Using forums

I suspect that Ten easy ways to attract women to your free software project will do the rounds pretty quickly, but I at least hadn’t seen it until this morning. It’s a list of project management decisions you can make that would arguably make it more likely that women will be involved in some kind of development. They’re largely only ‘easy’ for a new project which is when many of these decisions are still open, but for what it’s worth, some of them are:

  • Use forums instead of mailing lists
  • As much as possible, use wikis instead of version controlled archives
  • Don’t discount what women do [‘what women do’ here used as ‘community management, documentation and similar activities’, via Geek chicks: second thoughts]

The justifications are reasonably lengthy and are in the linked article. I’m not going to comment extensively on what I think of the article, except to wonder about whether these are women friendly measures or people friendly measures. (A loose analogy: writing prose in such a way as to be accessible to non-native or non-fluent readers of your language is actually very helpful to native speakers as a side effect. I am of course hardly the first person to make the point that changing environments to suit women’s needs may suit men as well, it’s commonly made for workplaces.)

Instead, I want to talk about forum software. I can’t say whether women in general might prefer it, perhaps they do, but gosh, what a pain in the neck. I would never be casually involved in a project that ran over a forum. (If I liked the project enough, I might be deeply involved.) Here’s what’s involved in using a forum:

  • Thinking of a user name (very few have a tradition of mostly using full legal names, like email does, which means finding one that is unused etc etc)
  • Thinking of a password, storing it somewhere for later use etc (I haven’t seen forum software supporting OpenID yet)
  • Picking some kind of avatar for myself.
  • Learning how to use this new piece of software, how do I search for things, how do I post new things, how do I reply to things, how do I find replies to my posts?
  • Having to use my web browser’s text input tool as an editor. Argh, oh, my hands, my brain!
  • Dealing with the inevitably poor accessibility decisions of web forum software. (I don’t know when people over the age of 50 will be targeted as the next under-represented demographic in Free Software development, but the time of the hyperopic will come.)
  • Not being able to deal with anything to do with the project when not connected to the Internet. (I am something of a last woman standing here, but I do a lot of offline email work, it’s quite productive to sit on a train and plow through it.)

In my email client, I either don’t have to deal with any of these things or I’ve overcome them already and I deal with them the same way for every bit of email I deal with. I can casually join 30 mailing lists. I can’t casually lurk on 30 forums.

At the same time, the argument in the article is that forum software destroys the perception that everyone in the project is equally important, which both lessens the problem of one or two loud voices being perceived as in control, and motivates socially-oriented people by giving them some visible measure of reputation, etc. I hope at some point in the future forums, Usenet and email breed some kind of hideous yet effective love-child: protocols and software that allow more subtly moderated communities that nevertheless do not require that I use a different piece of software for every community I am in.