(Update: I’ve made a tl:dr version of this entry)
The first few weeks of my internship have been busy, yet progress on the project has been slower than I had hoped. As planeteria.org is just a small project (I’m contributor #2), there are many things about Planeteria that need work, and most of it falls on my shoulders. I’ve been working on finding and reporting bugs, a redesign, a user survey (you’ll hear more about this soon!), and documentation. Each of these tasks has required a lot of yak shaving, since I am learning how to do this as I go.
Today I’d like to focus on one issue that I’ve been grappling with as I get my toes wet in this project: planet curation.
Before I dive into curation, however, I want to provide some background. Being somewhat new to the open source scene, planets are a new concept to me. I soon learned that they’re commonly used in the open source world. As a feed of blog entries by people working on a specific project, planets help you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the project.
Normally, when a group decides it wants a planet, they will set it up on their project’s website, often using code from either Venus or PlanetPlanet. Because it’s being used for software development projects, they have the technical knowledge and access to a server, domain, etc to do this. Planeteria, on the other hand, allows anyone to create a planet with a few clicks, and hosts the planet right there on Planeteria.org. This makes planets accessible to a much wider audience, for purposes beyond software development and even beyond the FOSS community entirely. As I work on improvements to serve a broader community, it’s important to keep in mind its roots in open source software development, what makes planets useful in that context, and how that’s applicable (or not applicable) in other use cases.
All of the OPW intern blogs are fed to the Women in Free Software (WFS) planet, so most of us are reading the planet to see what the other interns are working on. I’ve taken on responsibility for administering the WFS planet and quickly learned why it’s called curation and not just administration. There is a lot of work and thoughtfulness required to make a planet useful to its readers.
Curators need to keep an eye on the balance between posts that are directly related to the planet’s project or topic, and posts that are personal in nature or otherwise off-topic. One of the benefits of a planet in the context of FOSS projects (and projects in general) is community-building: it can help get to know other project contributors on a personal level, as well as learning what they’re working on and thinking about regarding the project. This assumes, however, that the planet feed mostly talks about the project or topic of the planet, with a sprinkling of personal posts thrown in. You wouldn’t want a project’s planet to be flooded with entries about what they ate for lunch, celebrity gossip, personal health issues, and baby photos. If all the readers see in the feed is personal posts, then the feed is not very useful to them to learn what’s going on with the project. Readers may stop using the planet entirely if this is an ongoing issue, and then the planet is no longer useful.
Maintaining this balance is tricky. The planet curator can’t control the content of a blog. If the blogger is making use of tags or categories, there is a way to grab just the feed of one of their tags or categories. But if the blog doesn’t have a tag relevant to the planet’s topic, or assigns the tag that is being pulled into the feed to their personal entries, then the baby photos and celebrity gossip will still appear in the planet’s feed. And this requires some effort on the curator’s part to determine which blogs are spamming the feed with irrelevant posts, determine if there’s a category or tag they can use instead, and update the feed accordingly.
I’ve already had a few conversations with interns and mentors about ways to make the WFS feed more useful to them. Several people have requested the ability to view only the blog entries by OPW interns, or at least a way to easily determine which blogs are intern blogs. This begs the question of whether to create a separate planet just for the internship program, or whether there’s value in continuing to use the WFS planet and creating other mechanisms for readers to determine which blogs belong to the interns. As a short-term solution, I’ve set it up to display the OPW internship logo next to each intern’s entry.
One feature that could be helpful in this matter is tag-based organization. Each blog in the planet could be assigned tags that identify common topics the blogger discusses, or what organizations the blogger is affiliated with. Then the readers could choose to display only the entries by bloggers that have a specific tag. However this still doesn’t guarantee that the specific entries will be related to those tags, as only the blogger controls what content appears in their feed. Taking a step back, though, I wonder if tagging is simply a band-aid for a poorly curated planet. This feature could result in readers missing out on the bigger picture, which is one of the benefits of a planet. If readers always filter their feed to display only a small number of blogs, they might miss all the buzz about something happening in the broader community. For example, I learned that many of the people I’m working with knew Aaron Swartz personally, and it’s helpful to know that they’re grieving as I work with them.
In the context of a large open-source project’s planet, most or all of the Planet’s bloggers also reading the planet, and will notice if they’re spamming the feed (or be nudged by a cohort) and self-correct. This self-correcting mechanism works well if there is an established community that communicates in other channels. But what about a planet that is not focused on a project that has its own IRC channel (or several), but instead is focused on a topic of interest? The WFS planet is somewhat grey area in this respect. It includes the OPW program participants, who have an IRC channel and email list by which we can talk to each other, but it also includes blogs of other women in the FOSS community who (I’m pretty sure) are not aware that their blogs are included in this feed. There are some pretty big names, which makes for great reading, but because they’re leaders in the field, I’m not sure that they would have the time to read the feed even if they knew their blog was part of it. There are also several organizational blog feeds and a couple blogs with numerous authors (such as Geek Feminism), which means the authors are several steps removed from this planet, and are thinking of a much broader audience than just the WFS planet readers. For those blogs, the self-correcting mechanism is lost, which makes more work for the curator.
Here’s where I would appreciate some feedback from the WFS planet readers (hello!):
Do you feel there are any blogs in the WFS planet that are consistently off-topic that you feel should be removed? Any voices or general themes you feel are missing or underrepresented?
Would you like to have the ability to read only the OPW intern blogs at times, and read the whole feed at other times? Or would a separate OPW internship program planet be more useful? If we add tagging, what other tags would you like to use to sort the WFS planet feed?
I’ve discussed Planeteria with a few people over IRC in the OPW channel. However, not all of the WFS planet readers are OPW participants, so please respond in the comments here instead. If there’s enough interest, I could set up a WFS planet IRC channel to provide a way of communicating with the other readers and curators about the WFS planet.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!