Software vs People

March 20, 2009

I recently got myself involved on a new web forum because I saw it as an opportunity to advance the case for Linux and to do so by offering a different perspective than is usually found in the on line community. When it comes to advocacy I like to think outside the box. Many years of involvement with the arts has shown me that the mundane is often at a disadvantage.

Linux Dot Com has recently been acquired by The Linux Foundation who is embarking on an initial journey of reestablishing it as a new site. Whether the site is going to be anything new, or just more of the same with a fresh wrapper, is not clear. To start, they have established a site called “Idea Forge” which, to help people understand its purpose, states clearly on the front page that: “Ideaforge allows Linux.com community members to share and discuss ideas.” What kinds of ideas is left to the imagination of the reader.

The Linux Foundation’s website, however, is much more informative on the subject. Their description of the new site says that it is to be “For the community, by the community, Linux.com will be the central source for Linux information, software, documentation and answers across the server, desktop/netbook, mobile, and embedded areas.” To me it should be much more than that. Their web site itself refers to being “dedicated to accelerating the growth of Linux” and they want to serve as a neutral spokesperson to advance the interests of Linux. That sounds like much more than “for the community, by the community”. I’m probably not the only person who thinks that the new web site could play a much larger role by also serving as an embassador for open source and Linux.

There is some hope when they say that “The Linux Foundation has been founded to help close the gap between open source and proprietary platforms, while sustaining the openness, freedom of choice and technical superiority inherent in open source software.” That is indeed what I too would like to work towards, but perhaps that is a tall order for an organization that already has it’s hands full dealing with such things as legal protection and standardization. It is even possible that their new website is not intended to be for advocacy. Their goals are not being disclosed so we don’t know.

There are many sites out there which provide repositories of information and venues for communication and collaboration. Some of them are very good. Although I think that linux.com should include some of that for the sake of authority. I also think that it could reach out to the part of the world which has no use for that kind of thing – yet. I think that the wider world is what should be targeted by such a top level organization.

It was my hope, and perhaps others’, that the Idea Forge would bring out some creative ideas that would lead to a new and innovative site and so address some of those issues. Alas, it seems to be meandering aimlessly.

The lack of direction is a serious problem to me. It is simply not clear how the site should differ from other already well functioning sites. There are already many Linux sites out there which are very good at what they do. Why would we need another one? Perhaps it is “supposed” to be the same as what we already have lots of, but these questions still need to be answered.

From my point of view some people in the linux world are stuck in a very small box of IT only, with no real connection to the world at large. If that is what linux.com is about too, then fine, I’ll concede a bit on criticizing the lack of inventiveness. There is certainly nothing wrong with an insular approach, but for the sake of contributing ideas to Idea Forge it needs to be stated so that someone with broader concepts doesn’t dilute the efforts of others or waste their own time either.

However, I really don’t think that the problem here has much to do with people. The real culprit is software.

The platform chosen for Idea Forge is a new piece of social networking software called Pligg. This new product (it just reached v1.0) seems stable enough, and perhaps even well designed. The problem in this case could be that too much is expected of it. It is marketed as “content management software” but from what I’ve seen, it just is not up to the task of facilitating either the management nor the evolution of ideas.

Pligg relies on a system of voting on ideas, however it provides no guidance on syntax or format. Users are just asked to give a title to their posting and that somehow is supposed to represent an idea. I think that implies an unrealistic understanding of the english language – something which is not going to happen in a grass roots international organization. The content management is further hampered by not cross referencing the postings, nor the ideas presented in any discussions. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the description of the idea which follows the title is not changed or updated as the idea evolves with further discussion. I wonder even if ever there could be a piece of software that would replace a human facilitator. At any rate, the presentation of ideas is a mess.

So far, the body of postings is diverse, full of redundancy, and often contradictory. To me that is actually a good thing. It is wonderfully human and is the kind of primordial “idea soup” from which great ideas can be distilled. A human facilitator would be pleased with the material presented. Unfortunately the software cannot relate to this, and allows all the material to remain a soup. It simply cannot distill anything, and worse, it does not offer any help for people to do it either.

Idea Forge is showing ideas mostly in the discussion and not in the thread titles. I don’t see the software being “aware” of this. In fact I am not sure that a piece of software can help much in this regard, other than by facilitating communication between humans. With hundreds of members signed up so far there is still very little discussion going on, so obviously the software is not encouraging this either. For something that is supposed to be “social networking” software, I find that rather unimpressive.

Sadly, the way the Pligg software is performing, I don’t see much possibility of arriving at, or developing something exciting at linux.com. There is not enough flexibility for really creative discussion and indeed very little room for it. My feeling is that the way it is working so far could only evolve something extremely boring. The software simply does not take human characteristics into account. Perhaps no software can do this, but certainly for the purpose of getting the most out of a group of people, Pligg is going to be a hindrance.

I personally have an interest in Linux and open source advocacy. I would like to see Linux used by people around the world and not just the gadget crowd and those with an interest in computers. At first I saw an opportunity at Idea Forge. Now, I am doubtful. It is not clear what I could possibly do there that would be of benefit to anybody. I would love to engage in a dialogue about how to promote Linux to a wider audience and how linux.com could be involved with that or instigate new initiatives.

To me it is not a matter of having my say, it is a matter of people having a dialogue and evolving ideas. So far it looks like social networking software, and certainly Pligg, is not going to facilitate that. Hopefully in the end, the people at the Linux Foundation will scrape whatever they can from Idea Forge and use that to come up with their own brilliant ideas.

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One Response to “Software vs People”

  1. Henning Lindberg Nymark Melgaard (nymark1) said

    Hi Ole
    You speak my mind!
    I think you should submit this as a comment in Ideaforge! The community needs to hear this. Maybe you could propose that we have a forum that leaves room for creative and in depth discussion about how we advocate the use of Linux. In stead of “networking software” I think we need admins (or what ever the correct word is in English) who could keep the discussion on the topic and pick up ideas as they evolve during the discussion. Is this what you are missing too?

    Off topic: You are indead very danish. For a long time i actually thaught you were a dane living somewhere in North Jutland like myself :-). Part of my family emigrated to America long ago. Fascinating that your family did the same.

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