is able to configure everything without me actually having to sit in front of the server. This is good, because the server is noisy enough to consider banishing it to the spare room.

Buying music in 2009

A couple of things have changed about the way I buy music:

  • The iTunes store now sells DRM free music, so I can actually play everything I buy on all my computers and my iPod.
  • I’ve got a 50 songs a month eMusic subscription.

So my usual decision making process usually involves working out which would be the best value. iTunes sells by the song and by the album, while eMusic sells just by the song. This generally means that very long songs and albums with fewer tracks are better value on eMusic, while albums with lots of short songs are better value on iTunes. Of course, if the music is packaged in a pleasing way on CD, then I’ll buy the CD and pay more for it too, but I am quite picky about what I’ll buy physically because our house is getting quite cluttered and we’re running out of space. This year I’ve bought music via all three methods detailed above, and I think 2009 will be the year that I don’t have a consistent way of buying music.

Of course, there’s always Jamendo when money is tight.

Discovering Free Music

So where do you start? There are obviously thousands of hours of recorded sound available legally for free, but it is quite easy to get lost, and to end up with a large amount of downloaded music that is not representative of what is out there.

These are the places I go when I want something new to listen to and don’t have any credits left on eMusic:

  • have a page of freely available (but not always freely distributable) songs available at
  • For an example of a site that makes individual songs available in the “sampler” model, try I’ve bought a lot of music based on listening to things downloaded from here.
  • Jamendo ( have a vast array of great music licensed under Creative Commons. They also have a lot of recordings that should probably have never been made. I spend a fair bit of time playing “spot the difference”.
  • The Internet Archive ( has a lot of free music available, and if you look closely you’ll find live performances by some fairly major artists, as well as a few things also available on other sites mentioned above.
  • For an example of a net label that understands about free music you could do worse than try They released the Wind Whistles album last year which makes them great in my book.
  • For an example of a single-artist model of distribution, try I’d recommend almost anything on here really.

I’d like to recommend iTunes singles of the week, but they need to strip the DRM off first. Although I should say that I did buy something on iTunes this week which plays fine in Rhythmbox, so the claims of trying to make their music more accessible to non iTunes/iPod users are not just an empty promise.