What FOSS communities can look like from the outside

July 13, 2010 – 12:20 am

I found this mailing list conversation snippet to be very insightful, pharmacist and wanted to share it.

Scott: “Open to critique” isn’t quite the same as “responsive to critique”. From an outside perspective, visit it seems that frequently SugarLabs is just not listening to people who offer contrary opinions.  This is better than flaming them, information pills but maybe not as good as it could be. For an end-of-year report, I’d like to see instances enumerated where SugarLabs actually internalized some outside critique and responded in a positive way — some concrete change made to the UI, or Sugar, or to process.  That would be more convincing that simply stating, “we are now open to critique”.
Bernie: We’re definitely intimidating to non-technical people. At least, this is what I sensed at the Realness Summit. OLE also seems to be doing a better job at connecting with educators. I’m not completely sure what corrective actions should be. We might need to do some work on the  wiki, maybe add web forums, which non-geeks tend to prefer…

Scott: I suspect that the answer to this problem does not involve installing additional software.

Later in the day, Jeff and I were having this conversation on #teachingopensource.

Jeff: Is IRC really a barrier to entry?  maybe I have simply been using it too long, but it seems immediately recognizable to me. I think one barrier might be the attitudes that crop up.  Even with emoticons, sometimes it’s hard to discern intent.  Hard enough in email, but sometimes devastating in real time.

Mel: Actually, yes. I had a really, really hard time figuring out IRC. First, figuring out that it existed and I had to use it. Then how to get it, how to set the software up. Then what the heck networks and channels and whatnot were – and why channels? my IM paradigm was “you have a buddy list and you ping people individually.” So “chatrooms are the default!” wasn’t hard to understand once I realized it, but it took a while to realize because I wasn’t looking for it.

And then “oh man, who are all these people? I am nervous about pinging them, will they yell at me?” And then all the /commands I had to remember. It was so bewildering and terrifying and new and it was being used as a way to present new information to me at the same time, sort of like… taking your first calculus class in… Mandarin, if you’ve also just started studying Mandarin as a foreign language. You can’t concentrate much on the calculus because you’re going “zomg it’s in CHINESE.”

It’s hard to remember how hard things can be, especially when you’re surrounded by a community of people who are the ones who self-selected and made it past that hardness. By definition, if you’ve gotten into FOSS, the current participation mechanisms worked for you… so why fix them?

Because we want others to join us.

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  1. 9 Responses to “What FOSS communities can look like from the outside”

  2. A great post Mel. As someone who’s been involved in the Sugar and OLPC community for about 2 years it was very hard to get into. IRC is a great example. wiki’s are another. They are hard to search and hard to edit for people that have never used them before.

    I’ve also found that Sugar/OLPC community to be very political for such a small community which I also think raises the barrier for entry as well.

    By Peter Robinson on Jul 13, 2010

  3. So what do you suggest? I suppose stopping to use IRC is not an option and as it’s a mental problem, better IRC software won’t fix it either. Also, you’re joining a world that operates differently from what you’re used to. It’s a lot more global and most likely a lot more engineering-focussed than what you’re used to, so it’s expected that people would adjust.

    That said, it helped me get into this world because the IRC channels I joined had a lot of casual talk. So I was knowledgable in at least some topics from the start and could join in on conversations about music or movies. IRC conversations for Open Source projects tend to be very dull (read: project-focussed). Maybe that would help?

    By Benjamin Otte on Jul 13, 2010

  4. Mel, you totally convinced me in that discussion. This morning I am finding myself looking at all the tools I use regularly and questioning how they appear to others who don’t use them often – and I realize pretty much the same as the mental impression I had when first approaching a chainsaw, or a Cessna, or loading Inkscape. ()

    I have often been under the impression that better UI or documentation could fix a problem, but the more experience I get, the more I think you are spot on that the only lasting fix is mentoring, not tech.

    That said, I’ll woolgather a little. Tech was definitely a barrier to entry when I was a young sprite 20-something years ago. And we *liked* it like that. In college in 1987, I felt superior because I could write a shell script or chat across the country with some other teenager (Unix “talk” FTW), when I couldn’t even describe email to my parents. They would get that quizzical look on their faces and change the subject.

    I realize that it did not actually make me superior, but more importantly, I don’t even WANT to be superior now. I want to share, not isolate. Does that mean I have evolved, or the world has? Why do we want others to join us? (Not trying to be a wag, really asking!)

