What do you think about the signal:noise ratio? Survey results

Dane Mutters dmutters at gmail.com
Tue Feb 17 09:57:12 UTC 2009

Thanks for taking the time to write up and analyze this survey, Andrew.
I regret to say that it slipped my mind to take it.  :-(

Nevertheless, I'd like to post some (hopefully brief) comments regarding
the things you have mentioned.

On Tue, 2009-02-17 at 07:36 +0000, Andrew Sayers wrote:
> There are a few general points that I thought were worth highlighting:
> There is a gulf between the way that developers and non-developers see
> the world.  This is reflected in their interests, their speech, and
> their approach to issues.  While Ubuntu has many ingenious
> technologies to improve developer/user interaction, technological
> solutions can only ever have a limited impact on this interpersonal
> problem.
> While the number of useless posts isn't so bad, we could definitely
> stand to increase the number of useful posts to the list.  This list
> is an important place for interaction between developers and
> non-developers, which isn't currently being used to its full extent.

I think you've hit this right on the nose--it's an interpersonal
problem, not a technical one, and likely not a problem that can be dealt
with in a technical fashion.

I've been subscribed to this list and ubuntu-devel for several years
now, and have made occasional posts throughout that time.  I find it
very comforting, in addition to being helpful\productive, to be able to
talk to the people whose efforts have such a large impact in making
Ubuntu the great OS that it is.  For this reason, I have, in the past,
been subscribed to fedora-test, grub, samba, and shorewall-users lists,
both for the purpose of asking questions relevant to improving the
applicable software, and to post input that may be of use to those who
are interested in hearing the opinions and experiences of a
non-developer user of the respective software.

Background: I'm not a dev, and probably never will be, although I do
make BASH scripts and the like to make tasks at my job (computer repair
technician/system builder/tech. manager of a local computer shop) and at
home easier/faster/etc.  People have referred to me as both a "Linux
Guru" (which isn't entirely true), and as a "Power User" (which I like
to think I am, but may not be either).  I know my way around several
distributions, some better than others, such as Slackware, Suse, Fedora,
CentOS (appliance distros), Gentoo, Mandriva, and Ubuntu.  I am familiar
with setting-up desktop computers (my specialty, assuming I have one),
Asterisk PBX servers, file servers, and other miscellaneous applications
of Linux.  I often have to make these interact with Windows machines in
an amenable way.

Back to the topic: I find that ubuntu-devel (in my mind, at least) has a
bit of a prickly atmosphere where posting by non-devs is concerned,
whereas u-d-d seems to be much friendlier to posting things that a
non-dev would understand or care about.  U-d-discuss seems to have a
much more caring attitude concerning newcomers, but is often rife with
inappropriate comments/attitudes (on behalf of both devs and non-devs).
All this may just be something that exists only in my head, but for the
purpose of discussion, I'll make some points to illustrate my reasons
for having this opinion:

1) It used to be that anybody could post to u-devel, which is still
possible, but now one must have the post approved or some such first, if
the poster is not a dev.  This makes me feel as if, as far as that list
is concerned, non-devs are second-rate guest citizens, who only sort-of
get to have a say on that list.  Still, though, as long as the devs pay
attention to u-d-discuss, as was intended when -discuss was created,
that's not so much a problem.  More on that later.  (Please don't take
this as an invitation to be offended; this is just how _I_ feel about
it, which, I realize, may not be representative of how other people

> Few people are currently planning to leave.  Either everyone that's
> going to leave has already left, people leave shortly after making
> their mind up to leave, or people that complain about noise don't
> respond to surveys.

2) It's my understanding that this list was created so that devs and
non-devs could collaborate without email-bombing the -devel list with
things not immediately related to things that *only* apply to devs and
development coordination.  It saddens me somewhat, and even invokes a
little anger when I see that devs are unsubscribing and/or ceasing to
pay attention to this list for whatever reason, albeit possibly not
exactly a "bad" reason.  (Sometimes users come across as real
jerks--granted, but that doesn't mean that anybody should allow
themselves to be discouraged and/or driven away by somebody else's bad
behavior, who probably could be banned from the list if they were really
*that* disruptive.)  Here's an email excerpt from my mail archives,
dated Dec. 8, 2006, from Matt Zimmerman, in the u-devel list:


In other words, we recognize two communication needs:

 * The developers need a mailing list to coordinate their efforts
 * The community as a whole needs a place to discuss Ubuntu development

Today, both of these take place on ubuntu-devel, and because the Ubuntu
community is much larger than the development team, developer discussion
to be drowned out.  The solution is to create two lists to serve these
different needs.  The new lists will be organized as follows:

== ubuntu-devel: Developer mailing list ==

 * Discussions among Ubuntu developers about their projects
 * Developer questions about Ubuntu policies and procedures
 * Discussions seeking consensus among Ubuntu developers
 * Point of contact for upstream developers to reach Ubuntu developers
 * Open to all to subscribe, posting moderated for non-developers
 * Existing ubuntu-devel subscriptions will remain unchanged

