{June 24, 2008}   on communication

communication is hard. I’m seeing things happening in the KDE community that concern me, but I don’t know enough about this community or life in general to know if I really should be concerned, or what can be done (if something should be done).

I see one person worrying about the effect developer blogs are having on users – seeing new and shiny things and then finding out the packages their distro provides don’t have those features yet, or maybe the UI to set them up isn’t done, or whatever.
I’ve seen people suggest that developers, on their blogs, shouldn’t be writing as if they were talking to other developers, because then users come along and wildly misinterpret what they read.
I’ve seen posts on the planet, in the past, that seem designed to do nothing but stir up cotroversy and fan the flames (thankfully, very few of them).
I’ve see posts that were well-meaning, but written in a way that just stirs up trouble, worrying or angering people unnecessarily.

funny. I find half my mind wanting to generalise and leave out details, avoid naming people who might take offence or pointing to specific bad posts that should be left dead. but the other half of my mind is going “no! specifics! must have specifics!”

anyways, back on topic.
on the one hand: it’s my blog, damnit! shouldn’t I be allowed to write whatever the heck I want?
on the other hand: it’s published on the planet. shouldn’t I be careful about what I say? shouldn’t I try to write thoughtful, useful posts and avoid causing unnecessary pain to the community?
as for users misinterpreting things… these are developer blogs. developers probably want to blog about technical things. they’re not marketing folks. however, it seems users will read them anyways.

perhaps what I should be asking is: what’s the intended audience for planetkde? what are our expectations for content on the planet? what standards do we expect people to meet in terms of thoughtful, mature communication? what do we do about people who are *not* the intended audience reading the blogs anyways and misinterpreting things?

I also see other things that concern me. we have a *lot* of users these days. it’s easy to spend all day trying to explain things to users and not actually get any code written. some of these users are really friendly and make us feel good about our work. some are nice, but unintentionally get on our nerves. some are a a bit of a pain. some seem to have nothing better to do than continually provoke us without being in any way constructive until we don’t want to write code at all. some are downright creepy (identity theft is not cool).

when those non-constructive people are replying to blog posts and commenting on bugzilla, it gets really hard to just ignore them. especially when we don’t want to ignore the nicer users. these trolls also make it a lot harder to be patient with the mildly annoying comments. plus, mildly annoying becomes extremely annoying when it’s repeated over and over and over.

so how do we keep communication between developers and other contributors and users open, without people being overwhelmed?

I get the impression that many developers are doing just fine. perhaps they have thicker skins, perhaps they’re working on less public bits of code and don’t have much to stress them out. but some of us don’t have thick skins. sure, it’s the internet, stupidity and trolls are inevitable. but you can’t always expect a person to just grow a thicker skin and not care so much. if we didn’t care, why would we be here in the first place, writing code, trying to improve the software we love? when you care about things, you can get hurt – but you care anyways because what’s the point in living otherwise?

I’ve asked a lot of questions there. now maybe I’ll take a stab at some answers.

“what’s the intended audience for planetkde?”
I’m really not sure what our intended audience is, but effectively we seem to have contributors, users and trolls. I think we can agree that trolls aren’t part of our intended audience, at least. :) I’m on the fence about what sorts of users should be included in our intended audience. certainly users who are interested in becoming contributors someday or are curious about what we do; not so much the users who just want an answer to their own question – which is usually something more appropriate for bugzilla or a mailing list or #kde (our blogs are not a support forum, no matter how convenient it may be to just drop questions here!).

“what standards do we expect people to meet in terms of thoughtful, mature communication?”
I think it’s quite reasonable to expect people to think before they post, and try their best not to spread FUD or provoke people or fan flames.
I think it’s also reasonable to expect people who aren’t so good at it to try and improve – or rather for *all* of us to always be trying to improve our communication skills. it’s one of those things that’ll help you in all aspects of your life, really. I hate this communication thing, but I keep trying, for the sake of my future self. ;)

“what are our expectations for content on the planet?”
well, developers need a place they can blog about technical things. most aren’t marketers. I don’t think we can expect them to suddenly become marketers, or dumb down their posts for the sake of nontechnical users. the users seem intent on reading their blogs anyways, though. I briefly entertained the idea of having a separate planet for nontechnical blogging – but isn’t that what the dot is for? (I don’t even *read* the dot any more. the comments there just got too inane.)
Perhaps we can do something to remind the users that these are mostly developer blogs? I don’t know what. I’m certainly not going to start putting a “not intended for end-users” disclaimer at the top of all my blog posts. :P
could we remind the users that the screenshots they’ve come to expect are from trunk, and their version might not have this stuff? perhaps. I think everything I’ve blogged about has been brand-new at the time, and if people don’t realise that software released months ago won’t have the feature I wrote yesterday there’s not much I can do for them. anyways, lately we’ve been mentioning version numbers a lot, talking about what will and won’t be in 4.1 – so the more I think about this, the more I believe it’s a non-issue.
I do think developers should try not to scare users; I don’t think they should be expected to go out of their way to accommodate them or turn a technical post into a non-technical one.

“what do we do about people who are *not* the intended audience reading the blogs anyways and misinterpreting things?”
damn, I don’t have an answer for this either. some people disallow anonymous comments, but personally I don’t like to do that – plenty of nice comments are anonymous too. can we try to teach people that these blogs aren’t meant to be marketing pieces? that we’re just humans, writing about what’s on our minds?

sometimes I think I should set up a separate blog somewhere far away that either can’t be linked back to me or isn’t open to the public, because there are some things I’d like to blog about but don’t really want exposed to a bunch of random internet-strangers. but that’s not really relevant here; I think that posts about my kde work naturally belong on planetkde.

