GNOME Forums are coming!

I can’t say much more than whats in the title just yet, but I thought I’d give everyone a heads up – forums for GNOME users, developers, etc are in the works! Hopefully soon we’ll be building a community of users, contributors and other interested folks to make GNOME better than ever! Stay tuned!

If you have suggestions or are interested in helping out, please let me know. My contact info is on the “About” page, or leave a comment with your  contact details and I’ll get back to you ASAP 🙂


Communication Part Two

I’d like to start out by apologizing to anyone who felt singled out in my last post. Though I knew that some would be upset, I never intended to single anyone out. The current problems with communication aren’t any one persons’ fault – they involve everyone. As a community we are failing to communicate – both with each other and with the wider FOSS community. Whats more, when we do communicate, we tend to do so poorly (perhaps best illustrated by my last post… again, sorry! Hopefully I’ll do better this time:).

Communication as we all know (though sometimes forget) is a two-way street. In our case, we need to start by communicating well with each other, so that when others come to us they see a respectful exchange of ideas. Beyond that, we need to remember that as we communicate with each other, we are also doing so with a wider audience, and they need the ability to communicate with us in turn. Currently, most of our communication to the wider community is in the form of announcements, with persistently negative feedback of late. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle, and one which is hard to stop. It works something like this: negative feedback from the ‘outside’ makes developers on the ‘inside’ hesitant to share in advance what they are working on, which results in ‘insiders’ only making announcements, without the ‘outsiders’’  input, resulting in more negative feedback and an even greater hesitance to share.

What we really need is a place where users and developers can easily interact and share ideas. Currently most of our communication takes place in a web of mailing lists and IRC channels. Within this web, some groups rely heavily on IRC, others on the mailing list, and yet others on bugzilla. In any case, none of them are particularly accessible to new users, and both can be very intimidating to new contributors. Whats more, they all lack a usable search (and in the case of IRC, an archive), which results in the same questions being asked repeatedly, which is frustrating for everyone.

The simplest solution is one which most other FOSS projects have long taken advantage of – forums. Forums are accessible and user-friendly. They provide built-in archiving and search capabilities and can be read without registering or installing anything. Whats more, when readers want to start posting and sharing their thoughts, registering is a simple, straight forward task, and one that most have done before. Other alternatives could include a dedicated Google+ group or other social media platform (perhaps Elgg[1]). But the idea is to give users and developers outside of our project an outlet. One where they can ask questions and provide feedback on features and changes. Perhaps more importantly it must be adopted and used by ourselves to discuss features and changes so that others can follow our discussions and see the reasoning behind them, both as they occur and later through search. It must become an outlet for the current development community as well as those on the outside who are curious about what is going on. A place where users and new contributors can make their voices heard and be taken seriously.

Working in the open is hard. Communicating well, especially when you feel attacked is harder still. Talking amongst ourselves and doing as we like is much easier. Unfortunately though, it does not endear us to anyone, and especially not to the wider FOSS community. As I’ve always understood free software, a large part of its beauty comes from the openness that drives it. As we shelter ourselves in communication which is effectively private, we hide from the larger community of which we espouse to be a part, and push them away as a result. Becoming better stewards of our own community will help us to grow and endear us to the larger FOSS community as well.

Open Communication

In my previous two blog posts, I have talked about growing our community and communication. In this post I will be focusing on communication and how we can best improve it, and in so doing expand our community. A number of things can be done to improve our communication, some of which I laid out in previous posts. But one way or another we must improve – both within GNOME and the wider free software community.

In GNOME, as in most free software projects, the majority of communication takes place online. This in of itself, does not make it open. Many discussions take place primarily on IRC and are, in effect, private. When discussions eventually bleed over onto bugzilla and/or mailing lists, they are usually close to, or have already been resolved. The result is that most users and developers receive notice of changes only when they have already been finalized (or nearly so). Too often this is after they have been announced by a third party, or (even worse) a 4th, party such as Slashdot or Reddit.

Obviously, this is not an ideal way for any organization to project its message. The resulting fallout is generally negative, putting GNOME developers, designers and defenders alike on defense. Whats more, defensive responses are generally reactive, and are often perceived as dismissive. Of course, nobody likes to be dismissed and the result is another round of negative feedback, thus perpetuating the cycle. It is this cycle that we must break if we wish to remain relevant and respected.

Remaining relevant and respected should, I think, be a priority. In order to do so we must develop a better system to communicate what we’re doing, why it is important, and when it will occur. When we remove features, we need to explain our reason for doing so to users. For example, what was it about compact view mode that was truly harmful to Nautilus? We must also ensure that we avoid breaking API’s whenever possible. When we do so, we must explain to developers (especially those outside of our own insular community) why it was necessary, and how to ensure their work does not become obsolete. This means explaining ourselves, writing documentation and helping others whenever and however indicated.

If we continue to break API’s at random (like those in GTK+3 [1]), we will continue to alienate developers, and with them, users. This should be a concern, but does not seem to be for some GNOME developers. By ignoring the needs of others, we drive them away, which turns them from being supporters into detractors. When it appears that we are doing so on purpose, by breaking API’s and purposefully ensuring that extensions and themes cease to work, we anger and alienate users and developers alike, sometimes permanently.

