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Is all noise bad noise?
revdkathy
Over the last couple of days there’s been a range of discussions about who and what exactly MeeGo is (are). Discussions have begun about whether there will be a council, a summit and what, if anything becomes of the forums. Full discussions can be found in the t.m.o community forum.

One of the questions is about the value of the end user component of the Maemo side of the community. Arjan of the Moblin side of the team put it well: “I don't mind talking with loud people who are there to help/contribute/etc... I rather do not waste time with those who are just loud to be disruptive.” (IRC #meego on 18/2/10) As one of the noisy people, I find that reassuring.

So I thought it might be useful (for me, if not for you dear reader!) to look at what the ‘non-techs’ contribute.

First off, lets’ deal with the downsides.

The non-techs are noisy. When we don’t have anything else to talk about, we’ll talk anyway. Threads will devolve into chat: fluff, froth, flirtation. It’s noisy in a sort of harmless way. To the casual observer it looks unproductive. But it’s not – not quite. Fluff, froth and flirtation are building something very important. They’re building community, trust, relationships. Sure, it takes a lot of chatter to build something worthwhile. But the effect is that when there’s a disagreement or an issue we actually have deep community ties underpinning it.

The other thing to note is that most of us are perfectly capable of distinguishing the right and wrong places to be chatty. We don’t confine our fluff to the ‘off topic’ forum, but a cursory glance at t.m.o. shows that by and large the serious threads about serious discussion remain serious without distraction (say the ones in the ‘apps’ forum, or the platform fora) while the ones started for more general or community topics can become silly, chatty or flirtatious fairly quickly. A good structure to help channel that instinct on when it’s ok to go off topic might be something we could gain from starting our forum from fresh again

The non-techs include the nay-sayers. Just by having a community that is open to all and sundry means that sometimes you will get people join up just to complain. Some of them are valid – they have good, constructive complaints to make. With a little nudge they make good bug-filers. Some of them were constructive, but their needle got stuck in the groove (to use a vastly outdated metaphor) and they’ve become Johnny One-note on their personal hobby horse to the point of no longer being helpful. And some of them are just plain trolls. Any open internet community is going to get trolls, they’re a sad side effect of internet communication. Fortunately, they’re easy to spot: maybe creating a more robust system for dealing with them would be something to discuss for MeeGo.

The ‘Noise to signal’ ratio is too high to produce anything useful. That depends on your ability to mentally filter out the noise. And on your definition of noise.


Now the benefits: what do non-tech enthusiasts and end-users contribute?

Ideas. The great thing about not being technical is being able to dream big. Because I don’t know what it can’t do, I just might come up with an idea that would never be considered by someone who is used to working within limitations.

UI knowledge. Ultimately we’re the experts on whether your user interface is intuitive. Because we’re the users. If it isn’t intuitive to a decent number of us, you can safely reckon it’s not intuitive, however much it makes sense to you.

Testing. Given the huge “Here be Dragons” signs over the doors at Extras-testing and extras-devel, it never ceases to amaze me the number of people perfectly willing to put their devices at risk to test developmental software. At risk of over mentioning the Great Frals, take a look at his fMMS thread. Over 800 posts and while some of them are repeats of support requests, you won’t find any fluff, froth or flirtation. And the users have taken Frals amazing software and tested it on nearly 60 different networks worldwide, entering parameters into the wiki. Each time Frals updates, a bunch of people update the software, test and provide feedback with screen-caps and log-files.

Feedback. Following on from testing, there’s feedback. Maemo.org has an excellent system for QA for its repositories dependent on feedback and voting. And while devs do test and feedback to each other, a good base of users widens the possibilities.

Design. There’s been some amazing art and design work done in maemo.org by people who didn’t code, but could wield a pencil (or gimp!) with astonishing skill. Apps benefit from good design and good artwork.

Documents. To put it simply, you don’t have to be a dev to add to the wiki. Some of the simplest and clearest ‘user FAQ’ entries are created by people who don’t speak the jargon... because they don’t speak the jargon.

Bugs. Yes, I know too many end users make for a noisy bugzilla which becomes nigh on impossible to triage. But at the same time, good, useful bugs don’t have to come from highly technical people. I have high hopes that the MeeGo bugzilla (which I’m told is a newer version than the Maemo one!) will have ways of facilitating good bug submission.

Support. The maemo.org community is not an official support forum. Nokia Support is that. But the reality is that most people seeking support fetch up at t.m.o. and ask their question. Sometimes they even ask it in the right place! And I would hazard a guess that most devs can tell some story of sitting up till midnight hand holding some hapless end-user who’s done something to their device or system. Experienced end-users make good providers of support – not least because having been new users ourselves just very recently we’re less likely to blind support seekers with the long words.

Devs. Yes, you read that right. Enthusiastic end users make devs. Not all by any means. But most devs started out as end-users (apart from the boy wonders who learned code in kindergarten). Starting with a single copied line of code to the terminal, moving on the a first “hello world” ... some end users become devs.

And then there’s the things you can’t quantify: energy, enthusiasm, evangelism.

So yes, having a community that extends beyond the developer and corporate members has its drawbacks. But most of us want to contribute in useful ways. And although we are not coders, we have a huge range of skills in a wide range of areas.
Even if we are a bit noisy.

In other news:
Zehjotkah is running a campaign on youtube to get 200 subscribers to his channel. He has produced some excellent demo videos (look to the English subtitles if you don’t speak German). He invited subscribers to reply to his campaign with a video of their own, and some of my household decided to take up the challenge. Took me ages to get my n900 back from them!
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