A Social Without Groups

Posted by lxbarth on 24 September 2013 in English (English)

There has been lots of talk about groups on 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 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 right now, there are better alternatives to get started with if our goal is to make OpenStreetMap more social and let mappers connect better.

Here's why:

  1. Most conversations ideally don't require groups.
  2. It's hard to do social software right, groups in particular.
  3. 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,, 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 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 I suggest we fix current social functionality on 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, 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, 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.

Comment from mvexel on 24 September 2013 at 20:22

I think I understand where your skepticism comes from, but I don't subscribe to your arguments. What happens right now is that folks seek out alternative group contexts for their OpenStreetMap social needs. Meetup is one. Facebook is another. The Forums are also divided up into topical and geographical entities you could see as groups. You see this as a reason not to build our own, but I feel strongly that this is one of the most important reasons why we should. We should make a strong effort to reel that social energy into our own web site, and to add our specific flavor to it in the form of local groups defined by geographical boundaries, benefiting from the OSM internals such as OSM user's set home location, changeset feeds, diary feeds etc.

You state that most conversations don't require groups. I would like to propose that most conversations don't even happen because there is no obvious context for them. As a new mapper just signing up and setting my home location, wouldn't it be great if I were made aware of a local OSM discussion happening right here on Right now, this user gets dropped on and with some luck, he or she finds the forums (hit or miss, no obvious connection or integration with other than single sign on), the mailing lists (don't even get me started) or perhaps even a local Facebook or Meetup group. This all feels very disconnected, and chances are that this new user will not engage in any discussion at all, overwhelmed an not sure where to start.

I see it as our responsibility to provide new (and existing!) users with our own native platform to gather around topics or places of interest, to take away the confusion about the social dimension of OpenStreetMap. You say it's hard to get it right, an argument I don't get at all. If we keep it lightweight and flexible and start out modestly, I think it's not hard at all.

The part of your argument I have the most trouble digesting is that you suggest yet another third party platform (Discourse) to route our users to. How does that not just add to the confusion? Discourse is shaping up to be a great discussion platform, but it doesn't offer the tight integration with OSM data that our own groups will be able to benefit from. To my mind, this is one of the big benefits of rolling our own groups - we can connect local mappers to each other and to the data.

Some of your suggestions for improving current functionality make sense, but they don't add up to anything nearly as powerful as a group context.

Comment from mikelmaron on 24 September 2013 at 20:36

Alex, I guess you won't be surprised I disagree, and sorry, I'm going to respond strongly.

I don't disagree with some of the points you've made, some of which are wise, but with the overall thrust and timing of the argument, which I just don't understand. You're trying to inject stop energy into something that people are excited and interested to work on; active work and discussion which really started up again at SOTM US, but during which you chose to remain silent with your opinions. While you now have a couple practical suggestions, you are not personally or as a team working to provide solutions to issues. Worth remembering that MapBox's priorities are not necessarily OSM's priorities, and just because you guys evidently don't have bandwidth to get involved now, doesn't mean it can't be done well.

Your first points are totally contradictory. You say that groups are not necessary for discussion, but then say they are happening all over, but they are also never done right (explored in this post on finding communities). Fact is, mappers organize using lots of groups, but as a newcomer or even oldtimer, it's still too hard to reach other mappers in an area. Groups generally seem to work, they don't all suck ... why not contribute some ideas on what makes other groups work well? Or review the work done so far, and offer specific recommendations on the sketch?

A couple things to consider of which you may not be aware. Place based groups are not implemented yet, and this is what I imagine is the primary mode of groups organizing, and monitoring activity. It's straightforward to sort groups based on level of activity, to bring out the ones worth connecting on (certainly you've been able to judge the vibrancy of a github project based on its activity level). Groups shouldn't replace other means of organizing necessarily, but groups should be encouraged to gather a list of resources of importance to that group (including key mailing lists, facebook groups, wiki projects, etc).

Honestly, it would be more helpful if you created some issues or pull requests on github for those usability points for the current OSM features (some of which are quite easy and not controversial), and explain a practical solution for some of the trickier ones (how do you make it easier to see who's mapping in an area)?

