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The Meaning of Beer

No community would seem complete without some form of ritual observance. Most communities have something that needs to be celebrated in a prescribed fashion. Religious communities frequently have some rite that needs to take place at a given place or time in a given manner. National communities often celebrate certain holidays in some traditional way. The Open Source community is no different in this regard.

One of the most visible observances has to do with beer. In the Open Source community in general, and the Linux community in specific, beer is simultaneously a symbol of value and of the community itself. It has little to do with drunkenness, foolishness, or lack of control. The image of beer-chugging college kids like those portrayed in the movie Animal House have nothing to do with the meaning of beer in the geek community.

Some of the earliest references to beer in the community had to do with people owing a "virtual beer" to someone else who solved a difficult problem for them. It was an assignment of value to a job well done. It was a way of saying "thank you" to someone who had done something that affected you personally. A "virtual beer" was a very personal gift, not something that was given lightly. It was something that was earned.

There are also many references to people discussing the Linux code over a beer. This was magnified by a reasonably popular photograph of Linus Torvalds chatting with someone with a bottle of beer in front of him. The matching of beer with discussion of code began to solidify as a cultural element.

But the meaning of beer is never so evident as when one attends a Linux technical conference. Although the bigger marketing shows often invest in loud parties where you can barely hear yourself think, the smaller technical conferences often feature nightly get-togethers over beer. In the best of these, the music is low and in the background, the beer is varied and inexpensive, and conversation is endless.

I can think of many such events I have attended over the years. Upon entering the establishment, the thoughts are not focused on drunkenness or carnal desires. Rather, the focus is on your peers and the talk is about code (and beer). A good night of chatting and sipping can last for hours, and yet it will still seem all too short when the time to retire for evening arrives.

Beer becomes the excuse to socialize with your fellow geeks. It becomes a symbol of the value of work well done. And it fosters celebration and fun as people talk about the work they are doing and the plans they have for the future. The idea is not to get drunk because drunk people cannot talk about code. The idea of beer is to enjoy the company of people like you while talking about the work you like to do so much that you do it for free. And, in the case of people too young to drink beer, it is possible to substitute a soft drink without losing the true meaning of the encounter.

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