Not all communities are created equal, what lies ahead for Penpot

Free & open source can be more or less successful in bringing together people around a mission but you need to make sure you’re honest about your motivations, your goal and how to give voice to users and potential contributors. We’re asking you to give us examples of good or “not so good” communities, so read on to see where are we coming from with this request.

It’s true that a healthy and vibrant community (Blender or Python come to mind) requires a tremendous effort from the core team but 1) it’s the right thing to do and 2) it sometimes pays off. Think of it as a game theory challenge where you go the altruistic route and it ends up working for (almost) everyone. “I give away 1 and I receive 99 in return, bliss!”

These Communities go with a capital c. They are inclusive, accessible and diverse. They bring distributed innovation, co-ownership and reach. They provide you with a virtuous tailwind that allows the project to fulfill its promise.

I’ve been either a founding member or an active participant in more than a dozen of such Communities (not only tech ones) for the past 20 years and the most exciting and successful ones share those attributes. Actually, I’ve come to realize that we shaped Kaleidos mirroring such model.

Unfortunately, for the past decade I’ve had the feeling that it has been increasingly difficult to stand out among other new communities. Particularly the ones that we would have called just “users” or “customers” in the past. There is a ton of research around this from a sociological, psychological or even economical perspective but I’d like to share two relevant contributing factors to this low signal/noise ratio.

  • Free & Open source != a great Community. If we’re speaking of honesty, let’s be honest, many open source communities are not that welcoming or exciting. It’s a waste of potential and yet it happens a lot.

  • Closed sourced software can take shortcuts towards building these communities by pouring ridiculous amount of money. This can make people perceive they’re entitled to steer the future of the product or the company, even if there’s actually not much that they can do, except generate content and support for free.

I have to admit I don’t think we need perfectly pure communities everywhere for everything. At the same time I hear myself saying “I told you so” too often these days. Sometimes it’s the vendor lock-in that kicks in or perhaps an aggressive pricing change that took place. But also more fundamental (and subtle) issues around your privacy or the effective power of your social group.

At Penpot we have quite a challenge ahead and we would love to ask for your input and help. We don’t want to follow the useless and irrelevant community path. In your opinion, what are the most inspiring communities that were able to bridge the gap between two apparently distinct user types? Also, what are the worst examples you can come up with that could serve as cautionary tales?

We ask this because in little more than a year we’ve come from releasing our cute little alpha product to having tens of thousands of active designers and developers using Penpot for their daily work. It might seem a tiny fraction to you but it means the world to us.

We have some experience with our first publicly released open source product, Taiga, but this is new territory. We hope both designers and developers will agree to build this alliance around an open source design and prototyping platform that a) (really) welcomes developers and b) gives designers what they need.

PS: some relevant links are Contributing and as well as GitHub - penpot/penpot: Penpot - The Open-Source design & prototyping platform


You mean designers and developers as users of penpot?

I continue to be fascinated by game development communities: There is the need for collaboration of artists and developers. In many of their tools, there is a large space for scripting or node-based languages and the need to use and swap assets quickly and get quick feedback. Unity or the open source Godot could be interesting cases, here.
Some tools and their communities are also very good in enabling people who do not see themselves as programmers to create games. Twine or RenPy make it particularly easy to get started.

Thus, the communities that formed around these tools could be interesting cases for Penpot.

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Cautionary tale: How Wikipedia solved a the crisis of too many newcomers by making it harder to get started. It survived, but it is still paying the price: How Wikipedia’s reaction to popularity is causing its decline (American Behavioral Scientist, 57(5), 664-688. PDF )


Those are great examples! I was also implying any community that bridged the gap between two (apparently) distinct user/contributors and their motivations.
I’m very familiar with Godot (I even attended one of their Godot meetups after FOSDEM a few years ago) and I think we could learn from them but also Unity. Twine and RenPy seem to belong to the “I’ll give you superpowers” category like in “I’m now able to develop games!” but I’m unsure whether they bridge any gap other the skill gap, perhaps?

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Yes – it would be interesting to see how RenPy users “migrate into” more python focussed communities, but it is not as interesting as the cases of Godot and Unity.


Potentially interesting: A social science concept for collaboration of different groups is the boundary object, a thing or concept that is use by different communities in different ways – but collaboratively. In this case Penpot itself might be a boundary object. The concept could imply that there will be two communities around penpot, developers and designers. Both might collaborate mainly by shaping penpot so that their needs are met. Specific discussions will stay in their respective main communities.

Wow, that’s an interesting article and a strong cautionary tale. I was a Wikipedia contributor 10 years ago and I did see how it was more and more difficult to contribute. At the same time I sort of understood the importance of content curation. It’s very tricky and a challenge as big as Wikipedia. But yeah, it’s important to always have an easy way to start contributing regardless of the history of the project (we’re not here for just a couple of years!)

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What is also on my mind again and again is that the idea of community. The term is usually used to describe something positive but as you already point out, this does not need to be the case—communities are often not welcoming nor have they proven to be good at creating software that works well for people that are not like community members.

Sometimes I wonder if community is a good term to what we should strive for; it implies a non-community, an Other that one is not. I often rather think of collaboration, expertise, kindness.

  • Ideas of community in cyberculture: Turner, Fred. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. 1st edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (imho an exciting read even aside of interest in communities)
  • Communties and symbolic boundaries: Cohen, Anthony P. 1985. Symbolic Construction of Community. 1st edition. London New York: Routledge. (rather academic)
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I hear you, and yet I can’t think of a better term. That’s why I tried to distinguish communities from Communities, like an attempt to establish a qualifier difference. Perhaps we need to find such qualifier as an adjective to the term “community”.

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