    By Jefro on Jul 13, 2010

  5. Actually, I think better IRC software would help – the same way etherpad makes distributed text editing less of a barrier to entry than, say, gobby.

    As you point out, some parts are unavoidably difficult (cultural) – but things that can be easy should be easy. “Go to this URL and you’ll be autojoined into a pleasantly-themed webclient with buttons for many of the common user actions – and you can optionally create an account for persistent logging so you can read backscroll while you’re out” (think an interface like 37signals’ campfire, perhaps) is a lot lower-barrier-to-entry than “install Linux, learn an entirely new operating system, then install xchat” or even “learn about the terminal, ssh, screen and irssi.”

    By Mel on Jul 13, 2010

  6. I’ve been using IRC since ~1994, but never in conjunction with the open source community. I gotta say, at the start of POSSE, I was still a little self-conscious about ‘pinging’ other users and just the general open chat with a group of “tech-focused” people I didn’t know (which is weird since I’ve done the whole roleplaying thing for years :P). But after working through the week in POSSE, I finally got a little more comfortable, but I can say that having the ambiguous text without the tone of someone’s voice can be a pretty solid barrier to entry because someone can easily misinterpret your message.

    Anyhow…I DO remember a pretty awesome program that Microsoft used to bundle with windows that went through IRC that I would say addressed these issues. The problem is it’s not terminal friendly, didn’t really catch on, and well…is a Microsoft product (which puts some people off.. :P). Here’s a wikipedia article onnit –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Comic_Chat

    By Geoff on Jul 13, 2010

  7. IRC is definitely a barrier to entry as are mailing lists. IRC, though is a difficult to comprehend and use from a technical perspective let alone the cultural shift you have to make to use it well (and you will hear about it if you are slow to make the shift).

    I think forums and wikis are excellent entry points for newbies, from there they can advance to IRC and wikis.

    Plus forums create a culture around them and so for a FOSS project that is currently culturally challenged, they are a good way to make a new start with newbies.

    Wikis should be under the control of knowlegeable community members and be well written and logically laid out (I know, easier said than done!).

    An example of a really good project wiki is the Arch Linux wiki at wiki.archlinux.org. Thats an awesome front page.

    An example of good forum is the LinuxMint forum at forums.linuxmint.com. Nice layout, support section starts off with newbie and nontechie question “All gurus were once newbies” It doesn’t get more inviting than that for a noob!


    By emk on Jul 14, 2010

  8. Text communication can be very difficult for people due to the lack of non-verbal ques. Over the decades I have come up with the following to try and explain to others how to handle email, lists, chat, etc. in the text only virtual world. When it is used it works extremely well.

    * As with all text based communication, it is often difficult to judge the emotional context of someone’s posts. It is not uncommon on any list for someone to post a statement in jest or as an off-hand comment and have it end up starting a flame war. Some people use what are known as emoticons, or ‘smileys’, to help convey the intended emotional reference for their messages. A good rule of thumb is to always read all posts as if they were sent to you by your mother (or any person you have a strong, loving relationship with). Even the harshest criticism is blunted and eased if you read it with the mindset that it is a caring and friendly comment from dear ol’ mom.

    By Joe Klemmer on Jul 14, 2010

  9. Haha I remember a MySpace friend explaining how to use IRC to me, with XChat.

    I have to ask:
    Does Fedora ship a decent IRC client by default? Ubuntu just ships Empathy, and it’s *dreadful* for IRC (so dreadful, the devs don’t even let you pick IRC on first-run).

    Ideally, /commands aren’t something someone should need to learn from the get-go. I learned when I switched to irssi.

    I think the Freenode webchat links that direct the visitor straight to the proper channel are really the simplest way to introduce someone to IRC.

    By Mackenzie on Jul 23, 2010

  10. I’ve been coming back to IRC and listservs to participate with a few projects and finding gaps that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

    Windows based IRC clients are awful, and the “proper” way of responding to email has been destroyed by top posting email clients. When text based interfaces were king, text based communication channels were queen (+1 for talk!). These days they can be esoteric and cumbersome b/c we don’t interact online in that manner any more. IM has the same challenges as IRC, but has a familiarity that IRC doesn’t have with the world at large. But using Pidgin for IRC’ing currently hurts my old-man brain :) IRC can be an extremely expressive medium, but that takes time and a good client.

    That being said .. I really don’t know of a better way to communicate globally in realtime with a group. Voice isn’t going to cut it, and most chat proggies are just Webified IRC…

    By Matt on Jul 29, 2010

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