venerdì 19 ottobre 2012

[Mailing List | Forum]-ize yourself!

This could sound weird from me, having been a fan of mailing lists up to almost one year ago. Nowadays I believe much more in technical forums rather than other collaborative spaces.
First of all allow me to explain the need: you are developing/mantaining a piece of code and you get a problem that cannot resolve, so you need for assistance. I'm not going to discuss here the types of support and assistance you can get by proprietary or open source software, I'm supposing you are alone and without any support contract by anyone.
In the programming space there are different ways of getting supports, mainly:
  • IRC (Internet Relay Chat)
  • Mailing Lists
  • Forums
  • Social Networks
Since I'm not a fan of social networks, in any forms they could come, I discourage you to use them as a way of getting support. Consider that social networks are very dynamic, high traffic and easy to confuse readers, so it is quite difficult someone will note your help request in the ocean of messages that flow thru the social network.
IRC is an old fashion way of chatting, and is very respected in the Unix and Unix-related environments. The idea is to have a virtual room that hosts people that discuss about a specific subject. One room means one subject, users do not have to register anywhere, can gain access to server quite easily and can access more rooms at once. My experience is that traffic can become quickly really high or you could fly to a room without any (interested) guest, so your question is going to be dropped and forgotten in the room. Moreover, room logs could not be saved, so even if someone helped you the answer could not be stored somewhere and you could be unable to access the answer again. Usually IRC is used to synchronize committers and developers and to make virtual meetings, but getting help thru it is in my opinion very difficult. Moreover you are required to stay connected for a while, so it requires you to have access to the Internet (even if the required bandwidth is not that much). These are the main reasons why I don't like IRC very much.
As already stated, I was a fan of mailing lists. Mailing lists are channels to which users have to register in order to receive mails. Then users can drop an email to this channel (that is nothing more than a special e-mail address) and all other users registered to such channel will get the mail into their inbox. It is easy to use, it is safe (email travel as pure text), you are sending a message to anyone who is registered (so chances are someone will read your message) and have to just wait for a reply. Moreover, configuring a right set of filter will allow you to manage a ton of e-mail easily. Last but not least you are getting a reply from a valid user behin a valid e-mail address, so you can contact such user directly. This is wrong since you should try to keep the knowledge on the mailing list, so that it is shared and is not something private, but gives you the chance to directly connect to someone else.
Forums are something very popular, that I start used when working behind a stupid firewall blocking my mailing list accounts. Forums can be very good if they provide very technical and constrained topics and if the moderators are doing their job. Moreover, I found that forums that gives you badges as indicators of how much/how often/with which quality you do the forum are attracting developers and committers, that usually are proud of their public image compared to other people. Another aspect of forums is that they tend to be less traffic bloomed than mailing lists, and therefore are the good place for mid-to-advanced users.
To recap, I suggest you to use forums and mailing lists as often as possible and in the correct way: please specify always the system and properties of the context you are working on, the problem you have, the solution you have tried, and any other detail that can help people solving your problem. Remember that on any channel people are volunteers that are donating their free time to you. The best you can do, is to make sure you are not wasting their time!

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