There has been lots of talk about groups on OpenStreetMap.org lately. In early 2013 Mikel called for better social tools, including groups on OpenStreetMap, and lately more often groups have been mentioned as a replacement for our ailing mailing lists. Saman had a version of groups in his blue sky mockups for OpenStreetMap.org. Tom's posted a sketch for groups as pull request.
I'd like to add a dose of skepticism in this discussion: I don't think we should implement groups on OpenStreetMap.org right now, there are better alternatives to get started with if our goal is to make OpenStreetMap more social and let mappers connect better.
- Most conversations ideally don't require groups.
- It's hard to do social software right, groups in particular.
- Social media platforms are distributing.
(1) Most conversations ideally don't require groups
When you stop to think about it, groups are a crutch. They require you to set up a space with a topic and name (even if it's just a couple of clicks), then people need to find it, subscribe to it and sustain interest in the group. If the group doesn't go well, it bleeds members and lives on as a distracting zombie. Ideally, you'd be able to have conversaions ad-hoc around a certain topic or locality. That's one reason why you don't find groups at all or in a dominant role on some of the most successful social networks today.
(2) It's hard to do social software right, groups in particular
What was the last forum or groups software you used that didn't suck? Right. It's hard to do groups right on an interaction design level. I personally haven't seen general group discussion software ever done right, but what I do know is this: whatever we embark on means significant investment - or falling short on expectations. The risk to wind up with another level of noise in our already brittle social space is real.
(3) Social media platforms are distributing
Today OpenStreetMap enthusiasts gather in spaces on mailing lists, Meetup.com, Twitter, Facebook, forums, and Google Groups. Whatever we build competes in this space. Right now, we shouldn't attempt to build the better replacement for all of this, but think of OpenStreetMap.org as a compatible layer, allowing mappers to bring OpenStreetMap into their respective social online environments with ease.
Instead of introducing groups as a large new feature on OpenStreetMap.org I suggest we fix current social functionality on OpenStreetMap.org. This would vastly improve how mappers connect on a local and global level and would allow us to take an iterative approach, giving us real returns at each step, building on firm, well known ground. Here's a first back log:
- Great opt-out email notifications for edits, diary posts, comments of who you're following and posts you've commented on.
- Make it much easier to see who's mapping in an area
- Introduce public wall-style messaging, allowing conversations in the open.
- Ideally shut down private messaging to avoid abuse (which is happening according to administrators).
- This is small: Rename 'friend' to 'follow' - because that's what it is, no one confirms a friend request on OpenStreetMap.
- Kill the home location feature including the map on the profile
- Replace the useless friend listing and 'in your area' listing on your profile with a list of latest edits by who you're following
- Encourage users to link to local groups from their profile (Facebook links, meetup.com links, mailing lists links, wiki links, etc.)
- Possibly: vote up (down?) comments on diary.
Each of the above steps is small compared to implementing groups - still, each one will require dedicated work. Together they are designed to move us forward in a solid fashion from where we are right now. And note: some of the features like notifications could come in handy if we still wanted to introduce groups at some later point.
So what about our mailing lists?
Done right, the above improvements will already take important weight off of our mailing lists, we should iterate from there. With improved notifications and commenting on diaries we'll have much better spaces for meaningful discussions. I assume that much of our outcome oriented work will continue to move to GitHub. It's also going to be interesting to watch how Map Club will move in this realm. In addition, I suggest evaluating Discourse.org, a promising new discussion forum by Jeff Atwood the maker of Stack exchange.
What do you think?
Disclaimer: I am offering this simply as food of thought for those who're interested in pushing on social features right now. From a MapBox team perspective, we're not queueing up any immediate work on the social features mentioned here.