Mailing list debates considered harmful

2010/05/29 § 24 Comments

Recently, one particular thread at python-dev has piqued my interest. The thread discusses the possible pronouncement of PEP 3148 (re. the addition of futures to stdlib), and has been going on for over a hundred messages with no end in site. I’d like to use some examples from that thread in this post, but it could have been another thread from another list. I do not want to discuss the contents of the PEP itself or even the contents of the discussion – if I thought I had interesting opinions about these matters, I’d say them in public on the mailing list. I am interested in talking about the form of the discussion, which I think models many similar discussions in other threads and other mailing lists. To make a long story short, I feel the broad OSS community is largely under equipped for massive online debate.

We need a better way to debate in large, decentralized and open groups, because this is a lot of what we do, probably more than actually coding. Mailing list, newsgroups and bug-tracker comments are a good enough place to debate things which are one or more of (a) under a relative consensus, or (b) not too interesting to many of the listening audience, or (c) too arcane to actually be debated by many of the listening audience. The problem lies with the “hot” topics, about which it seems everyone has something to say and which are arguably the most important topics to debate effectively (to be able to do things, to conserve time, etc). The nature of these large, decentralized and open debates is that the participants vary a lot from one another. Some are well known members of the community and some passersby, some of them are better informed and some don’t support your opinion, some of them easier to take offence and some easier to deal it, some of them care a lot about the subject under discussion and some have nothing good on TV, some read and reply to new posts in near-real-time and some are married. In these kinds of debates you see the tools we currently use in all their crippled anti-glory; they’re just not meant to handle these things.

Because our tools don’t rise to the challenge, once a discussion goes beyond a few posts it’s hard to keep track of who is arguing for and who is arguing against (indeed in many cases people may do both). It’s hard to gauge whether the silent majority generally agrees with any particular argument (‘+1’ and ‘-1’ are a hack to alleviate this, not a terribly good one). Gauging the correct weight to attribute to what people are saying (and people vary a lot, as I said) is difficult and relies mostly on one being familiar or Googling the speakers. It’s even hard to simply keep the discussion on the same track: more often than not, the discussion creeps onto completely unrelated issues (maybe important ones), and ‘steals’ the focus from the original, probably also-important, subject. In short, we’re arguing in a mess and I’m not sure we apply our hackerish instincts of science, openness and rule-of-the-competent to how we make decisions.

I’m by no means an expert on these matters, so I Googled a bit (wasn’t sure which keywords to use) and looked at Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge which covers everything and is never wrong or inaccurate(™). It seems to me like the challenge of harnessing collective intelligence is well known, but it doesn’t seem like any of the vast array of ‘collaboration software‘ solutions out there tackles this particular issue in manner that befits a group of hackers working on an OSS project (what’s the name for a group of hackers? a pod of hackers? a pack of hackers? a pride of hackers? but I digress). IBM has a natural-language-processing 100,000 ton behemoth which can crunch the collective opinions of hundreds of thousands of people, but in typical IBM fashion it seems to also require a few millions dollars and the sacrifice of a virgin PhD (abundant resource) to operate. If indeed I didn’t miss an existing solutions, it seems obvious that a solution is needed. Maybe I missed a good solution, but the fact of the matter is that hackers around the globe still debate in mailing lists, groups, wiki-discussion-pages, tracker issues, forums, IRC channels, etc, all of which seem to me like the wrong tool for the job.

I think we need a rather simple solution, and luckily I think we’re pretty much the right crowd to implement it. It appears to me that even a naive analysis of the problem is sufficient to implement a ‘good enough’ solution, or at least a ‘better than now’ one. Consider this: a single subject (introduce futures into stdlib) can be debated from many different angles: Is the terminology chosen adequate, or should futures be called something else in Python? Should this be a part of stdlib or a part of PyPI? Should futures be implemented as one object or two separate instances, one on the emitting side and one on the consuming side? Each one of these angles can be argued for or against: futures is a good name because it’s a well-established name in computer science, futures is a bad name because Python already has __future__, and so on, and so forth.

I’m thinking of a tool a bit like Rietveld, only not intended to discuss the very specific implementation aspects of patches, but rather to discuss opinions. I think my naive analysis of ‘a debate’ reveals three abstractions: “what’s under discussion” (PEP 3148), “why don’t we just accept whatever it is that’s under discussion as-is” (because futures is the wrong terminology, etc) and “who has an opinion about any of the ‘why’s” (I do, I think ‘deferreds’ is a better idea, etc). I think these three abstractions cover most of what we need to implement a ‘debating tool’, if coupled with some development of the idea that people’s opinion carry different weights (the ‘who’s differ; Guido carries more weight than I do, and thought should be given to how the implementation represents that). My assessment is that implementing something like this shouldn’t be too much work for web-technology-savvy people, even a small team could probably finish it in one sprint.

I agree that some questions remain about the interaction of this with current tools (this isn’t a mailing list or bug tracker or anything else’s replacement, much like Rietveld doesn’t replace any of them), as well as maintaining ‘law and order’ in the discussion (among the target audience I’m talking about, I think this isn’t such a big deal). Also, there are lots of possible additions to this concept, and maybe some should be added, but I think simplicity is key here. Part of the whole idea is that it won’t turn into incredibly complex ‘jamming’ software. And finally, no, I don’t know how to monetize it other than adwords and no, I don’t mind if you implement it so long as you keep it free as in speech. That’s mostly it, I could post the post right now and be reasonably satisfied with it. Ten minutes later someone would come along, point me at a website that already does it, and then I’d just have to advocate using that website on python-dev (the debate over whether to use the debating-website for future debates is a self-hosting one). But no. I didn’t just write this post and let ‘good enough’ be; I had to expose myself to public humiliation by creating a mockup UI for this imaginary website.

I hope that in this case a picture will be worth more than the thousand words I wrote here (1250+ words after editing, I must be doing something wrong), so here goes (*gulp*, I know it’s not the best mockup UI you’ve seen):

Mockup UI for a technical debating website

debate.org

Thanks for listening, I’ll await your comments.

EDIT: I found this on the interwebs. Not exactly what I was thinking of, and maybe not streamlined enough to really use as a debating tool in online communities, but probably better than a mailing list.

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