== ubuntu-devel-discuss: Development discussion ==

 * Sharing of experiences with the current development branch of Ubuntu
 * Technical questions about new features in the development branch
 * Ideas and suggestions about future development of Ubuntu
 * Point of contact for Ubuntu users to reach Ubuntu developers
 * Open to all to subscribe, posting moderated for non-subscribers
 * New mailing list, ubuntu-devel subscribers are encouraged to
* http://lists.ubuntu.com/mailman/listinfo/ubuntu-devel-discuss

--end quote--

It seems that we have largely lost sight of these reasons for creating
this list.  I don't think that subscribing to/reading u-d-d should be
required (nor do I think it is required) in order to continue to be a
dev.  Still, though, it's nice to think that devs still cares to listen
to the users' experiences, comments, opinions, etc.  I still believe
that many/the vast majority of devs do care, but each time I hear
complaints about "signal/noise ratio", I wonder whether the number of
devs that are still willing to pay attention is dwindling.

> ubuntu-devel-discuss is peanut butter, ubuntu-devel is Marmite:
> everyone vaguely likes u-d-d, but either you love u-d or you hate it.
> I personally see that as healthy, but it's important to be aware that
> u-d isn't "open to the public" in any more than a technical sense.
> Perceptions of "signal" and "noise" are more about style than
> substance.  People don't really mind what topics you choose to discuss
> on here, so long as you're clearly trying to improve the lives of your
> fellow Ubuntu users.

3) Once again, I agree wholeheartedly--"signal" is what people like
reading, while "noise" is what people don't like hearing.  I think that
any topic related to improving Ubuntu for any/all of its users is fair
game here, so long as it is discussed in a reasonable and polite
fashion.  I don't see a clear distinction between what people keep
referring to as "signal" or "noise," except in cases where the poster(s)
are not being reasonable and/or polite.  I think that "flagging"
anything Ubuntu-related that the poster is at least *attempting* discuss
in a reasonable and polite fashion as "noise" is very destructive to the
atmosphere, and indeed the purpose of this list existing in the first
place.  True, some posts should be *politely* redirected to another
list; please do so in a kind fashion, with the understanding that a
great number of Ubuntu users have probably never posted to an Ubuntu
mailing list before, and furthermore, most likely had to muster some
courage to do so.  Another point of interest: some people aren't as apt
with the English language, or even communication in general, as one
might hope.  Do try to take everything in the best light; otherwise,
you're likely to take something in a way that it's not intended, and
start a "flame war" yourself!  I don't think that many people on this
list have actually *meant* to be inflammatory (pardon the pun :-).

> I get the general impression that u-d-d provides a lowish quantity of
> information to developers - high enough for them to subscribe, but low
> enough that they can drift away when targeted by inappropriate
> behaviour.

> I'd also like to suggest two ways of making the list better:
> First, we should write up the section 2 comments as guidance, and post
> it somewhere useful.  Perhaps in the charter, on a web page somewhere,
> or in an e-mail sent to new subscribers.  Because the guidance shows
> that attitude is the key, this should encourage new people to
> contribute even if they're not steeped in Unix knowledge, and should
> encourage constructive behaviour in those who don't take naturally to
> the collaborative approach.
> Second, we should write up a page in FAQ format, with headings like "I
> am having trouble setting up my computer/have found a bug in a
> program/would like to help improve Ubuntu/etc." and contents like
> "post your message on such-and-such list/forum/IRC channel".  The
> guidance currently available (e.g. at
> http://www.ubuntu.com/support/CommunitySupport) focuses too much on
> listing all the things *we* do, and not enough on answering the
> questions *they* have.  A page of concrete examples will do a better
> job of avoiding misdirected messages.
> 	- Andrew

4) I also agree that there should be more on-topic, polite, reasonable,
and useful discussion taking place here.  Maybe there should be less
kicking of deceased equestrians, but I think it's worth noting that
pretty much everybody has a different idea of when to declare the horse
dead, so let's not belabor the issue of when to stop the discussion of a
topic; that can be very offensive to somebody who still has something to
say, and is not just repeating himself.  Perhaps having better
guidelines, or maybe better-phrased, "requests for input" would help
this.  I say "requests for input" because that's essentially what I
think the devs (and others involved in improving Ubuntu) should be
writing up in such a guidance document or FAQ, as opposed to focusing on
what *not* to post.  Generally, people will get the idea of what not to
post simply by not seeing certain things mentioned at all in what *to*
post.  This should improve the constructive, positive atmosphere in this
list rather than "beating down" those who have posted inappropriately in
the past.  We want to solicit useful input here, not scare off potential
posters by telling them not to be evil people.  :-D

All-in-all, I think that this list has produced some very good things.
I recall automatic downloading of media codecs, for example, being a
direct result of things posted by users (including myself) in either
this list or Ubuntu-devel.  The easy inclusion of proprietary drivers,
the process of cleaning up the sound system via Pulse Audio, and other
improvements can be traced directly back to threads on lists to which
users post, and devs listen and collaborate with them.  Please keep hope
in this list.  It definitely needs some improvement, but it's certainly
not something that anybody currently subscribed to it ought to abandon.

OK, so my email wasn't short, but I hope it helps.

Have a good one, everybody.

--Dane Mutters

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