Let's Reinvigorate the Water Cooler

I’ve been working for Canonical for 6 years now; before then I was a community member for 4 years. My opinions are my own and don’t reflect an official position by Canonical. I am writing this as a community member that cares about Ubuntu, please do not take this as anything other than my opinion. This post also contains some NSFW language and probably some obscure references to heavy metal, but hey if you know me you probably know that can happen. :)

Some things have been on my mind recently. Some of which include certain large web services companies shutting down some of these services that people rely on. On the other hand, I love consuming web services, most of which are free. But some charge, and based on the convenience, I pay for them.

But when we put effort into these things and they go away, that really makes you think about what things you depend on. In Ubuntu we mostly run our own infrastructure. Mailing lists, forums, launchpad, and so on. We also participate in places where we don’t really control the platform. These include Facebook, Google Plus, reddit, and Ask Ubuntu. Anyone of these services could go away today and we’d be pretty much left out in the cold.

This is a post from today, not to be found by any official channel, behold the species lens:

I found this hours before our “official places”. Here are some stats on other places where we’re at on the internet:

  • Facebook - From looking at their page we have 797,459 total Likes on Facebook. Not bad.
  • Google Plus - 84,432 members
  • Reddit.com/r/ubuntu - 35,220 readers
  • Ask Ubuntu - 122,789 active users, 6.75 million uniques a month

Out of these four, I really only worry about the top two. Reddit and StackExchange can only exist via community engagement so I don’t see a real problem there. Reddit’s software is Open Source and StackExchange licenses all their content via CC and provide weekly data snapshots, they both depend on community engagement so if either of them turn evil we’re pretty much covered.

What concerns me is that I hate to blog on my own personal blog. And I hate to post on the ubuntu forums. I hate that because it’s a pain in the butt. I prefer to just fire it off on G+ because it’s so damn easy. I can just fire things off in G+ and not care. And that kind of concerns me. Right now if you want to check out the “pulse” of what’s going on in Ubuntu you’re following the right people on Google Plus. You get automatic notifications of UDS things, and you get things you don’t get anywhere else.

Even if you’re not using Google Plus, you’re getting your Ubuntu project updates from OMG Ubuntu, iloveubuntu.net, and webup8.com. I work at Canonical, and you know where I get my Ubuntu updates from? Those sites. Official avenues? Not so much. It’s supposed to be the mailing lists and the Ubuntu Forums. but as of now the most interesting discussions on Ubuntu are either happening on Disqus on those sites or on reddit. Here’s what the Ubuntu Forums “Ubuntu +1” forum says:

Please Note: Ubuntu Developers do not usually read the forums.

Having been a member of the forums since 2004, I know exactly why that message is there. Software Developers hate forums. They hate them with a fury. Why? Probably because forums as a piece of software have really not changed in a very long time. Clicking on it really makes me angry. We’re talking about software that hasn’t improved since I used Telegard in 1992. That’s right. I said Telegard.

Think about it for a second. Why do we plaster things like Ubuntu developers do not usually read the forums everywhere? What does that say about us as a project? We might as well say “Hey man, welcome to the community, half of it is missing, no worries!”. We could probably save the poster some time and just punch him in the face. And yet you’ll find plenty of Ubuntu developers on the subreddit, and you’ll find them on Disqus and Google Plus. It’s pretty much unacceptable to me that there is a rift between what is supposed to be a unified community. So I’m thinking … let’s fix that.

If you missed the link I want you to read what Jeff Atwood wants to do:

Read that … and then keep going, I have ideas…

Let’s reboot the watercooler

  • I’m thinking instead of “Ubuntu developers don’t read these forums” that instead we should make the idea of discussion in Ubuntu so awesome that Ubuntu developers want to be involved. Let’s drop this pretense and start over. That statement was true in 2004, there’s absolutely no reason it should be true today. Developers hate forums, so let’s fix … forums.

