How Ubuntu builds community with hangouts


Alan Pope

Alan Pope

The Ubuntu community pioneered many of the things we now take for granted in how a software company interacts with its community of users and developers. From the beginning, they’ve aimed to build a community in which volunteer members and the sponsoring company have equally important roles.

The community team at Canonical, Ubuntu’s sponsor, have been using Google Hangouts as one of the ways in which they help bring both those sides of the Ubuntu community together. You can find them on the Ubuntu on Air website and on Twitter as @ubuntuonair. I spoke to Canonical’s Alan Pope about how they’ve done that.

Matthew: How often do you run hangouts?

Alan: We have weekly Community Team Q&A hangouts which are “come one, come all, bring your questions and we’ll do our best to answer them” style. Other teams within the company use the same channel for “office hours” style hangouts and ad-hoc meetings. Then there’s the even less frequent Q&A videos with the CEO or founder of the project. Those are typically done once every six months to coincide with a summit, product launch or just if we haven’t done one for a while.

The community team weekly ones are great for getting a feel for the things people we know in the community are interested in. Whereas the viewership of the CEO Q&As is much more diverse, with questions coming from people outside what we consider our well-known community.

Matthew: How do you prepare? Is the hangout like a planned TV show or is it more ad-hoc?

Alan: It depends. Sometimes we can be busy with other work and the notification surprises us so we have done zero prep. Those are easily the least “successful” hangouts, so we try and avoid surprises, and prep ahead of time. On some occasions we’ll book people in advance to talk on a particular topic we think will be interesting to our audience. Other times we just take turns within the team to do the videos in pairs, depending on who is available on the day, and whose turn it is.

Matthew: How many viewers do you tend to get?

Alan: It varies, especially dependent on how much social promotion we do of the event. If we pimp it out over G+, Twitter and Facebook, and all members of the team re-post it then we tend to get much higher numbers than if we don’t. The live Q&A can be as low as 10 viewers and usually hovers around 50 with maybe 10 or so people actually asking questions. Our weekly Q&A gets around 400 views on YouTube but the Ask the CEO and Ask Mark ones get between 2 and 10 times that, often depending on how controversial the subject matter is.

Matthew: Have you considered anything other than Google Hangouts to run them?

Alan: We aren’t particularly wedded to Google Hangouts, but the fact is they work and can serve content to a vast number of live users, and have the content automatically archived on YouTube. It’s a compelling platform, but we’d switch in a moment if something better came along. It’s also worth noting that there are a couple of limitations with Hangouts. For example, for Live events there’s a minimum age, which blocks some of our younger contributors. It’s also inaccessible in China, where we have an active community.

Matthew: How do you encourage viewer participation?

Alan: We try to make the barrier to entry as low as possible. We made a separate website “” which is the portal to any of these videos. That way we don’t have to tell people which channel to go to, and we can include a chat box under the video, where people can ask their question. We mention the website and IRC (chat) channel in the videos all the time so people know where they can ask their questions. In fact, we often get people drop by the IRC channel and ask questions while they’re watching an archived video on YouTube! 

We tell viewers that we welcome any question, with the only exception being technical support. Most of the time we get questions which we can answer, but if we can’t, we can generally find the right people or channels where those can be better answered.

How much participation we get really depends week to week and the types of videos. The Ask Mark videos get floods of questions, with us often having to filter (usually removing duplicates) out some of them. In the weekly Q&A we can get to the end of the hour with one or two left over, or have 5 mins spare with few questions. It mostly varies by what interesting things are in the news cycle, how close we are to a particular event or product announcement/release, and by how much we promote the video.

Matthew: How important are the hangouts to your community programme?

Alan: Incredibly important. We’re already a very approachable and accessible team to the existing community, but the videos allow us to reach out to a wider set of people. We get questions which someone ‘in the community’ would immediately know the answer to, but those who just have a passing interest, or aren’t deeply involved, won’t be aware of. This helps us to understand the external perspective of the project and has on occasion led us to pass that on as feedback to other teams.

It’s also great from our perspective to see what gaps, misconceptions or misunderstandings there are, as that helps us to tune our message, our documentation and strategy. 

Go check out Ubuntu on Air!

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