The Linux Community of Interest

by Tom Adelstein

Back in 1995, I read an article about the scarcity of webmasters and switched my specialty. I often look for hot spots and retool to meet the needs. Before 1995, Oracle Financials was hot. I just didn’t care much for the rigidity of technology. But, I was an accountant and an IT guy so I had tooled up for database programming.

Once I qualified to become a webmaster, I also discovered the need for on-line transactions or Internet ecommerce. In those early days we used to say, “build it and they will come”. It worked too.

The most successful Internet firm at the time was COW. They did work for the likes of Disney.COW had an interesting philosophy for generating web traffic. Their formula went like this: Content creates a Community of Interest. A community of Interest generates opportunities for revenue. At that time, revenue on the web meant advertising.

Another influence in my thinking came from the story of a Philadelphia cheesecake company. The company was 100 years old and stayed a family owned business. The latest heir had an innovative nature. They sent out a catalog and offered to put his cheesecakes on your front porch using Federal Express. I walked out to get the morning news on Christmas Eve and saw this Fedex package and inside was a cheesecake from Philadelphia as a Christmas gift from my Uncle.

The current owner of the company put up a web site advertising his Cheesecakes soon after he began his Fedex program. You could call a 1-800 toll free number and order one of his famous cheesecakes. During the first year, he said that he didn’t receive one order from the Internet. He was frustrated. In that frustration he published the family’s recipe that had been a secret for 100 years. Within days, the phone rang off the wall. People read the recipe and realized buying from him was a bargain as opposed to making one themselves.

What does that have to do with Linux?

Today, the proliferation of web sites has negated the rules I learned over ten years ago. “Build it and they will come” is a deprecated notion. Many of my searches today are clouded by page after page of eBay auction ads. I find it difficult to find materials I need to do my work.

If you want to develop a community of interest, good luck. I have found some niches but nothing like the traffic needed to become an overnight success. My assumptions have often gotten in the way of the new reality. Oh, I acknowledge the exceptions like Digg. It’s just tough to get traffic.

The successful web sites today already have communities of interest. I went to the best hardware store in Dallas on Saturday and their new mantra is “we don’t carry that any more”. So, I do my shopping on the Internet if I need things like specialized “green” bug deterrents.

When I started working as a webmaster, I got hold of a little DEC Multia. I added a second network card and built firewall out of it. Red Hat had in its distribution an Alpha kernel and the TIS firewall. So, we built that firewall. At the time, Red Hat was the major commercial Linux distribution and some things actually worked.

Linux had a community of interest. At the time, approximately 30,000 people used Linux. By 1999, that ballooned to 2 million. Why? The community of interest was in place and it was poised for growth. That brings up an existential question: Is the community big because of Linux’s success or is Linux’s success based on the community. I can see both sides of the argument.

In a Zen style tradition, I would say that you can reach Satori with this argument. Satori, by the way, is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment. A master gives the student a cosmic riddle like: What is the sound of one hand clapping? One contemplates it for whatever time it takes and in solving the riddle reaches enlightenment.

All that on the side, I say we’re quite fortunate to have the community and whether it forces innovation or not, its existence gives Linux the resources necessary to continue. In that regard, build it and they have already started playing baseball.