Comment from drewda on 24 September 2013 at 20:53

Thanks for putting group functionality into context within the entire ecosystem of OSM, Alex. As an intermediate-level user of OSM (and one who's been looking for more ways to actively contribute), I've found the fragmentation of OSM services frustrating in how it magnifies the natural confusion of an organic community like OSM's.

I agree that adding another compartmentalized silo to OSM would likely create more frustrating fragmentation rather than useful consolidation, and I agree that there's much to gain from the iterative improvement of functionality that supports collaboration in a lighter-weight manner.

That said, I do see benefit to introducing a formal (and minimal) notion of groups to the app/site. At present, only acknowledges and supports one-on-one interactions. Anything done by multiple individuals concerned with the same theme or location happens on off-site services.

If starts offering the basic ability for users to opt-in to thematic groups (and perhaps location-specific groups in the future), then the site can begin to serve as a centralized "directory of truth"--well, perhaps more modestly a centralized "directory of guidance"--to individuals interesting in joining collaborative efforts.

Perhaps today this is just a set of links to off-site resources, like Meetup, Facebook, OSM mailing lists, the OSM wiki, etc., as Mikel was mentioning. Down the line, this also means that can provide API endpoints that specify groups and group members, for other services' consumption. Not to limit access; rather, to guide newer users from out to these other services.

A very minimal addition of groups to could, I suspect, serve as the next step along the "Welcome to OSM" pipeline, after new individuals have contributed an edit in their immediate neighborhood and are looking for ways to further join the community.

Comment from TomH on 24 September 2013 at 21:18

I have to say that I'm with Alex in being very sceptical about the wisdom of trying to reimplement Facebook or whatever inside of OpenStreetMap.

Yes, a really good implementation that was closely tied to location etc might well offer things that external service don't, but I question whether we actually have the resources to develop such a good implementation.

What we are instead likely to wind up with is something very basic that is a poor imitation of other systems, just like our diary entries are a poor clone of proper blogs, and friending is a poor clone of other systems, etc, etc.

Feel free to prove me wrong, but groups will need to be an order of magnitude more work than the current sketch to offer real advantages.

One small point I will make about Alex's suggestions, is that (as an administrator) the claim that the private messaging is being "abused" baffles me - if he has evidence of that then I suggest he lets me or my colleagues see it.

Comment from Richard on 24 September 2013 at 21:39

What really excites me about groups is that they actually reflect how OSM works at its best.

Everyone has their own focus for OSM. Sometimes it's locality: they want their village, town, city to be mapped well. In a few places we provide tools to help this happen - there are a few city/county-scope mailing lists at, and other places have their own Google groups or whatever. But that's incredibly patchy (most places don't have one), unscalable (if hosted at, and requires the sort of techie mindset that "does" mailing lists.

Often, though, it's thematic rather than local. My preoccupations are mapping the UK's National Cycle Network and its waterways. It would be terrific if there were somewhere to talk with other people of similar interest, so we could feed off each other and get the job done better, quicker.

Right now there's nowhere to do that. You can do it on a general-purpose mailing list (in this case, talk-gb), but you'll get howled down by the marauding wolves who have no interest in the NCN/waterways but have an opinion about everything. You can ask Mike to set up a mailing list at, or use the aberration that is the new Google Groups, but that's a barrier for something that should just be "hey, we're having a conversation".

I see your point, Alex, that "today OpenStreetMap enthusiasts gather in spaces on mailing lists,, Twitter, Facebook, forums, and Google Groups"... but honestly, I don't think they do. Not over here, anyway. Super-connected guys in metropolitan areas are doing so, I guess, but that fixes London and NYC and SF - not the rest of the world. Even here, where the stereotype is that all our mappers go to the pub, we have regular pubmeets in London, Birmingham, maybe Edinburgh and Nottingham, and that's it: a tiny fraction of the community. Most of the names I meet in the edit history are untraceable through our existing social forums; they really are just working in isolation.

