I'm missing an online place to have deep, constructive discussions about technical topics. Parts of Usenet and parts of Debian used to have that for me in the 1990s, and some blogs in the early 2000s, but now everywhere seems to become filled with trolls or people who seem to enjoy shooting down every new idea.

@liw Tell me about those days. I wasn't old enough to experience them.

@liw You and me both. I think we may simply have to be / create it.

@dredmorbius Creating it sounds like an interesting possibility. If a mailing list would be enough, it'd even be easy. How would we get people to participate?

@liw Simply being an effective host, offering an accessible channel, and posting content of interest, is a good start. The broader question is one I've been thinking about for years, and rather more intensely over the past few months in the course of the Google+ shutdown.

I've had a few insights.

(More after food.)

@liw Among those:

1. There just /aren't/ that many people in the world who are /both/ insightful /and/ interested in public (or semi-public) discussion. If you're lucky you'll find a few hundred, if you're exceptionally lucky, a few thousand. The scope of social media has distorted our view of meaningful community size. Generally, smaller (~100s - 1,000s) is better, for actual discussion.

2. If you're willing to post /genuinely good content/ you'll eventually get interested followers.


@liw I've been looking at G+ Communities, and what I'm seeing there is that it is /post activity/ far more than membership that really drives engagement. And the posts themselves have to be decent.

3. Mailing lists ... may ... be good enough, though they've got limitations and the modern world's somewhat moved past them. They're worth a shot, though.

4. You /cannot/ operate any sort of sizeable group (>5 members) without some sort of basic behavioural guidelines. Mostly that is ...


@liw ... "ban asshats". If someone's participation is a net negative to enough others, it's going to negatively affect the group as a whole.

5. Usenet benefitted hugely (though largely invisibly) from the institutional gateways most participants connected through. If your uni or employer could yank your connection, you had to, at least within reasonable bounds, behave yourself. Once Usenet started expanding beyond that scope, it rapidly began going to shit, though new behavioural ...


@liw ... gateways (cancelmoose / cancelbots) emerged. They were ... partially effective.

6. Untended forums (conferences, chats, groups, discussions, whatever) are toxic. If you're going to rely on moderation, AWOL moderators have to result in either the forum being shut down or new mods being assigned. Shit can get out of hand *REALLY* fast.

7. There was a huge cultural difference between Usenet and the unaffiliated conference systems of the time, especially BBS, Fidonet, and ...


@liw ... and some of the early commercial conferencing systems. Some of those ended up really popular with military personnel, and there are distinct social groups that persisted across the split between those and Usenet well into the 1990s and 2000s, signs are still around today.

(Not calling either better or worse, just distinctly different.)

8. Early network conferences were also hugely exclusionary. That had both advantages and disadvantages. It kept out many more disruptive ...


@liw ... elements, but also excluded ... well, virtually the entire world's population who weren't at a handful of highly selective universities in the US and Europe, mostly.

9. Running conferencing systems as a profit-centre is almost certainly fatal to the culture that emerges there. There /may/ be exceptions to this, but they're models that have not generally been considered. The history of publishing generally is of higher-quality venues going broke, some more slowly than others.



@liw 10. There seem to be some common dimensions to conferencing systems, most of which were already pretty evident in the 1970s & 1980s. Arity -- senders to readers. Latency -- realtime vs. message based. Message length, format, formatting/structure. Complexity of relationships between messages, participants, subjects/discussions. Level of user, moderator, and administrator tools and controls. I've made several failed attempts at classifying these myself, it starts simple, but ...


@liw ... gets complicated fairly quickly. Still, I think you could line up: messaging, chat, email, group messaging, microblog / macroblog (mostly a matter of formatting/length), multimedia (image, audio, video, SW), group edit (wiki), and collaborative tools (git / GitLab), as a rough simple-to-complex continuum or tree.

Most discussion really only needs about an email / Usenet level of complexity, though other elements can help.

11. Client uniformity is underappreciated. One of ...


@liw ... the benefits that early email and Usenet systems had was that *most users were using the same sets of tools and conventions.* Unix mailers, or Usenet clients, and the same formatting, quoting, and reply conventions.

Once you start deviating from these, discussion quality starts going to shit rapidly as threads get longer and nobody can keep track of who said what or how or where or when.

Web-based tools enforce client uniformity, by fiat. That's very seldom recognised. And ...


@liw ... we're in a world where there's either very little uniformity of tools, or uniformity of all the wrong sorts (very basic tools that reinforce all kinds of bad habits) as compared with, say, 1988 Usenet, or even your typical mid-1990s Linux mailing list.