  • Let’s reboot what the “Ubuntu Forums” is supposed to be. The new Enterprise is instantly recognizable as “that ship”, but reinvigorated. Same crew, same basic design, but let’s shed this vbulletin close source thing, and instead concentrate on helping drive an open source system to be awesome. In either universe, Kirk is Kirk, and Spock is Spock. The universal idea of what Star Trek is supposed to be is the same. And I think we can do that with the Forums.
  • So why Discourse? Again, read this post.
  • Let’s bring our full community to bear to help drive the future of web discussions. Let’s jump in the lead and be all over it. The Discourse guys are very smart, with tons of experience in building scalable communities and scalable software. They are very opinionated on what they want to do. Heard that before? Of course you have, that’s what Ubuntu is!
  • And hey, while we’re at it, let’s ditch sacred cows. Discourse downplays the idea of moderators. It democratizes the management of things down to users. Scary, I know. But you know what, people tend to care more when they’re given the responsibility of maintaining the commons. When people are given the responsibility of maintaining a community, they care about it more - both reddit and stackexchange have proven that when you give the responsibility of managing a community to that community that they overwhelmingly do the right thing.
  • By now some of you are thinking “Well he wants to solve a social problem with software, which is a shitty solution”. Ah yeah but what if we took the time to just not switch software, what if we took the time to just an entire audit of how we do things, and make that suck less? What if we not only reboot the software, but reboot how our entire community does communication?

A crazy, risk-filled idea to align with discourse.org? Absolutety. The project is 4 months old. Our project is 9 years old. In the age of the social network the old interent neighborhoods seem to be going away, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t get me wrong I love all those Ubuntu fan based websites, and I love commenting on Disqus and Google Plus. But it sucks that we don’t have a watercooler that people love to use that is ours.

Let’s be bold and just try stuff. Free Software is all about WHAT IFs, so let’s do a what if. Do I personally think Ubuntu as a project should get in early with Discourse and think about migrating in the future? Absolutely. I think it’s amazing software. I think they’re gutsy people who want to change the status quo. Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Do I want to force people to think this way? Of course not. I’m thinking “Let’s do what Ubuntu does best”, Let’s prototype, let’s report bugs, let’s think outside the box; just do what we’re good at. If it’s a total failure then fine, Castro sucks. But man dudes, what if we could make something so awesome that it will blow our minds!

I’ve jumped out of perfectly good airplanes because I am scared out of my mind of heights, let’s give this a shot! If it’s a total failure, then that’s fine too. I firmly belive that people will continue to bleed to other tools if we don’t adapt, and that’s not a good place to be. Let’s not let the conversation be about how our project’s users bleed to other resources. Are there problems with Discourse? Absolutely. It’s young, it needs to be tested and run through the wringer. Let’s be those guys who are all up in upstream’s face, with patches attached. When I meet Jeff Atwood face-to-face I literally want him to punch me in the face, that’s how opinionated we should be. I do not want to be in the project that ends up living in places that we do not control. Surely no one does.

Right now a bunch of OSS projects (including us) let their forums just sit there, dicking around with vbulletin or some other PHP bullshit. I looked around at other distros and they don’t really integrate their forums either. So just quote me on this: “F*** that.” There’s absolutely no reason why this is, other than forums tend to attract the low end of the barrel. I think it’s because the software sucks. So instead of removing the barrel why don’t we work on making the barrel suck less? Let’s remake a barrel to be awesome, and if people don’t like it, then they’ll have to deal with it. This takes a project-wide commitment. And we can so totally do this.

Let’s stake a claim for our watercooler, and let’s defend it, even if it means some of us have to hold the water bottle while it spills all over the place. Let’s think about moving past the BBS days and help drive the future of independent web discussions; we can so totally do this, this is what we do, we find a problem in Free Software and then we attack it like nobody’s business and we solve it. People thought that the idea of shooting for a Linux that worked “out of the box” was a waste of time. Let’s show the same leadership and be willing to reinvent our platforms like we’ve always done.