In the dim and distant past, even before the 0.01 Linux kernel was posted,
developers communicated with each other via email, often sent over the
UUCP-based USENET network. It had its challenges; life was better for
those who could arrange a link to a machine owned by a company that paid little
attention to its phone bills, and the need for senders to manually
determine the routing of their message made communications uncertain at
times. Your editor received a full netnews feed over a 2400-baud modem, and
everybody complained that there was far too much traffic to keep up with.
But a lot of collaboration was done over this medium, and a lot of early
free software was developed and distributed that way.
Happily, the days of broadcasting software releases over modem-based
connections are long behind us. But the free software community still
relies on electronic mail for the bulk of its communications, despite the
fact that a great many alternatives have become available. Email has a lot
of advantages: we have developed a lot of tools for working with it
(complaints about the quality of free email clients notwithstanding), it
works well for multi-sided communications, it is distributed and can be
dealt with offline, it is easily searched, and it is readily managed and
archived on non-proprietary sites. It is not surprising that email has
been the tool of choice for so long, especially when one looks at some of
Recently, your editor received a grumpy communication (via email,
naturally) from a prominent community member who was unhappy about a recent
quotes of the week article that included a
quote posted on the Google+ site. Posting to links on Google+ legitimizes
it as a valid place for community discussions, your editor was told; it
makes it more likely that more conversations - perhaps more useful ones
than the one chosen by LWN - will move to that site. And this was seen as
a bad thing.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about engaging in community
discussions on a site like Google+. The site is corporate-owned, making it
subject to all of the usual types of pathological corporate behavior, in
the present or in the future. Its owner will make use of the content of
messages and the whole "circles" structure for targeted advertising and any
number of other purposes. Governments seem to feel free to help themselves
to the information held by these sites at will. There are no tools to help
readers deal with messages on the site, no RSS feeds, and no ability to
read messages offline.
But the biggest complaint of all seemed to be that when sites like Google+
(or even LWN) host conversations of interest, they spread those
conversations out and make it harder to keep up with what is being said.
The result is a more fragmented community with groups that no longer
communicate with each other and with people who are left in the dark about
important discussions and decisions. It would be better, this
correspondent said, to improve the mailing list experience if need be and
keep the useful discussions there.
Your editor understands these concerns and is all for improving the email
experience whenever possible. But he is less clear on whether it has ever
been possible to concentrate community communications into a single
channel, or whether it is a desirable goal.
Consider, for example, the venerable IRC channel. IRC is clearly an
important part of how members of our community work together. But IRC,
too, works poorly offline; it also often - and often by design - lacks a
permanent record. Extracting information from IRC logs when they are
available is a tedious exercise at best. IRC involvement can also be
incompatible with actually getting work done, so some people find that they
need to avoid it. IRC, in other words, is a channel that is available to
parts of the community part of the time, but it has its value anyway.
An even more exclusive resource is the famed conference hallway track,
where a lot of real work gets done. Your editor's job would be much
facilitated by readily-accessible logs of conference hallway (and pub)
conversations; the "quotes of the week" section, in particular, would
benefit mightily. But no such logs exist, and that is certainly for the
best. There is also a lot of valuable conversation to be found in vast
numbers of bug trackers, patch trackers, weblogs, retail site comment
areas, and, sadly, forum sites.
In other words, community discussions are already widely fragmented. The
key is communicating important decisions back to the wider group and making
people aware of useful discussions. Often that can be achieved with an
email to a prominent development list; one might also hope that sites like
LWN can help in this regard. Indeed, one might argue that pointing to
something interesting on Google+, rather than encouraging fragmentation of
our community, actually serves to help pull it back together.
That said, the other concerns about a platform like Google+ remain. If
anything important was ever posted on Google's "Wave" or "Knol" platforms,
it will disappear early next year. The same fate could certainly befall
discussions on Google+. That platform also excludes anybody who is
unwilling to provide yet more information to Google about his or her
activities and connections on the net. Google+ might serve as a sort of
stand-in for a conference hotel bar, but it is not suitable as a piece of
significant community infrastructure. One could name any of a number of
other proprietary platforms that are equally unsuited, if not more so.
It seems that there is a place in our lives for a service with which we can
post updates on our development projects, air travel horror stories, silly
cat pictures, desktop environment flames, lazyweb requests, cooking
experiments, new techno-toys, and musings on how Cher songs relate to
the harsh life of NMI watchdog handlers. What we seem to be missing is the
ability to create such a platform for ourselves and, crucially, to get a
critical mass of people to give it a try. Even back in the USENET days, we
demonstrated that we can create distributed communications services when we
set our minds to it. Someday we'll solve that problem again for the
contemporary net; until then, we're limited to the channels that exist,
some of which are not all we would like them to be.
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