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Thoughts on open source mailing lists

After the robust thread started by the recent post to the Debian PowerPC mailing list, I received a private message from someone I had indirectly affected in what I wrote. His name is Joe Malik, and he actually does much for that mailing list in terms of participation and helping folks along. I thought about what he wrote to me, and it caused me to reflect on what I had quickly banged out in frustration. Part of my response to him spoke to some general thoughts of mine about open source involvement and mailing lists. I have posted part of it below:

Excerpt from a recent message I sent to someone regarding open source and mailing lists:

I have only been using lists heavily for about 3 years, but in that time I have seen differences in lists. Each list, or perhaps each organization’s lists, seem(s) to have a certain feel that you can pick up on, usually within the first month or so. Some are really vibrant, some are very quiet; some are well-managed, some are out of control.
When a list has a high number of questions being answered by actual developers themselves, and when many of the newbie questions, even the well-formed ones, either go unanswered or receive relatively terse replies, that’s not a good sign. For some reason, on that list, people aren’t in a hurry to post a response.
Why would list members, even ones who have been on for a while, hesitate to answer a newbie’s question? Have they been burned in the past? Is it just safer to sit by and monitor, not risking unfriendly feedback from those who know as much or more than you? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Is it because there’s a high turnover rate on the list, because the non-gurus get tired of the negativity or harshness on the list, so that the list is comprised of mostly relative newbies and seasoned gurus? Perhaps, perhaps not.
When these characteristics are present on lists for something as high-profile as the Debian Linux distribution, that’s especially undesirable. Efforts like Debian have much in common with not-for-profit organizations; the workforce is composed almost entirely of volunteers. Motivators like salary and compensation are not present, so a sense of community, welcome, and worth are important if the effort is to flourish. The primary purpose of my post was to hopefully reiterate that to the list, in hopes that things might become a bit more hospitable.