I want to take this opportunity to update my previous review of OSM related group communication channels and platforms and add a few subjective impressions and comments afterwards.
After having essentially stopped using OSMF communication infrastructure actively in response to the OSMF board establishing a highly questionable behavior control regime and indicating the intention to extent this to all OSMF controlled communication channels, i view this pretty much from an outside perspective now.
But as said – lets start with the basics. Here is the extended table of the different communication platforms and their evaluation according to the different criteria i introduced in the first part.
I differentiated the open platforms and communication protocols category further into:
- Free open source software: This documents the basic question if the software used is formally licensed under an open license.
- Open protocols: The question here is if the platform can be interfaced with from the outside (both technically and legally) to allow exchange of content with other platforms or alternative interfaces.
I think it is important to separate these two – the latter is also possible without the platform itself being open source and a communication platform based on open source software does not automatically provide open protocols that can be used from the outside to access or to enter communication content (which is what seems to be the situation with the new OSMF platform – see below).
Here the updated footnotes for the table:
- help.openstreetmap.org has limited support for structured communication.
- The OSM wiki in principle allows structured communication and on talk pages it is established practice to thread messages. But you have to do this fully by hand and it only works if everyone does so diligently. No builtin support for that.
- On Usenet server operators used to expire messages so there was practically no permanent public record in the system itself. However everyone running a Usenet server could maintain a record and in the late days of Usenet Google practically served as a reference record.
- The forum indicates when a post has been modified after initial posting but no record of the original message is retained. Also admins on the forum can (and do) remove messages from the record (with varying frequency, depending on the channel).
- The diaries themselves can be edited without the history being visible but the diary comments cannot.
- On the wiki the edit history is openly accessible so it serves as an immutable record (though it can be difficult to use as such practically).
- Github has a fairly clever system of allowing edits of communication but still allowing users to transparently see if there have been changes and what has been changed. Github however also allows completely removing messages from the public record in some cases (but it is indicated at least that a message has been removed i think).
- While there is no alternative interface to posting changeset comments for reading there is the popular tool by Pascal Neis.
- Openness in participation in principle applies to most OSM related mailing lists and forums. There are a few exceptions – specifically osmf-talk is only open for posting to OSMF members. There are thematic and regional lists and forums with culture specific rulesets you need to accept for active participation which are usually developed through consensus of those active on the individual channel (like diversity-talk, regional forums). Beyond that the OSMF has for all communication channels and platforms they operate indicated the intention to impose a behavior control system that is designed to allow banning participants if they misbehave in the eyes of the moderators. To what extent that practically limits the de facto openness is not clear so far.
- See 9 – plus Discourse seems to implement an automatically managed hierarchy of users based on their formal activity history on the platform. In addition there seems to be a not publicly documented number of people selected from the top so to speak who have special privileges in editing/removing communication content of others. So the system is essentially open only on the base level and has an elaborate hierarchy built on top of that. If people are also manually promoted/demoted within the – on the lower ranks – by default automatically managed hierarchy is not clear to me yet.
- Discourse formally seems to record communication structure in the sense that it records which message a message is in reply to if it is explicitly made in reply to one. This is however not consistently displayed. I have seen messages being shown both as a reply to another message as well as being shown a second time as a flat comment to a topic. In general the whole interface seems to strongly discourage replying to the messages of someone else in the sense of structured communication and to nudge people to preferably add comments in a linear fashion to a topic.
- Discourse seems mostly like the forum in this regard (see 4. above) but in addition seems to allow you to see the edit history of messages. There seem to be also automated edits of messages made by the software – which are displayed just like human edits. It is unclear to me so far if message removals by moderators are transparently visible or not (i.e. if there is an indication that here a message by X has been removed). Update: It seems that moderator action is not generally publicly visible as such.