I also really see this as a way to prioritise "local knowledge" at the expense of "m4pp1ng sk1llz". Right now it's easy to get the impression that OSM's most valued contributors are those who've made the most wiki tag proposals and who juggle an armoury of 537 JOSM plugins for their mapping. You know and I know these aren't the guys who make a difference, but it's not how it looks - and I think we're already seeing the first signs of the "Wikipedia effect", where the top 5% exerts such pressure to conform with their arbitrary rules that newcomers are warned off. Baking thematic, interest-based social features into the core of is a really good way to demonstrate what we care about.

Comment from Richard on 24 September 2013 at 21:52

@Tom: and yet people post to the diaries, even though they're not as fully featured as Wordpress (though they're probably not that far off Blogger...), because it's where OSM people gather. People use the messaging system, even though it's not as fully featured as e-mail. Groups are just the same: we're not trying to out-feature Facebook, we're providing a service for our users. You try suggesting to a bunch of mappers that we all use, ooh, G+ and see where it gets you. osmf-talk refers ;)

Comment from SK53 on 24 September 2013 at 22:24

I liked what I saw of Mikel's SotM-US presentation simply because I felt it would make my life easier in a) organising the Nottingham pub meeting; b) discussing local mapping issues (currently done with a few people through email); and c) sending appropriate welcome / assistance messages to new mappers. (One might characterise these as 'curatorship' roles).

I don't see this as 'social' in the way of Twitter, Facebook, etc: but a pragmatic response to a need to better connect mappers who share an objective, need, or location. Many mappers are not available through any other route than their OSM user name: many, like me, would prefer not to be forced into using 'social' sites just because we contribute to OSM. So, equally, pragmatically the OSM platform is the obvious route.

If someone can come up with a wonderful way to fix the mailing lists (we lost a significant contributor from a local list recently) so that one's mail box isn't deluged by stuff, so that they aren't dominated by the same voices, so that discussion is aimed at moving OSM forward instead of point scoring or deprecation (of people , mapping & tags), then I'd be very happy. However, I don't see it happening, so we have to try something else.

There are two points in Alex's list which I really don't like, they both relate to sending messages to newcomers. I do a bit of this but [SomeoneElse]( has been doing it for over 4 years.

Helping someone finding their way on OSM often is best done privately and we use the OSM message system for this. Forcing stuff out into the open (the wall), or into another channel will just reduce the ability to offer support to new mappers. The wiki discussions I've witnessed over the past 4 years have been in the open, but most have not benefited from this, and most only display (an apparent) consensus because the groups are self-selecting.

One last point, if you look at OSM Stammtischen in Germany the numbers which are meeting regularly and the core number of attendees are both quite small compared with the size of the mapping community. So I'd back Richard's point that the stereotype of extensive local meet-ups is not backed by much.

Comment from Zverik on 25 September 2013 at 07:11

I'd comment on an aspect others seem to have missed. Your proposition to "drop groups, better work on those features" resembles a mistake many people new to OSM make, saying "why do you map those already well-mapped cities instead of those completely missing regions?". If Drew has a will and resources to go through with implementing groups functionality, that's great and we should help him finish it. website has too little functionality, and any improvement would be a good thing, especially in social aspect.

Also I'd like to somehow refer to the absence of any [proposed] social functionality in iD, but I guess I've bugged you enough at that.

Comment from Tom Chance on 25 September 2013 at 12:29

I'd like to echo Richard's comment in particular. Alex, I think you are talking about a vision for groups as some sort of duplication of Facebook, which I think misses the point. I don't want to become best friends with people who happen to share my interest of mapping south east London, the natural world and cycle infrastructure. I just want tools that make that job easier, and that encourage people with similar interests to get involved with mapping them.

When Richard gave his talk on groups I wrote this blog post explaining this point further:

Groups shouldn't just be about a message board, though I'm sure for some groups they will be really valuable. Groups could help communities of interest (be they locational or thematic) to do things like:

  • bring together the best links for mapping tools, web maps, tags, etc. that are relevant to them, making some sense of the wonderfully chaotic OSM universe

  • have slippy maps that automatically display the data they're interested in and that are easy to set-up (currently we offer no practical help for anyone doing this, the technical hurdles are really quite high)

  • provide a tailored set of presets for iD, so you can have it all set-up for niche interests like mapping canals or heritage trails

I'm sure there are other group features people could dream up. I'm quite excited by the momentum behind this, and I'm not surprised it doesn't excite people who already feel quite well served by the infrastructure we provide to uber-geeks and map obsessives!

