Preventing communication

There are some technical topics I’m interested in. There are other people who are interested in them too. Now, how to connect to each other to discuss the topics?

This problem has been successfully solved long time ago with Usenet and NNTP. An established decentralized system providing discussion forums. Everybody could be happy with it and maybe enhance it over the time. Unfortunately, this is not how the world works.

Mailing lists became in fashion. It’s hard to understand the advantages of replacing a decentralized system where one could easily find, visit, join or leave a forum with a single key press by many centralized mailing list servers needed to be discovered, with all the different forms of (un)subscription requests, bounced e-mails and sending every message to all the subscribers unnecessarily. But we know, fashionable often doesn’t mean excellent. At least, there was still a workaround: Running an NNTP gateway, as especially the very nice people behind Gmane demonstrated.

Then the web prevailed. Everything had to be on the Web. One could start a news site, attach a comment system to it and provide an RSS/Atom feed for it. That already complicated the communication and started making it mostly one-way. It was already known how to deal with such things and thus Gwene appeared one day. Not a perfect workaround anymore, but still usable.

And then almost everything moved to numerous web discussion forums, mostly centralized, proprietary and without any good ubiquitous access. It was no longer possible to participate in many technical discussions easily and efficiently. Even in cases when a project uses an open system like Discourse under its own control. Such systems may typically provide good moderation and archival facilities but poor means to watch and participate in discussions continuously. Be ready to create numerous accounts, to write your messages using web forms and to poll many sites for new contents. Even if e-mail notifications are provided, they are typically poorly formatted, hard to read and even harder to follow due to lack of threading. There are still brave people trying to deal with this, see for example the Emacs interface to Discourse, but I’m afraid it’s a lost battle. I stopped following Discourse forums, which didn’t have great experience anyway, when the Emacs interface stopped working due to some broken Ruby gem. I have many more important things to do than trying to get this fixed.

I thought I may be just a poor boomer who still uses stone age tools like e-mail (this is what my kids think about me). So I asked several my colleagues how they follow all the web forums. I always got the same answer: “I don’t.”

What progress did we made while shifting from NNTP to modern web forums? On the positive side, there is a huge amount of reasonably searchable and structured information readily available on the web. On the negative side, it’s difficult to get involved in technical discussions. Sure, many people participate less or more happily, but I think the trend is overall deterring. I personally regret being detached from the communities not only due to lack of time but also due to all those technical and organizational obstacles. I discover what’s happening with the OS I use only when a new version is released; or when learning a new programming language, I can read books and manuals, follow weekly newsletters, search for information, but not to watch and share what other beginners are struggling with.

There is obviously no way back and I also cannot see any move towards anything better. There is little chance that fashion and the governance of proprietary services will bring us new great communication improvements. We look for more information and we talk less to each other. Not yet everywhere but in more and more places. What good ways do we have to adjust to this reality?






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