That's a challenge any modern intelligent discussion group is going to have to face and deal with.

12. Scale is radically different now than in the 1980s. I discovered I'd been sitting on a reference to late-1980s Usenet usage ...


@liw ... statistics, in John S. Quarterman's "The Matrix" (1990). *All* of Usenet as of April, 1988, came from an online population of about 880,000 users, and of those, 141k actually read Usenet (Brian Reid's Usenet readership reports from DEC).

Usenet hit serious pain points when usership rose over ~1 million. There are billions online today.


And conversation scales poorly.

13. There's a long history of the bounds of literacy and literary access suddenly expanding.


@liw It can bring benefits, but often goes quite poorly and/or disruptively. I'm still reading on the topic, though Marshall McLuhan, "The Gutenberg Galaxy", and Elisabeth Eisenstein, "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change", are key works.

A challenge is for whatever older literary (in the sense of grounded-in-text-or-writings) traditions or cultures exist to survive. They /can/ survive, but rarely do so unchanged, and there are often schisms and other disruptions that happen.


@liw The history of the evolution of academic disciplines, from a small handful of topics -- liberal arts, law, medicine, religion, philosophy -- to the explosion that's the current academic pantheon, reflects this. Virtually everything that is now considered a natural or social science was once "philosophy", and the word "scientist" itself didn't emerge until the 1830s.

We gained specialisation and rigour, but also siloisation of academic specialties. Disciplines tend to do that.


@liw 14. Another kiss of death is being too obviously a forum for erudition. Call your group "The SuperSelect Club on Smart People Thinking Deep Thoughts" and you'll attract every k00k on the Net within 12 parsecs. Unfortunately, /not/ everyone shows up because they belive in the mission and common weal, many simply want an audience (or suckers, or marks, or victims, or ...)

A creatively dull name can help you fly under the radar at least for a while, though eventually the kooks will ...


@liw ... still show. You'll need some sort of hygiene system(s) for dealing with them and other crud, as is the case with all complex systems.

15. You platform *has to solve problems the users have as well as your own.* This is one of the obvious failings of so many commercial / mainstream social media platforms. They're obviously aimed at solving or addressing the *creator's* problem(s), but leave the users as afterthoughts. Almost everything Google does fails this test. And ...


@liw ... advertising-driven platforms are exceptionally prone to this, though that's not the only failure path.

#PlexodusWiki is an exploration of a lot of this (and much of what I'd /like/ to be there isn't yet), though you'll find some bits of much of this mentioned or referenced, especially under the "Platforms and Sites" section(s).

TL;DR: There's a dearth of solid content and discussion online, even today, and you can shift that needle if you want.


Example of what I'd like: someone suggests an idea for a program, and all the responses are either "this thing does something similar, is that what you're looking for?" or "that's a great idea, how can I help?".

I'd also be OK with "I tried that once, and failed, because X, Y, and Z."

What I'm not looking for is places where common responses are "such a thing exists, look harder" or "that's a stupid idea" or "you're not smart enough to write that" or merely "wrong". All responses I've had.

@liw invite only tech places tend to be like this up to a certain number of users. Then it seems to degrade. I have noticed this on and other places... Seems to be a pattern.

@ckeen Good point. I'd be OK with keeping the size of the participating community small, or to have some form of community norm enforcement to keept things good.

@liw And I'd start invite only if you want to have a closed place like this. Hand out invites to people you know that replicate once or twice. So they can hand it to people they know and trust.
@liw My hunch is that people tend to jump into discussions with their opinions on topics they have not a lot to contribute to more easily then.

Maybe it's some kind of effort to try to bond with others :)
@liw I have noticed that fills part of that gap for me - at least the "look what I made, what do you think" part and the discussion is typically as you describe.

The code behind is open source and I have for a while wanted to set up an instance for programming/webdev that provides a place for idea growth that matches what it seems you're looking for but growing communities is hard.
@liw there seems to be a post on the frontpage of lobsters that kind of matches the discussion you describe

I normally hang out in the "ask" and "show" tags as they have the nicest discussions and I end up learning a fair bit from discussions.

@liw I still like mailing lists for this sort of discussion

Even then they probably need to stay medium sized

@liw As far as replacements for Usenet go, the most promising I've seen is Aether, but it's in very early stages (500 users).

Yeah. The best place I know of these days are a few well cultivated IRC channels, but the expertise is usually very topical.

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