- From what i have seen Discourse has an API but that is not openly accessible – not even for read-only purposes – but requires an API key from the platform operators. The OSMF has so far not indicated if they are willing to provide access to that to anyone. I have not seen any external clients that interface with discourse in some form based on that API or otherwise. In particular there does not seem to be any workable mechanism for bulk access to the communication content. There are secondary channels (RSS feeds and the so called mailing list mode) that allow limited access to some of the communication content but they seem to be there mostly pro forma (to be able to advertise those as features) and are practically essentially unusable (Update: more details in comment below).
- There seem to be some very limited filtering options (like blocking individual users) for logged in users w.r.t. notifications. The message reading interface however does not seem to have any way for users to filter things (although the platform itself performs filtering on its own – deciding based on unclear criteria which messages are shown and which are hidden by default).
Another remarkable data point by the way: The starting page of commmunity.openstreetmap.org loads an impressive 5.4 MB of content to then display what amounts to less than a hundred words. For comparison: The OpenStreetMap forum starting page (which is much more information rich of course) is less than 100 kB.
When i am in need to choose a software or platform for a certain purpose my primary consideration is usually: Does it allow me to do the things i want to in the way i want to do them without the need for me to invest time and resources in things that are not of interest for me. To give an example from the field of group communication: In case of image content as part of communication and graphical formatting of text: I would want the communication tool to show me the fact that my communication partner has communicated such content but i don’t want it to show me such stuff without me explicitly choosing to see it. In other words: I want to be able to make granulated decisions on how much attention i invest in a specific communication.
The central paradigm of Discourse seems to be pretty much the opposite of that: Active management of the user’s attention. Like:
- Suggested Topics – who is suggesting that to me and why? I have not asked for suggestions of any kind.
- Views, likes etc. – apparently someone thinks it is of tremendous importance for me to know how many other people have read or indicate to have liked what i am reading so they rub that into my face prominently and this way distract from the actual communication content i am reading. Too bad that i don’t care about this kind of data.
- It seems it is also of high importance that i always associate the identity of my communication partner with some picture of their choosing. Tough luck if memorizing mini-pictures is not really your prime talent – because you then have to deal with the between one and three verbal identifiers which are displayed in various tones of gray and weight in a way that is barely discernible from the communication content.
- Hello! Looks like you’re enjoying the discussion, but you haven’t signed up for an account yet. Seriously? I am just waiting for clippy coming around the corner now…
I could go on with a long list of similar things i find appalling when trying out the new platform but i will cut it short. Discourse is evidently not for me. My impression is that the target user group of that platform is people that have grown up in the attention economy, using twitter, facebook and other social media and feel comfortable with those.
And i think that is fine. As indicated in the past (and others see this similarly) i am convinced that a diverse project like OpenStreetMap needs diverse communication platforms. People who are used to twitter and facebook and like the communication style there should have the opportunity to communicate in a similar style about OpenStreetMap and preferably using open source tools and without the need for people to participate in that communication to sign up with some big corporation and agreeing on their data being sold for profits.
What i see critically – and i have said that in the past as well – is, that there are strong voices in the OSMF that do not just want to offer this new communication platform as an option for those who like this style of platform but who want to unify and to culturally homogenize all OpenStreetMap related communication under this. Kind of the wild dream of all community management. It is very likely that this would fail of course but there is a significant risk that the failure would not be visible from the inside perspective and that at some point in the future people on community.openstreetmap.org might predominantly believe that they are the community (or at least that they are representative for the whole OSM community in all their diversity).
Discourse belongs into the category that i have described in the previous post on group communication channels as stuff developed around some fancy web interface meant to serve the fashion of the day in UI design. It is very likely that this will – like countless other similar platforms in the past – run out of fashion relatively soon again (in like 5-10 years) and will, as a software, likely become unmaintained soon after that. In other words: It could well be that the OSMF will in 10-15 years, possibly sooner, be in more or less exactly the same situation it is right now with the forum and help.openstreetmap.org running old and unmaintained software – just with the software then being discourse. The irony could well be that mailing lists still exist then…
We have a saying in German: Die Zeiten sind hart, aber modern.