Comment from Diomas on 25 September 2013 at 15:37

Even with a pure implementation groups integrated into the site are much closer to normal users than forums or maillists. Look at any novice mapper that comes to the site and start mapping (using tools gives him). Tell me, how does he know that these forums or maillists even exist? All these secret back-door communities almost fully consist of developer guys...

Comment from compdude on 25 September 2013 at 17:13

I definitely agree that the communication functions need to be made more visible in OSM. Why not just put a link to the mailing lists on the left-hand sidebar under "Community?" That would be a good first step forward. I bet that only a small minority of active mappers actually use the mailing lists, and maybe half of the mappers don't even know about them. I also agree that the "friend" thing should be changed to "follow", since you're really just tracking their edits.

Comment from Zkir on 25 September 2013 at 21:10

==Tell me, how does he know that these forums or maillists even exist? == it very easy to fix - just add link to the forum at the top of this very page.

Comment from malenki on 26 September 2013 at 20:43

(haven't read the comments so far, but wrote a reply offline)

Make it much easier to see who's mapping in an area


Ideally shut down private messaging to avoid abuse

Bad idea. So far I have some hundreads message read and sent and I cannot remember any one of them to be abusive.
While removing a potential place of abuse you'd kill a well working feature of communication.
All the places you mention like faecebook, googlefoo and linkedin: do they all lack a private messaging feature?

Rename 'friend' to 'follow'


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

I'd prefer lists of:
users mapping in my region
users mapping and /living/.in my region

My 2 cents: Don't go and push some new foo to the people just because you think it helps communicating - and people first have to invest time to learn to handle the new foo.
I for my part am fine with communicating setup at the moment.
Since I am an OSMapper I prefer mapping over discussing the zillionst (maybe useless) topic. Sure there are things which have to be discussed but if I'd involve in heavy discussions on ever platform I had to stop mapping. This would be a sad thing since there is such a lot to do. (Even the data from my summer holiday made it only partly to OSM so far.)

For Github: Lately I had learned that tickets for should be filed in GH. iD is originally (afaik) placed there and some more stuff related to iirc.
One thing I liked OSM for is that there was one central place for bugtracking a lot of stuff. Just go to, open a new ticket and select the feature you refer to. Now it seems there are several places where you can bugtrack. If Github is so cool (I just file tickets there, too) then would be very nice of the admins/webmasters to create a single point of report at GH for OSM stuff.
I dislike to do search for every project I want to file a bug. The higher the stakes before reporting, the less likely I (and assumedly others) will report. And: hopefully there are some thoughts about a possible failing of the 3rd-party site of GH.

Comment from lxbarth on 27 September 2013 at 12:02

Thanks for taking time to respond everyone. I really appreciate it.

My point here was less about no social on OSM, but about the merit of groups specifically. I think that was by and large clear but I wanted to reiterate this.

Now, this argument here from Richard is compelling to me and I'm starting to understand what we're really missing on OSM:

I see your point, Alex, that "today OpenStreetMap enthusiasts gather in spaces on mailing lists,, Twitter, Facebook, forums, and Google Groups"... but honestly, I don't think they do. Not over here, anyway. Super-connected guys in metropolitan areas are doing so, I guess, but that fixes London and NYC and SF - not the rest of the world.

With this in mind I took another look at the groups PR. Specifically, here's what I like about it:

  1. Groups expand on Diaries
  2. You can comment on a post in a group you're not member of

However, I still need to join a group in order to be able to post a new post to that group, I assume also email notifications will be tied to group membership. Could this be more open? Also: we'll likely wind up where we'll want to offer opt out email notifications of groups for the ones who read online.

I'd like to suggest a small modification to the group concept that I think makes the approach tighter:

  • Do away with joining groups.
  • Call groups 'topics'. Once there's no joining, the 'group' branding is misleading.
  • Introduce an email notifications management page that allows for opt-in emails. Make this look great and prominent: "Subscribe to topics you're interested in".

