Oct 09 2007

Shop-talk 24 hours a day

Ruby on Rails is a new and increasingly popular web application framework. Like many technologies today, it has an active community of developers and they have the customary suite of wikis, file repositories, email lists, blogs and RSS feeds. One thing that catches my eye about the Ruby on Rails community is its very active, open-ended, ongoing conversation on an IRC channel. Its shop-talk goes 24 hours a day.

Last April, I captured about 12 hours of conversation overnight (Pacific time). (I guess I could have just used the archive and picked any day back to August, 2004.) During that 12 hour period, almost 150 people posted some 2,500 messages, asking questions, offering answers, clarifying questions, trading insults, and making jokes. All community of practice stuff and mostly serious business. Almost 100 messages pointed to external resources such as documentation, specifications, discussions, or examples on blogs, wikis and all maner of other websites. Nobody seemed clearly “in control” but the conversation went on and on. Everybody seemed quite happy with the conversation — conflicts blew over quickly, new questions came up, and the conversation continued. An open-ended, continuing conversation.

The strictly sequential nature of an open IRC channel makes it somewhat difficult to have more than one thread of conversation at a time or to direct a statement to one individual. The way people in this community handled that was to put an intended recipient as the first word in a statement. About 1/5 of the statements begin that way, allowing two people to address each other in a public single-thread fashion that’s directed to one other person.

During that 12-hour period there were some 400 people “listening” (like I was) which, with this technology, could mean people intermittently reading what’s being said or a robot saving the transcripts of the conversation for future use. I take this number of listeners as a vote of some confidence in the conversation. They take it seriously enough to keep an archive.

What can we learn from this example? Here are a few thoughts:

  • An ongoing conversation works within an ecology of interaction media (wiki, discussion lists, blogs, and many others).
  • Real-time help is a real productivity help — when you’re up against a problem, there’s nothing like your community of practice to help sort out what’s going on.
  • Members of the Ruby on Rails community are sophisticated enough to take advantage of the multi-platform nature of the IRC protocol.
  • Fleeting, in the moment interactions often contain information of lasting value.

What else?

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