Building Community on Drupal.org
Yesterday we saw profile images get into Drupal.org. This has gotten a bunch of positive feedback as it both modernizes the look of the community and addresses a style bug that goes back to 2010 when the last design (Bluecheese) was applied to the site. More importantly though it puts a face on the contributors of the d.o community -- we are no longer just anonymous blue nicknames!
The styling changes on Drupal.org are a nice improvement, mostly because it is a regular reminder about the individuals who are pushing to make Drupal better. Hopefully when we see the images of people's faces they will be more inclined to be listen to others' opinions, be respectful of differences and work to build common solutions, or as @webchick says "Avatars also pressure people to behave more like human beings."
Leisa Reichelt had worked with designer Mark Boulton on the 2010 redesign of Drupal.org, but as is often the case, there wasn't time/budget to consider everything. After the new design was implemented Leisa engaged with the Drupal community to create what she called the Prairie Initiative.
I remember her Core Conversations presentation at DrupalCon Chicago where she talked about how to design a better User Experience on Drupal.org. She did a great job relating it to Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School of architecture which sought to build an intentionally American approach to architecture. She challenged the Drupal community to step up to the challenge of building an experience that facilitated the community we wanted. I really enjoyed that DrupalCon, and the keynotes by Clay Shirky and Jared Spool both seemed to drive home the importance of UX on Drupal.org.
Shortly after that DrupalCon, Leisa set up the Prairie Initiative group and posted a wireframe for a re-envisioned Issue Queue page. Now obviously, creating a wireframe is easier than implementing it, and for about two years there was a lot of interest in this subject, lots of great discussions, but sadly we're really quite a long way from what was envisioned back in 2011. Nobody expected the upgrade to Drupal 7 to take as long as it did, and sadly the momentum behind this initiative died out without seeing much beyond the discussion.
This is really barely even the tip of the iceberg when looking at functionality and design changes that could have a role in influencing community behavior. We barely know our own community of 1 million members let alone the millions that hit all of the *.drupal.org sites every month. We really understand very little about how our community has produced people like Dave Reid, Alex Pott or Lee Rowlands, let alone how we can help sustain their contributions. The Internet keeps changing, software will always have bugs, and there just aren't enough hours in the day for the existing developers to keep up with the demands on their time. That being said, we still don't have a scalable approach to onboard new contributors.
Drupal 7 in 2014
I have spent a bunch of time on Drupal.org looking at how to improve user experience this year. Mostly it was about nudging existing issues along, but building effective online communities is already a very large field and it is growing quickly. To thrive these days, I think any online community needs to invest heavily in eliminating barriers to participation, providing an enjoyable and rewarding experience, and ensuring that users benefit enough through being involved to keep coming back.
I've also been concerned with the the state of contributed modules and themes in Drupal 7. At this stage in this release's life cycle we should all be benefiting from the most robust and well supported assortment of modules, but sadly even as we reach over 800,000 sites using Core, we seem to lack adequate resources to maintain Drupal 7 Contrib modules.
A big part of the problem is that we use the same process to improve Core's security as we do to determine how we would add images to landing pages. We've got this one process and often it seems we are running into bottlenecks because it's unclear who has the responsibility and authority to actually implement changes on Drupal.org.
Recently I added an issue to try to make Drupal.org more fun. Most effective community sites use humour to engage with their members. Github uses this very effectively from their choice of mascot to their 404 pages and to their online help. Without incredible interventions from senior community members, it's unlikely we'll see changes like this to Drupal.org. What we're likely to get is an interface that is at best generic and at worse terse and condescending. It's something that is easy to dismiss in the range of important content issues, but that tone discourages participation.
People will keep coming back to a virtual community if they have fun there, feel like they belong and get feedback that helps them feel that they are getting better. With a vast global community of users, that's only going to happen if there is a strong intentional effort to shape engagement through Drupal.org.
The Drupal community is big enough that you'll never please everyone. Even with something as benign as avatars there has been a lot of debate, and now that it is rolled out, we're going to see more. We should strive to have agreement about values and tone for our sites, but we can't afford to wait until we have consensus around a perfect solution.
I do think that there are some things that the Drupal community is going to need to delegate to a properly resourced individual, a working group or to the Drupal Association. We need to see vast improvements in the user experience on Drupal.org. To be clear, I'm not talking about a new design, what we need is a new strategy for engaging with the Drupal community through our websites.
About The Author
Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.