But hope springs eternal, and change and growth for the better can (and hopefully will) occur. Primary to that is respect – for others’ work, ideas and opinions. Being open to others’ thoughts and a willingness to listen and consider outside ideas. Secondary to all of this is communication, on both sides. For those within GNOME, communicating what they are doing, and where they expect and hope to take GNOME in the future. For those on the outside, a willingness to listen, withhold judgment and avoid knee-jerk reactions. With just a bit more understanding and compassion, GNOME can continue to move forward, as a vibrant and relevant member of the wider free software community.


Growing Our Community

For the last month since attending Ohio Linux Fest and the Boston Summit, I have been stewing over two questions which came up at both conferences, in myriad ways. The first relates to our current FOSS communities and the diversity (or lack thereof) within them. The second focuses on promoting our software to a wider audience and the best way to do so. While in some ways these are separate problems, I think that the answers to them are connected in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Communities in the FOSS world have long been rather homogeneous, consisting largely of young, white men. In many cases individuals have been (and still are) focused on ‘scratching their own itch’, without fully grasping how their actions can be beneficial or harmful to the larger community. The result in many cases is to push those from dissimilar backgrounds away, while pulling in more of the same. The inevitable result is an increasingly insular and homogeneous group that is often unappealing and sometimes hostile to outsiders.

But diversity in communities that wish to continue growing is essential – without it they are apt to stagnate and slowly wither away. As a result, fostering and encouraging diversity should be a goal of any organization that wants to continue to grow. The question then becomes how to best foster diversity, and where to look for new members. People who are likely to be interested in and receptive to our message. Luckily for free software, I think such a group already exists and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace.

That group consists of people concerned with living sustainably and in harmony with our world. As a result of their devotion and belief in the benefits of doing so, they likely participate in and actively support a variety of other groups and projects with similar values to our own. Many of them are focused on local and organic foods, as well as clothing and alternative lifestyles that promote health, the environment, freedom and privacy. They have accepted some inconvenience and, in many cases considerable expense in order to do so. I suspect many of them would be receptive to arguments in favor of free software as well, largely because of the basic premise that is at the heart of free software – the freedom to use, alter, and share knowledge with everyone.

I know of many people who fit this description, who currently support and encourage the use of Apple products. Why Apple? I’m not entirely sure, but at some point Apple became the preferred alternative to Microsoft, HP, Dell, Google, etc. The problem from our perspective of course is that Apple is one of the worst industry players in relation to freedom. As a result, I suspect that many of them could be swayed to try and eventually promote free software, if they were educated about it. The question then becomes, how do we find, reach out to and educate them?

Many communities focusing on these common sets of beliefs and values already exist and could, I think, be tapped into. Perhaps our first course of action should be to become involved in them, and whenever an opening is given to do so, explain free software, what it is, and why they should care. Then, when their interest has been piqued, gently explain how they can start using it. Moose Finklestein at Ohio Linux Fest pointed out that using free software does not automatically mean using Linux. That by starting with the free software that they already know and possibly use – Firefox, LibreOffice, etc, we can show them that it´s not just for geeks, but for everyone – including them! Explain that by choosing to use free software, they are choosing to support freedom and the right to use their computers however they see fit, without the restrictions imposed on them by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, etc. By showing them just how functional free software is, we can bring them into the fold, and show them all the amazing choices available. As they grow more comfortable with free software, they will be more likely to want to give back to the community and become contributors themselves.

Certainly not all of them will want to give back, but many of them will. Many of them are actively involved with other causes and groups which they support, from CSA’s and co-ops, to community gardens, youth groups, small businesses, and many others. Supporting and contributing to free software is less of a leap for them – in many ways its just another way to promote the values that they already hold. Encouraging them to give back however they can, through graphics, design, writing, testing or coding, depending on their skills is paramount. A common misconception outside of the FOSS community is the ways in which you can contribute. Many people (including myself until recently) are under the impression that in order to contribute you must know how to program. This is not the case, but it remains a misconception and hurdle to many potential contributors. Making it clear that contributions outside of code are valued should be a high priority. However in order to become involved, they must first feel welcome, which brings us to the last, and perhaps most difficult problem: making outsiders feel welcome.

Its something that many communities find difficult, both online and off. How do you make people, who are from varied backgrounds and stages in life, feel welcome? What is it that makes one community seem open and welcoming to those outside it, while another feels closed and cliquish? And how do you make the latter feel more like the former? Today, unfortunately, much of the FOSS world looks and feels like a giant, sprawling mess of connected but insular factions, most of whom are uninterested in anyone else. Whether this is the case or not is certainly up for debate – but that is how our communities are often perceived. Changing this perception is essential to our communities continued growth, and with it the use of free software by everyone.

One barrier to becoming involved in many FOSS communities today is the way in which they are operated. Currently most FOSS communities are based around mailing lists and IRC, both of which can be intimidating and, particularly in the case of IRC a technological challenge. By setting up other access points to the community, like forums, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+ groups we can can make ourselves more accessible and user friendly. I’m not advocating disbanding mailing lists and IRC completely, but simply expanding our online presence outside of the rather technically minded one we have now. Expanding into other media forms can also help us become a more dynamic community by sharing ideas and interests outside of free software with each other. In the process we show that we share other values, interests and concerns as well, which in turn makes us appear less aloof and therefore more open and welcoming to outsiders.

The FOSS community now stands at a crossroads, and our choices in the immediate future will likely shape our communities and influence our ability to succeed for years to come. If our goal is to convince more people to join us in using and contributing to free software, we must make ourselves more appealing as a community. Doing so will require changes, perhaps some of the above, and likely others I have not thought of as well. Regardless though, the choice to do, or not to do is ours.