This move, while technically a fairly small change, would bring significant improvements:

  • allow us to conceptually tie what's called groups right now even tighter to diary entries
  • not have a group join page and a notifications management page
  • emphasize topics over people, "groups" rings always a bit exclusive "what makes me a worthy 'member'?"


Comment from mikelmaron on 27 September 2013 at 13:28

Ok, interesting thoughts. Resonates with what @migurski hacked on before the Birthday Sprint, gathering of changesets by hashtag. Overall, seems like we're just disagreeing on what these features are called, not the features themselves.

In my mind, social features, whatever you call them, gather relevant OSM "objects" together in one place, like diary entries and changesets, and also most definitely mappers. Whether you call it "subscribe" or "join", "group" or "topic" is only a semantic matter. In any case you do want to see a listing of users who had opt-ed in / contributed to what or where you are interested. Functionally, I don't only want (selective) emails, but also a summarized listing of activity on, in everything I'm interested in.

Now, places are where this concept gets interesting, and challenging. How is a place defined? It needs to be pretty intentional. By contributing to that place, by editing there, does not mean you have necessarily joined the place? No. We need to see some notion of intentionality and commitment.

So in summary, I think good and well linked notifications management is a good idea. But there's really no significant technical changes, because if you posted to a group, you should also definitely be subscribed in some way. You're suggesting some semantic changes (which might be ok, would be curious to hear others thoughts), and perhaps interaction changes (once you post, you have joined), but no changes to the underlying Model.

Comment from drewda on 27 September 2013 at 21:58

I like your terminology, Alex. Topic and subscribe keep us focused on these improvements as easy-to-access aggregations across OSM data and services, slicing by theme and/or location, with both on-demand access and (eventually) background notifications.

Rather than "social" as a goal to implement in itself--one that gets us worried about implementing a poor version of Snapchat within collaboration can, hopefully, be a result of these new views.

Comment from Tom Chance on 30 September 2013 at 10:15

Alex, Mikel,

I'm not up to scratch on coding with ruby to be able to interpret the pull request Mikel pointed to, so apologies if these points are covered.

I want to know if the groups, or topics, go beyond just social stuff to actually provide some useful tools? I already mentioned some of these but you haven't picked up on them in your responses...

Maps showing relevant data - could just be an interface to create some calls to overpass, also point to custom tiles for a map on the group page

Some way of linking up with wiki pages, or a wiki facility built in, to gather useful resources, e.g. a "buses in London" group/topic might want to highlight the [NOVAM bus stop tool](, the ITO bus priority map and others


This kind of stuff isn't very exciting to people who find it easy to roll their own custom map and use the wiki. But it could make OSM quite useful for less geeky audiences who are interested in adding data they are interested in to the database.

Comment from lxbarth on 15 October 2013 at 10:45


So in summary, I think good and well linked notifications management is a good idea. But there's really no significant technical changes, because if you posted to a group, you should also definitely be subscribed in some way.

Not quite. On a technical level I'm proposing to allow posting to a group (topic) that you're not subscribed to and to not automatically subscribe someone to a group (topic) that he/she posted to.

I do think we should automatically subscribe people to comments on entries they wrote and comments on entries they commented on (very similar to how it works today). There should always be an opt-out obviously.

Comment from mikelmaron on 9 November 2013 at 14:27


Just came back here after some time, this post was referenced on another thread. And see, there's some replies. Wish I had a notification!

Alex: Sure, that kind of flexibility on posting permissions/subscription/joining make sense to me. This is how github works, and works well. But earlier you said "Do away with joining groups.", and I disagree. You should be able to join a group, be listed as interested, and tailor your notifications (email or not for all posts, or just in your "news feed").

Tom: That's absolutely what I have in mind, to make all the plethora of OSM activity and tools tailored and convenient to that place/topic. Afaik, hasn't been approached yet in the groups code. Question on my mind is how to make integration of other tools flexible enough, but not too bespoke. What's the easiest way to get started on this?

Now, I think we're close to common ground. Good moment to boil down the discussion here, and pull out the agreed points into design guidance and issues on the groups tree, and do a coding push to get these features out into the wild.

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