POSSE Face to Face, Synchronous, and Asynchronous Communication

Modes of Communication

In Open Source projects, there are three broad categories of communication:

  • Face-to-Face (or “F2F”) – Although this may be present in a small team working at a single company or institution, it is rare for large open source communities to get together for face-to-face consultation except at annual or semi-annual meetings.
  • Asynchronous Communication – Including e-mail lists, newsgroups, forums, blogs, and planets.
  • Synchronous Communication – Including IRC, telephone, and voice-over-IP.

Face to Face Meetings

There are many annual or semi-annual meetings of Open Source communities:

  • FUDCon – Fedora Users’ and Developers’ Conference
  • Mozilla Summit
  • GUADEC – Gnome Users and Developers European Conference (despite the name, this is a global event)
  • Akademy – KDE Developers Summit
  • GCC Summit – GCC (Gnu Compiler Collection) Summit
  • Linux Kernel Summit
  • OOoCon – OpenOffice.org Conference

Because these meetings are so infrequent, they tend to focus on strategic planning as well as demonstrations and discussion of new technology. They serve a critical role in helping people to connect into the core of each community instead of sitting on the edge.

In addition, there are some major cross-project events:

These events provide an opportunity to network, share roadmaps, and coordinate between projects.

Asynchronous Communication

Mailing Lists

Some projects make extensive use of e-mail lists. When good mailing list management software is used, these lists are self-serve, require fairly low bandwidth, and messages can be easily threaded, archived, and searched. Most projects maintain low volume “announce” lists as well as higher-volume development lists; messages can usually be received in batches to reduce total message volume.

Despite the use of multiple lists, each with a tight focus, the total message volume in large open source projects can be overwhelming. Some community participants use a unique e-mail address exclusively for list mail.

E-mail harvesting is a common problem on mailing lists. To combat that, some people use two e-mail addresses: one which is used only for posting, and one which is used only for reading. All messages sent to the posting address get deleted, so spammers harvesting e-mail addresses end up collecting an invalid address.

Newsgroups

The Usenet news protocol suite (NNTP) provides a distributed, threaded forum system. Many ISPs have stopped carrying Usenet news, but several project (including OOo and Mozilla) continue to use it on their own servers.

Gmane.org provides a bidirectional mail-to-newsgroup gateway service, so that people can access mailing lists as newsgroups. Some open source projects provide similar gateway services of their own.

Blogs

Blogs (weblogs) are well-suited to announcements, status reports, and the expression of personal opinion.

Because they are presented in a chronological format, blog articles “scroll” off the front page (and RSS feed), and are considered transient. They are also widely recognized as being written from a personal perspective and are inherently pull-based (the reader must “pull” or load an RSS feed or web page), and therefore the etiquette expectations are quite different from communication that is done using community resources and which is push-based, such as

Planets

Following a large number of planets can be time-consuming. Planets, or RSS aggregators, are web sites which chronologically combine posts from a group of blogs.

Microblogging

Microblogging services, such as Twitter and Identi.ca, are great for communicating stream-of-activity and current-breaking-news information. They’re therefore useful for building buzz and keeping up on events (such as the recent CRTC hearings in Canada regarding net neutrality) and can be used as a near-synchronous communication tool. However, their short message format, limited addressability, and poor threading limits their usefulness as a replacement for other asynchronous communication techniques.

Wikis

Wikis are community-editable web pages. They’re considered more permanent than other forms of communication, and are useful wherever web pages would normally be used — release notes, project status pages, user guides, event information, and so forth.

Using a wiki instead of a web page is a step of trust towards radical transparency and a culture of participation. However, it’s a small step, because wiki pages are fully version-controlled and it’s possible to revert any changes that have been made. Most wiki systems can also provide e-mail notice of edits.

Issue Tracking

Issue tracking systems (often called “Bugzilla” after the most commonly-used software) track bugs, feature enhancements, permission requests, and other issues within an open source project. Almost all of them have a forum-like unthreaded discussion system which forms an important part of a community’s communication. Some issue trackers have incorporate a voting system so the community can rank the importance of a particular issue.

Synchronous Communication

IRC

IRC is Internet Relay Chat, a multi-user, highly scalable system for online text chatting used by many open-source projects.

Etherpad

Etherpad provides sychronous, distributed text editing capabilities. It provides automatic versioning (via the timeline feature) and in some cases is integrated with code-execution capabilities (for example, Studio Sketchpad, for Processing.js programs, which are called “sketches”).

Telephony

Some communities meet regularly by phone, although this is rare, due to cost, timezone, language, accessibility, and transcript challenges. As an alternative to traditional dial-up calls, some communities have experimented with private VOIP servers (typically based on Asterisk) – however, these services are often underused (the Fedora Project turned off its “Fedora Talk” VOIP service in early 2011, for example).