Friday, September 15, 2006

mailing list culture

There is currently a big debate in progress in Debian. I am not going to mention any specifics because too much of it has already been blogged (maybe in the same syndication in which you read my blog).

I think that the way things are going is more an illustration of the failings of mailing list culture than of failings of Debian. Maybe another mechanism would be more productive in leading towards a solution.

One option that occurred to me is debate via wiki. If each side had a wiki page that they could modify then in a small amount of time we should get a set of two main consensus opinions which would each be explained clearly and summarised well. Then with two options clearly expressed the people who have less strong opinions could decide which option they favor. For this to be a quick solution honorable behaviour would be required from all people involved, if people start trying to sabotage the other group's wiki entries then it would significantly increase the time taken to achieve things.

Another possibility that occurred to me is debate via blog. The quality of blog postings is expected to be a lot higher than that of mailing list discussions as all posts are tied to the author's public image. Writing content-free messages on a mailing list is easy, but every blog entry needs to stand on it's own to a certain extent and anyone who writes flames in most of their blog entries will probably find that the readers like it less than the readers of a typical mailing list.

Maybe when an issue is recognised as highly contentious a few people could blog about it and then form groups to develop wikis to promote their views. A debate might start out with five or more different competing views, some of them would merge until there were only two main opinions being pushed. Then once the two remaining groups had sorted out their positions a vote would be easier to arrange.

What do you think?


James said...

Wikis sound like an excellent idea. Blogs could be used to explain particular points of each position, or why the position has or should change, since wiki changelogs are not great for lengthy explanations.

Anonymous said...

You can split the role of mailing lists in a debate in two: documenting the advantages/disadvantages of each choice, and "proceeding to that choice".

For the first part, using a wiki could make sense...although you'd probably end up with long "Talk" pages containing endless threads (and unfortunately, even Wikipedia doesn't handle "threading" well).

For the second part, it's not always present. If a debate arises after a maintainer asks "I have two valid options for dealing with a problem, but which one is better?", then it's not the mailing list's role to decide between the options. But when someone proposes a project-wide change, then the discussion media's role is to represent the dominating opinion on the issue. Here, mailing lists, forums, wikis and blogs fail miserably. What would be needed would be nothing less than a voting system. Of course, we don't devotee here. We need an efficient voting system, possibly even integrated in the discussion media. Forums such as phpBB feature polls which could be a start in that path.

Paul said...

Having a discussion on blogs is an exercise in frustration. It's plainly inconvenient, compared to mailing lists and newsgroups. I don't really see wikis being much better.

Nobody really want to have to keep returning to a webpage again and again to have a discussion (it's this reason that weblogs started spawning RSS) - it's much easier for the discussion to come to you in your mailbox or newsreader. I see the same issues with online forums, such as phpBB, and the like. They're just a pain.

I really don't see any underlying problem with the Debian mailing lists, other than people with thin skins.

ZePovinho said...

I entirely agree ;)

ZePovinho said...

with etbe I mean !

Matt said...


I don't think using a wiki page for a discussion is a bad idea. Also I don't think you have the right idea here. The wiki page would be used to summarize an argument, not contain "posts". This way any one who needed to make a decision based on the argument, could just review both sideds on wiki pages.

I agree that it is not trivial to conduct an argument on a wiki page, but perhaps arguments that begin on a mailing list should have wiki pages associated with them. Once a discussion starts, a wiki page should be created summarizing main points. As the discussion progresses, the wiki summaries are updated, no discussion occurs on the wiki, it all happens on the mailing list.

Anonymous said...

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