Community Rot

Some of you may know my very good friend, Amy Hoy, and its following one of her posts that this post comes.

I consider myself in a very priviledged position to know Amy, and part of that reason is that she has a great grasp of Ruby on Rails, the community and the principles behind it. Due to this I find that we have many a (heated) discussion on the pro’s and cons of PHP and !RoR. We both know you can’t compare the two directly, but it’s more along the lines of:

[Something written on top of] PHP can’t do this thing as elegantly as RoR does because of language constraints, or [Something written on top of] PHP can do this more elegantly because of such and such language features.

However, putting all technicalities aside, lets talk about what really makes the language/framework so good: The Community.

Amy mentions in her article that the Rails community is starting to suffer from Growing Pains, in the form of Help Vampires:


(ain’t that just the cutest graphic of the undead you ever did see? :-)

Well, !RoR isn’t the only community to suffer. PHP too also suffers from the Help Vampires. For me, this is most evident in the “gathering place” I frequent most often, ##PHP on Freenode IRC. I have been a member of the channel for about 7 years, and have been an op for about 2-3 years. I am in the channel *every day* even if I’m not particularly active, I usually flip to it at least a couple of times during my day.

Part of the reason I’m not so active is that my schedule has just exploded lately (for example, this weekend started off with a new fridge being delivered, then I have to finish my php|tek slides, an article for php|arch, do some new Zend Framework stuff *and* some work on a website for my mum. I might eat at some point too :), the other reason is that the signal-to-noise ratio has fallen through the floor.

There are several causes for this, the first is the sheer number of people in the channel. When I started, there was about 150 people in there (IIRC) and currently there are 389 users. It seems that once we hit the 250 mark, we started drawing more people in just because it’s one of the most popular PHP channels out there, it becomes more frequently a place where people starting out find for help. It’s like a snowball falling down a hill, you’ve seen the cartoons.

I think that there is also a lot of rot in other parts of the community, sites are starting to stagnate, there is a lot of cross-pollination of news (*how* many sites just sync, or 95% of them I’d guess, on another note, RSS needs a way to denote a feed as “for personal use only”, that is, for use only by peoples news readers, not other sites). But on the whole, the community is flourishing just through sheer *volume* and age. There is a lot of very talented people out there who have had a chance to spend 3-5 years learning the ins-and-outs of web development using PHP. !RoR on the other hand hasn’t had near the 10 years PHP has had (yet).

I think really, the final thing I want to pose to everybody is this, is IRC a good medium for help? I sure think it is, but perhaps the open channel is the wrong way to go about it? How else can we do it without moderating everything that is said? Is a Q&A forum better perhaps? Perhaps a segregated chat is an idea? A “open channel” where you can do all the vamping, and once you get passed that, you are promoted the ranks of those who know how to ask questions and can participate in a chat where you will get answers from people who know what they are doing. I dislike this notion of hierarchy though, it is against Freenode policy and is something I agree with – it’s like setting +m and promoting people to op or voiced status.

Thoughts? How can we improve the information flow between those without knowledge but with the right approach and those who have said knowledge, whilst still allowing those without the right approach to learn it?

– Davey