Free Software developers, who had strong mailing list and IRC based online communities before the advent of weblogging, have nevertheless found their way into it. This post is a summary of how the Free Software world is using blogs for collaboration; largely preferring aggregation of community members’ blogs over setting up single access group blogs, and using them as a community building tool rather than a software development collaboration tool.
One of the big developments was Advogato, which started in late 1999. The creator of Advogato, Raph Levien, appears to have been trying to start up a kind of a semi-formal guild system for Free Software developers, allowing them to rank each other as Master, Journeyer or Apprentice. As a small feature, he added the ability for users to make “diary entries”, the most recent of which were listed at the side of the front page.
While the other features of advogato proved only an intermittant success — the quality of the articles on the front page is widely lamented, and the certification system has been subject to a lot of debate and has not resulted in the development of formal mentoring — the diary feature was a smash hit. Waves of Free Software developers hit advogato in 2000 and 2001 as they started reading their co-developers’ diaries. The buzz even generated a Salon article in mid 2000.
The initial buzz surrounding Advogato occasionally caused users to publicly renounce their former bad opinions of “online journals”: rather than being ‘useless’ things full of stories about children and cats, they were a new space to talk about your code and find out more about your fellow developers. Advogato was known as a friendly place, in contrast sometimes with the development mailing lists themselves.
Eventually the worlds of Advogato and of blogs began to meet. In mid-2002 Levien was discovering the wider blogosphere and started exploring using his Advogato diary as a primary means of communication with other interesting people. By that time RSS feeds of individual entries and of the entire recent diary entries page were probably the single most requested feature: people no longer wanted to drop in on the site to skim through the new entries, they wanted to poll them like they were beginning to do with other websites. (RSS feeds of individuals’ diaries were added in April 2003.)
At around about this time also, some people started to express serious dissatisfaction with the Advogato community as political debates became more common and the community attracted a few diary trolls. Levien added a diary rating feature as requests to be able to keep some users off the recent entries page grew. Others used the Advogato article feature to deplore the decline in the community.
As various blogging tools became more popular around this time, it became increasingly common to see diary entries from an Advogato regular announcing that their diary was moving elsewhere.
As RSS feeds became fairly ubiquitous, the Free Software community started to revert to a more typical blogging community model: you read blogs of people whose names you knew, and you found other people you knew or knew of through sidebars and comments.
However, in mid-2003 Jeff Waugh of the GNOME desktop project decided to create his own version of the Advogato front page, a HTML page with recent blog entries from GNOME developers all over the web (including several on Advogato). He used the Spycroll aggregator software to pull in RSS feeds, and he made them all available on a single webpage, with the cute addition of disembodied "hackergotchi heads" personalising each name.
He was stunned with the popularity of the page he linked from his own sidebar as Planet GNOME and started to field all kinds of questions about it: the three most popular were “why isn’t this at planet.gnome.org?”, “why aren’t I on it?” and (to his surprise) “why isn’t there an RSS feed?”
The Planet idea took off rapidly over the next six months. Scott James Remnant was the next off the mark, creating Planet Debian. Remnant and Waugh forked spycroll soon after that to create the Planet aggregator script. In fairly short order, a lot of large Free Software projects needed to have their own planet: the Planet homepage now lists nearly 40 separate planets.
The planets have evolved a loose set of customs based on the ones in place at Planets GNOME and Debian. They do not require that syndicated blogs talk about Free Software or software development all the time: they encourage getting to know your fellow developers as people as well as techs. (John Fleck, a GNOME documentor who is not only a frequent poster, but is a frequent non-tech blogger, has been a kind of an acid test for this editorial policy: see the John Malkovich post and a later complaint.) The larger planets are starting to have to deal with line-ball calls about who should and should not be on the planet pages: Waugh apparently finds requiring that contributors use a real photo of themself somewhat helpful on Planet GNOME.
The planets have proved to be amazingly good at spreading blogging among Free Software communities. The two planets I host, LinuxChix Live and Planet Twisted are close to being my most popular hosted sites. They also fill an important gap in the usual Free Software communication tools: they don’t need to be as on-topic as mailing list posts, and they are more expressive than IRC. They’ve also had some influence on corporate group blogging: Richard Giles reported that the creation of Planet Sun was part of the explorations that led Sun employees to promote blogging internally, eventually leading to the creation of blogs.sun.com.