Balancing IRC and email, the secret of success for open collaboration

Are seasoned contributors to OpenStack giving too much importance to IRC, and is that creating bad side effects in other areas of the community?

Since I started contributing more to working groups outside of the OpenStack upstream contributor community, I noticed that email is used in a limited way, with a couple of lists having either very low traffic or low signal/noise ratio. The email lists are often used to share calendar notifications for meetings and their agendas with often little to no discussions. Have we insisted so much in holding weekly meetings “like developers do” that now people think that email discussions are less important?

This weekend a couple of posts on Planet OpenStack talk about IRC: one very good source of information on how to use IRC better from Chris Aedo who suggests to stay more on IRC. He argues:

If you are interested in becoming an OpenStack contributor, having a persistent IRC presence might be one of the most important secrets to success. Anyone who spends time in one of the more active project channels will immediately see the value of synchronous communication here where problems are sometimes solved in minutes.

On the other hand of the spectrum Chris Dent who highlights the chaotic nature of IRC. He mentions that too  much IRC leads to:

no opportunity to be truly away, frequent interruptions, an inflated sense of urgency, and a powerful sense of “oh noes, I’m missing what’s happening on IRC!!!!”—but the killer is the way in which it allows, encourages and even enforces the creation and expression of project knowledge within IRC, leaving out people who want or need to participate but are not synchronous with the discussion.

This last point is crucial: not everybody can be online all the time, some of us have to sleep or go see a movie at times. IRC is often mentioned as a blocker to new community members. I advocate using a bouncer only to get personal messages, not to read the backlogs.

While synchronous communication is crucial for distributed collaboration, a sane habit of using email is as important. The OpenStack community has put so much emphasis on using IRC to hold weekly meeting and to resolve the most controversial conversations in real-time that some new comers now think that synchronous communication is more important than async email.

A sane balance of sync-async communication is more crucial to success of open source collaboration, mixing email and IRC (which is what most of OpenStack upstream developers do, by the way.)

All in all, I think there is also a need to teach people how to hold conversations via email, with proper quoting, no top posting and other nice things to do… but also email sorting and filtering client-side, what not to say (hint: “me too” messages are generally considered noise)… a lost art, as much as using IRC.

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