“so how do we keep communication between developers and other contributors and users open, without people being overwhelmed?”
hmm. there’s a big question.
for starters, I think having a bugzilla that didn’t suck would be nice. :P I don’t know if I can expect that to happen, though. there is some new version in the works, but I don’t know when it’s coming or what improvements it’ll bring. it’d be nice if bugs didn’t just have one huge dump of the entire history of the bug. it’d be nice if I could take bugs offline and work on them. it’d be nice if I could search without using that godawful query page. it’d be nice if we could send bugs upstream or dowstream instead of just closing them and telling people to go talk to $project instead.

maybe it’d also help if there was somewhere to send users that are asking a question that’s already been answered a dozen times. a techbase-for-users or something. of course, that’d require people stepping up and setting it up and maintaining it n’stuff. any volunteers? ;)

there are many users, and few contributors… it doesn’t seem to scale very well in terms of communication. now I kinda understand why gmail has only a user forum, and no bug reporting or email addresses or developers to pester (you just have to wait for a developer to reply to a forum post – if they choose to do so). I still don’t *like* it, but I understand it.

Thomas Zander says:

In my opinion the whole issue is only there because there is a general feeling of fears, doubts and general uncertainty.

Let me explain; the KDE4 cycle just stated and expectations are high nowadays. There is a big disconnect with what KDE4.0 is and what KDE4 is going to be, and there is uncertainty among the public.

On this furtile ground of doubts any comment that reinforces the fears of any visitor will just be like gas on fire. There is preciously little you can do to avoid this, really.

So, apart from a general educating of the audience like Aaron did I think we have to let the code speak for itself. Which means that the complains will die out if we ignore the silly ones and just continue to rock with great new software.

So, bottom line for me really is that we continue to do what we are good at and do it out in the public. Let the public adjust to us as stopping to communicate and be passionate about our stuff is going to hurt us more.

The problem of flamewars and virtual stalking will eventually go away when even the truely sceptic people will see that KDE4 can fulfill its promises.

Now lets get back to coding :)

[…] goal?  To destroy Alderaan, or something more noble (but possibly less fun)?  Chani brings up an interesting topic (seems to be a habit of hers :)).  PlanetKDE has an “About” section on the right pain, […]

skierpage says:

Everyone should delete comments they don’t like. It’s your blog, f*** em, just censor rude trolls and their negative energy. Have a standard mail template saying “I welcome constructive polite comment and feedback, your post (below) doesn’t measure up. KTHXBYE”

Some people get off on the reflected glory of “contributing” to projects with negative energy. They abuse your natural tendency to empathize with others’ concerns. But anyone who doesn’t check in code and benefits from your freely-given labor should be very humble, meanwhile you developers should feel 1000x more worthy than non-developers, so you’re not bothered by passionate jerks. (There’s no good antonym in English for “humble”.)

Well, I’m reading the planet regulary for about 2 years now. During the past 9 months I was travelling, without a laptop, reading planetkde from internetcafes. I haven’t run KDE4 a single time yet (as it wasn’t possible in any simple way while travelling in south america). Still, I kept reading the planet during my internet cafe time. Of coures, I would call myself a KDE fan, I’m not a KDE developer (I do understand development posts though and can read and understand code snippets etc), but I always kept reading the planet – because you got some of the best and most innovative developers out there and several very good bloggers. It would be a pity if people started to think too much about whether the blog post they’re tempted to write really fits the audience and even might decide against publishing it therefore. So please, keep doing what you’re doing. Include a “Warning: This blog contains many posts by KDE developers, so things mentioned here might not yet be available in your linux distribution or installation of KDE, or are not even completely done in the current development version of KDE.” maybe, but please keep posting about everything you think could be interested for other KDE fellows, be them users, developers, fanboys, whatever.
Cheers, Frando
P.S. Thanks for your work on Plasma.

I’ve followed the whole KDE4 ‘affaire’ on Planet ($DEITY bless akregator) as a simple user. I’m a developer of scientific software, so I know what this all is about, but for KDE I’m just a simple user (actually 3.5.9 on Debian to-be-stable Lenny), with my own likes (as akregator is) or dislikes (see bugs #163027 and #164698).

I understand that developers need a place to discuss between theirselves, or to simply ‘blog away’ thoughts and feelings. And probaby Planet is the best place, since it’s a closed space (in the sense of well delimited, not in the sense of ‘closed source’). But at the same time, Planet is a standard feed for akregator, which gets installed to almost every KDE user.

While it’s a “Good Thing” (TM) for people to see how the work is done, and to see that those unreachable gods called developers are almost normal people, it’s also true that Planet is a public stand on which people can see (and expects to see) what they will have (more sooner than later) in their KDE desktops.

And they (the ‘people’) knows that it _is_ development software, and they (we) do not expect to get the CVS and package it to be a simple task to be done for tomorrow. But, as Celeste Paul stated, having all those funny stuff packaged and available with non-development version numbers and then being unable to reproduce (or even to go near) those screenshots can make people very angry. I’m sure I will be too when Lenny reach ‘stable’ state and KDE be just an ‘aptitude full-upgrade’ for me. And _that_ is what this all is about: users being discomfortable with KDE and putting the blame on Planet.

You, Chani, settled very well where the discussion is, from the developers’ side. I hope I have been able to explain where it is from the users’ side.

Thanks for all

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